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Let’s Be Frank: Programs That No One Wants to Own; or, When Cooling Water Attacks!

By Inspector Frank. April 28, 2022
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Editor’s Note:  Writing under the pseudonym Inspector Frank, the author of this column offers a first-hand, candid view of what he has witnessed throughout his career. His purpose in sharing these experiences and opinions is to encourage readers to think deeper about what they do, why they do it, and the possible impact of their decisions.

Inspectioneering is committed to protecting the anonymity of pseudonymous authors. We do, however, hold these contributors to the same editorial standards as those writing under their own name. In this, we know the author’s identity and maintain communications regarding the author’s published works. If you have any questions, feedback, or concerns stemming from this article, please send an email to befrank@inspectioneering.com and we will forward your correspondence to the appropriate party.

I have discussed in other articles about responsibility and the importance of personnel not only being held responsible and accountable for programs, but having an understanding that they are responsible for those programs. Otherwise, the programs will be poorly run or ineffective. (“Let’s Be Frank: Who is Responsible?” from the September/October 2019 issue of Inspectioneering Journal)

That article describes a situation where no one is specifically assigned to be responsible through omission or lack of forethought. What about when people do this type of thing knowingly?

An extension of this concept is when there are programs no one wants to own and therefore people quite specifically avoid taking responsibility for them. Why? Well, there can be multiple reasons.

Let’s take a look at a situation that occurred at a facility that I’m familiar with.

Many years had gone by where cooling water was not a big deal, as a service. There are many potential issues with cooling hot process streams on the exchangers, but nothing at this facility had occurred that was out of the ordinary. Then, one year, a few dozen bundles needed to be retubed/replaced because of cooling water corrosion, costing the facility somewhere in the realm of five million dollars and extending the outage (I’m not sure what the loss of production cost came to).

Well, that caught people’s attention – especially the corporate and bean counter types. “We have to get this under control.” Obviously, the plant manager started asking operations some very pointed questions.

It turns out that, because cooling water was shared across multiple areas of the plant with different operations groups, and because it was just water, no one really took it too seriously or wanted to claim responsibility for the program of monitoring water and treating it. A chemical company contractor was involved almost full time in terms of helping with testing and recommending treatment, but on the company side, it got interesting.

No single operations group wanted the responsibility. Over the years the responsibility had been pushed back and forth; “You use the most cooling water, your section owns it.” “The tower is physically in your area, you own it.” “The boiler house already treats water, they should own it.” At the end of the day, it didn’t directly make money, and therefore wasn’t sexy enough to own. Just a cost against your operating budget with no production profit that could be directly shown.

So, what happened was that junior operations personnel were assigned to water treatment and were then trained solely by the water treatment chemical technical (sales) rep. Not necessarily a big deal. But in talking to the representative, he said that the junior operators changed every six months or so. He complained that just as he got people up to speed in an area, they were moved and he started all over again. No management seemed to be overseeing any of this, or at least not that anyone owned up to.

Leadership, not wanting this to continue, said to come up with a plan because “we do not want to be surprised by this degradation to cooling water heat exchangers ever again.” All good, right?

Well, maybe not so much. With the next turnaround looming, Equipment Integrity asked the question, “Should we be worried about exchanger bundles in cooling water service? Is the cooling water chemical treatment sorted out?” The answer was “not so much.”

The decision was made to just pre-order exchanger bundles for cooling water service because that was a lot cheaper than buying them in a panic during the turnaround. This also had the side effect of moving this cost of replacements from “emergency found work” to “Equipment Integrity planned and budgeted work.” What this meant was that it fell off the bean counters’ radars as being a problem or an additional cost during the outage.

Some people were still trying to get the cooling water fixed, but no department really wanted to take on the extra cost. Operations was praised for high unit availability, hitting throughput targets, and keeping costs as low as possible against production profit. Taking on more personnel, training, and potentially system upgrade costs were not something any area operations manager wanted on their plate.

Because it fell off the radar in terms of being “found work,” upper management quit looking into whether it had been sorted and everyone went back to more or less ignoring the water treatment company rep and the junior operators that worked with him.

This went on for years until a new manager in the turnaround group asked why we just replaced cooling water bundles. “Why,” they asked, “was at least a million dollars being spent every year on a cooling water exchanger bundle replacement program?”

The conversation went a little like this:

TAM (Turnaround Manager): “Why do we spend so much money on replacement bundles, most of these services shouldn’t be that corrosive?”

Inspection: “Well… cooling water at this plant can be damaging; in fact, by the data it is the most corrosive service in this plant.”

TAM: “But we replace them without inspecting every 3 to 4 years. This seems wasteful.”

Inspection: “Well… we inspect the old bundles and most of the time find they would have needed replacement anyway.”

TAM: “Why are they getting chewed up so bad?”

Inspection: “Cooling water treatment programs are not in good shape, to say the least.”

The new turnaround manager then went on to ask who was responsible, and that is when he found that basically no one was, unless you count junior operators and the chemical treatment company rep.

He then went on up the chain trying to get this fixed. I left that facility a few years later and this problem still hadn’t been fixed, although there had been proposals put in by some mid-level operations management on the best path forward.

But again, no one in operations wanted to take on the additional expense without being able to show a benefit to production profits. The equipment integrity and maintenance budgets were under someone else’s responsibility. Planned equipment replacements could just be generically blamed on inspection activity as long as no one was going to go digging into the problem. For the operations groups, it was a win to ignore and not take on any additional operating costs.

It seems insane, but I have seen this phenomenon in other facilities and with other “non-money making” processes as well. I am sure you have seen some of this too.

It’s like when no one wants to spend money on the sulfur plant, so it limps along with minimal repairs until it’s in such bad shape it becomes a massively expensive capital project. Running delayed cokers into the ground is another similar problem.

When something is wrong or needs work, everyone wants to be distanced from it, especially if there is a bill with no measurable profit to go with it.

I see these failures as a flaw in our systems. The dollar must and will rule in any production facility and, therefore, the management systems that evolve are built to promote and encourage spending less and making more. But, in some cases, it also falls on senior leadership who are not holding people accountable beyond the money. Longevity and safety do, unfortunately, need to be a factor in decision-making as well.

What to do about it? I don’t know. I have not heard of a lot of success stories around overcoming these types of issues.

I would love to hear your experiences and/or ideas. If you are reading this online, please comment.


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