When a company takes time to look at its overall process safety, and realizes there is significant room for improvement, it cannot simply “decide” to get better. Due to the size and complexity of many company’s operations, there has to be a more robust and systematic approach to improving process safety.

Developing an operational excellence system (OES) is a well-defined method for companies to improve process safety from within the organization. An OES more effectively manages process safety to meet the rising expectations of regulators and their complex regulations, shareholders and communities.

More than 20 years ago, Exxon implemented the first, and one of the best known, OESs as a direct response to the catastrophic Valdez oil spill. As time has progressed, Exxon Mobil Corp. has continually improved and enhanced their OES. Due to its success, other oil and energy companies followed suit and developed their own systems. Developing an OES verifies that actions reflect goals in process-safety efforts.

Operational excellence creates value through systematic and repeatable actions well-defined and addressable for everyone within the organization. It relies on properly documented standard processes that should lead to continuous operational improvement. As part of it, everyone in the organization will understand or will know how to find out what tasks to perform and what resources are needed.

Integration dependent

An OES is a first step that companies can take on a path to first-class process safety. Success depends largely on the system’s integration into the company. Integrations start at the base level of management and supervisors, also known as the “supporting base” for process safety elements as well as employees. Day-to-day employee actions make or break the system. Designing a system is one thing, but success depends upon interaction amongst employees and their adaptability to new approaches.

When developing a company-specific OES, it shouldn’t be “just another manual.” An OES describes how the company will achieve operational excellence. On the other hand, some companies spend too much time developing the OES and not enough time implementing.

To be OES-successful, following the initial focus on implementation, it’s important to determine determine what’s working and what isn’t and to make changes accordingly. Implementation includes developing accountability that ensures compliance.

Some key components of a successful system include:

  • Responsibility taken at all levels, from operators to executives
  • Defined common goals in an understandable context
  • Company and site expectations defined
  • Defined method for promoting continuous improvement
  • Ways to share successful practices and behaviors

A successful implementation begins with carefully thought out designs and principles that directly relate to goals for successful process safety. The best-designed systems are, well defined, simple for ease of application across the company, and reinforced by the company’s accountability and performance management systems.

Simple, yet elegant

Staying focused throughout the process is essential. Don’t make the system too complex. Using the system is an everyday job for some, but not others. Avoid making the system “everything” to all employees. Everyone has a part in the system, but it is too difficult and complex for each employee to be responsible for everything.

Grouping OES requirements into elements and subgroups during implementation helps efficiency. The OES should cover all areas without overlap. Define metrics for the system’s performance including tools that verify OES quality and conformance. Expectations must be clear to prevent confusion or make it difficult to measure compliance within a particular element.

Take the time to decide what the primary focus is when implementing the new OES, including business objectives. Decide what management tools are needed and allocate for the planning and performance management needed to update and reinforce the OES.

Organizational capabilities

Determine the company’s ability to maintain and develop processes. Ensure the following are clear and defined:

  • how internal processes and systems are measured for compliance
  • what site specific competencies are needed to maintain the OES
  • what employee skills and efforts are required for achieving the organization’s process safety goals

The focus of many companies is building organizational capabilities for lean production, or on managing talent. Only about one-third of companies focus their training and development on building process safety capabilities that can deliver better business performance. Companies tend to not take this factor into consideration. Well-run companies avoid downtime due to incidents or mechanical failures.

The system’s cultural aspect includes changing the way people think, act, and interact. Things such as  teamwork and leadership are critical, but here the ground needs to have already been prepared.

Consider as critical for a successful OES:

  • a strong process safety culture
  • strong management practices
  • leadership at all levels

As a company moves forward with building safety and security into their processes, the project in its entirety can seem overwhelming. It is essential that timelines are set up for each segment of the OES. Sometimes a company must take a step back and reorganize before forward progress resumes.

When developing the OES, consider focusing on less complex elements first. Starting with the less complex elements allows a company time to understand how to properly develop each element, before proceeding to the more difficult ones. A fully functioning OES takes time to develop. Set reasonable timelines and goals, as it may take many months or years before the full OES is implementing and measurable.

Final words

At first, a company may not see the immediate changes it’d hoped for. The point is, do not stop implementing and improving just because things don’t seem to be going fast enough. The OES is a work in progress. Track the changes so that credible metrics can be garnered.

Many companies are under extreme pressure to improve their process-safety systems even as they are impacted by stricter regulations, rising operational costs and stiffer competition. Having an OES in place is something the market demands. A well implemented OES can guide companies towards the safe behavior that is needed to reach company goals.

Lisa C. Hutto, B.Sc., MBA, SIIRSM is a senior process safety specialist at Chilworth Technology, Inc. with 20 years of HSE&S experience in manufacturing, chemical and oil and gas industries and 11 years specializing in process-safety management. She has an extensive background in health, safety, environmental and security. Her experience includes developing programs, audits and gap analyses, including for change management, PSM element procedures, emergency response and process-hazards analysis in oil and gas, chemical and manufacturing industry. Her background in upstream and downstream oil & gas includes work on the North Slope of Alaska with multiple oil & gas companies. For more information, contact 609-799-4449 or email safety-usa@chilworthglobal.com

Chilworth Technology Group, with U.S. headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, contributes to the safety of processes through laboratory testing, hazard assessments, preventive measures, incident reports and training.