A number of months ago I posed a question, and then a post, on OilPro.com, titled “Critical Issues in Drilling & Rig Operations Today – Upstream Industry Opinion?” in order to get feedback from O&G industry professionals who have valuable experience in the field, which can be of use for constructive dialogue as we contemplate novel solutions. This can be extended to production and plant operations, as numerous case studies (notably by the CSB and other agencies) of industry events have shown similar gaps in these links.
While the industry is very dynamic and interesting, with issues continually evolving, this post is a general short summary of those issues which I believe are most pressing in drilling, rig, and production/plant operations at this time. In fact, while I say “at this time”, the reality is that these issues stay relatively constant year on year when we look at events across the industry on various types of sites, with slight changes according to demographics and emerging themes. These viewpoints are based on my experiences working in every corner of the globe, among many different cultures/countries, in every type of environment, from remote onshore to both shallow water and deep water offshore, during busy and slower times alike – so they are not restricted to any one geographic area. However, they are also not intended to be all inclusive. As always, others may feel free to comment and add others or their own opinion. NOTE we are speaking of front-line operations, so oil prices and jobs are out of the scope of this commentary.
My own brief answer to the question was this: “In addition to the ever present engineering challenges, some issues to improve on are the knowledge of the equipment and procedures being used during operations, and to actually systematically use these procedures; better 360-degree communication (even between those who speak the same native language); managing change properly; and a more comprehensive understanding of human factors – which typically calls for situational leadership from senior team members who can serve as mentors. These recommendations could apply at both site and office level.”
Now to expand on these in more detail, although not necessarily in the same order as above…
Firstly, it is one seen over and over during the course of investigations into incidents worldwide, regardless of the country or culture – Communication.
This may initially sound basic or obvious but in fact it is one of the most frequently neglected. Often times, vital information is either not passed on to personnel who can use it or it is communicated too late, after someone has made a decision based on the limited view they had at the time. I say 360-degree communication, because it is no longer a one way, top down command and control system as during previous times. The world has rapidly changed and it is so much more connected today… young people have been raised on sound bytes and many (there are always exceptions of course) have never developed the ability to have an effective face to face conversation in real time, rather than through IM or texting. While those methods have their place (most of us are guilty of it sometimes), we have to develop the will to communicate directly with one another regularly as required, both up and down, laterally, across disciplines, within our organizations and with our contractors, as a first step towards improvements. This is always important, but particularly so when we are attempting to discuss and clarify crucial tasks, where the margin of allowance for error is narrow, and when we are working overseas where we need to have empathy for others’ cultural practices.
Proper use of procedures and processes (and knowledge of the equipment used) require situational awareness from people in the field and in the office, so they may offer guidance/support.
This is not to say that everyone has to be considered an “expert” in every area they work in… It simply means that people must take the time to learn as much as they can about what they don’t know, try to at least holistically understand the complete picture (or lifecycle) on a basic level, to be willing to listen to others who offer valuable advice, and to systematically (while being pragmatic where necessary) apply what they then know about the processes, equipment, and procedures once they are armed with that information. Remember, the reason airline pilots and NASA engineers use itemized checklists is not because they don’t know what they are doing (on the contrary they are typically very well trained and experienced) – they use them so that nothing is accidentally skipped over or forgotten. This lesson was learned through experience. And we have all heard the saying “if you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t know… then go find out where to get it!”. In the beginning, this is much easier said than done, as many cultures have a tradition of strictly respecting hierarchy and will refuse to challenge or question something which is mandated from above, even when it is clear it is incorrect. Therefore, it is up to us who have oversight responsibility to continually encourage a healthy state of unease in our teams and the questioning of orders when they may put people, environment, or assets at unnecessary risk, at the same time reinforcing the fact that it will not be held against them in any case. In an industry of the kind we work in, where equipment is often huge, heavy, complex, energized, or pressurized, knowing and practicing this difference is what helps each member of the team finish their shift or go home safely at the end of each day. There are folks who have been in this industry 30 plus years who will humbly tell you they are still learning something every day! Learn from them and adapt. This leads into the next issue…
A general change management rule states that anytime a change (deviation from normal) is needed or required to procedure, process, people, or equipment, it shall be formally justified, risk assessed where applicable, reviewed, and authorized by management before being implemented. During the course of operations, there are instances where changes are required to one of these parameters in order to safely assure continuity and remain pragmatic. However, when the proper management of change does not occur, it exposes the people and assets to unnecessary risks which could otherwise be prevented. Why?… Because everyone involved with the operation is otherwise under the assumption it is continuing under the original plan/format/organization/setup, and most likely simply do not have the foresight or intuition that an important imminent change would be required. Under the wrong circumstances, this can quickly put many people at danger (for example, an element of safety critical equipment being temporarily by-passed or downgraded to do maintenance). While we cannot always act on yesterdays logic for solving problems and we simply must adapt to the changing environment as compelling evidence is presented (it appears Darwin was on point all those years ago), we must do it correctly within this intense business. The neglect of this one issue alone has led to many major industrial accidents – not only in Oil & Gas / Drilling, Wells, and Production, but in other sectors, such as naval, nuclear, aerospace, construction, etc.
The last issue to mention is perhaps the least understood up to this point, although some research and Crew Resource Management implementation is beginning to throw light on it: Human Factors.
Perhaps it is the least understood due to the fact that it is not an exact science, but rather, (at least to most people) an abstract one. High Reliability Organizations have done their best to comprehend its impact and address it, and this field of study continues to evolve. Human factors can in one way be looked at as being able to understand the current personal context people are working in at any given time, and how that affects their decisions and soft skills. As one example, what is going through the minds of workers close to shift change time (naturally, their thoughts may drift to loved ones, families, upcoming plans or recent occurrences at home, etc) and how it affects their thought process while they are conducting their jobs. Previous internal surveys revealed that a significant portion of near misses/hits and LTI’s occurred around these times, which would indicate that these factors (the mind being “somewhere else”, rather than in a focused state) have likely contributed at least in part to the chain of anomalies leading to the event. When accidents occur, the reason for human error are numerous, but it is difficult to quantify without digging to understand the circumstances surrounding the person (s) involved. More research and anecdotal evidence is needed to further develop this field, particularly at it applies to our work settings, but the area of cognitive psychology & neuroscience alone is fascinating enough to make it an issue to pay attention to in the coming future.
I’ll add that the case for Situational Leadership also applies in certain context and could be discussed here, but that is another post in itself – see post “Operational Safety and Performance Leadership”.
To repeat what I’ve said in the original Q&A and in other articles… If we address each (or most at least) of these issues in parallel – with clear objectives and expectations in place – we may see an overall improvement in Safety, Quality, AND Performance. Operational excellence does not happen by chance and it does not occur in a silo – it is through the focused, consistent driving of a few core elements which allows positive step changes over time.
“Here is the prime condition of success: Concentrate your energy, thought, and capital exclusively upon the business in which you are engaged. Having begun on one line, resolve to fight it out on that line, to lead in it, adopt every improvement, have the best machinery (or method/practice), and know the most about it.” – Andrew Carnegie