Shutdown, turnaround, and outage events are extremely complex, with multiple stakeholders all focused on minimizing the time assets are offline, delivering their scope on budget, and ensuring zero safety incidents. While managing activities may be difficult, leaders can take actions to help ensure success.
Utilities live and die by their ability to deliver power reliably and safely to their customers. Periodically, however, assets need to be taken offline for scheduled maintenance, equipment failure, or unexpected natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. Even when the maintenance is planned, taking an asset offline requires a complex series of specific and highly coordinated technical steps to unfold in the shortest possible timeframe.
Unfortunately, project scope is often ill-defined and changes during projects are not properly controlled or captured due to outdated legacy methods. This reduces visibility and leads to cost and schedule overruns. If such projects are not managed properly, there can be a considerable cost in terms of the bottom line as well as shareholder value and even reputation.
By following the right combination of detailed planning and tight processes, utility organizations can more predictably manage complex challenges and mitigate the risks of shutdown, turnaround, and outage (STO) activities. Here are four proven ways project leaders can position themselves for successful execution with outcomes that meet all stakeholders’ objectives.
Use Technology to Maximize Visibility and Productivity
Just as important as the people and other resources in STO projects, leaders need to have an integrated technology plan. Without the right tech tools in place—including solutions offering full mobility support—expectations for critical needs such as coordinated schedules and actionable data won’t be met.
The roles of efficiency, transparency, and traceability can’t be overstated when it comes to success in the digital age. Utilities that continue to delay adoption of modern integrated tools and real-time information sharing put themselves at a competitive disadvantage and unnecessary financial risk.
Despite industry progress with data collection and sharing processes, some utility companies still record project information using outdated spreadsheet and standalone methods. This results in a lack of transparency and removes the ability of stakeholders to make critical decisions and enable on-time project execution based on access to real-time data. In short, it means delays in workers putting wrenches to work (Figure 1). Instead, by using a centralized platform for project management, teams can track their work and increase overall coordination and organizational competence across the utility.
1. Having access to real-time data is critical to project success. It can reduce schedule conflicts and help put wrenches to work. Courtesy: Oracle Construction & Engineering Global Business Unit (CEGBU)
Today, options exist for stakeholders to simultaneously open many schedules and see one “integrated” critical path as well as resource status, such as deficits, operational technology, different calendar needs, and more. With so many individual projects occurring during an outage, it’s invaluable to be able to open all individual project schedules at once and treat everything as one cohesive schedule. By plugging the visibility gap, leaders have the data needed to help ensure a more-predictable STO event that will pay dividends during the current project and ultimately future projects.
To effectively meet project visualization needs, powerful analytics and reporting are now available to more effectively manage a project’s scope through its lifecycle. This includes estimates, reviews, and schedule data including schedule health, resource information, and typical date data. With this information, stakeholders can enable visibility throughout the organization and management can make effective decisions for constructability. For example, project leaders can use planning tools to avoid having two crews in one place or one crew above another, helping ensure both efficiency and safety.
Stay Focused on the ‘Script’
A second key to success is managing and optimizing the scope to ensure the project delivers the most wrench time and overall value. This approach will ensure that the right number of qualified resources are available at the right time to keep projects on track, while avoiding unnecessary expenses.
Large STO projects often can involve tens of thousands of activities scheduled for completion within a challenging time window (Figure 2). Each event phase involves many specialized labor resources and parts/equipment that need to be available at certain times. All detail must be identified and scheduled in advance to ensure a smooth process and avoid costly delays. For example, before an outage, system operators may be asked to bless a plan to ensure huge megawatts of capacity aren’t taken offline at the same time. Ultimately, a utility needs to be confident in its projected outage durations as they are the basis for the aggregate ISO outage planning process.
2. There can be thousands of work activities that must be completed during a shutdown, turnaround, and outage event. Successfully managing and optimizing the scope will reduce costs and minimize delays. Courtesy: Oracle CEGBU
Stakeholders must be aware of the fact that most STOs that go off-track do so because of a failure to prevent scope creep. If decision-makers allow the project’s original goals to expand while work is in progress, it’s very likely the project will go over time and budget. One of the most-common drivers of scope creep is insufficient stakeholder coordination.
To prevent or minimize extensive scope creep, project leaders must identify all stakeholders far in advance, engage them in the planning, and ensure all parties understand and agree to the business objectives. A good best practice is for all scoped items to have at least one direct connection to the STO business objectives and be able to be tracked, compared against budget and deadlines, and mapped back into procurement.
Build Plans Proactively
While it’s impossible to predict everything that could go wrong with a project, it is imperative to anticipate and effectively mitigate risks arising from STO events. By being proactive in accounting for unscheduled or “emergent” work in the field, project leaders can and should identify and prepare contingencies for things that might go awry during an STO.
For a plan to truly be solid and comprehensive, it must enable nimble planning scenarios and fixes for emergent work, and anticipate and account for delays beyond control, such as extreme weather conditions. Failure to account for these realistic events will set the project back and create frustration for all involved. Again, this underscores the significance of having all stakeholders in agreement before the project starts to prevent or minimize avoidable issues. With the right tools and processes, STO leadership can effectively respond in a timely, prudent, informed, and transparent fashion.
Scope creep often is a product of inspections that are naturally expected. After years of runtime, advanced deterioration beyond expected levels is not out of the norm. For example, following years of online operation, inspection of a boiler component, a steam header, or critical piping could indicate that far more repair than anticipated is necessary. That could strain certified-welder resources, leading to additional labor costs and time not spent on planned “base” scope. Even worse, an electrical system or transformer could show signs of failure or a turbine may not stop when necessary, creating safety and environmental risks.
In all scenarios, it’s the utility’s response to these critical discoveries that sets the stage for success and management of expectations. It’s common for reprioritization meetings to occur two to three times per day to evaluate situations, decide whether to redirect or add resources, determine if the scope can be cut in a methodical way, and modify target completion dates for the outage. This is another critical example of where the right technology can play a vital role by helping stakeholders evaluate all time factors, and human and financial resources to make the most intelligent decisions in real time.
Maintain Visibility for Continuous Improvements
Because of the recurring nature of STOs and the possibility of similar units in a fleet with similar operating and health profiles, utilities must learn how to benefit from enterprise-wide visibility of project-level information. This includes achieving where many fail: driving incremental improvements from one event to the next. Too frequently, flawed STO planning and execution from siloed, disconnected approaches means utilities are unable to effectively track performance, capture learnings, and apply them to future events.
On average, larger STO projects occur at the unit level every three to six years, and utilities can have multiple STOs occurring simultaneously every year (spring and fall). Utilities must ensure that all aspects of previous projects—including actions, incidents, scope changes, and overruns—are centrally stored, analyzed, and readily accessible to advise future endeavors. Instead of taking the approach that STOs start with planning and end when specific projects are done, organizations should consider STOs as ongoing, circular maintenance processes having a direct effect on delivering stakeholder value through delivery of safe, efficient completion of prudent maintenance with predictable cash flows and completion timing.
Again, technology can make all the difference by providing use analyses that deliver the right detail and granularity. Solutions can track real-time progress against major outage milestones like a turbine on turning gear and gas path release, while providing visibility for scenario planning. As plans are or aren’t met, stakeholders can analyze in real time where things are going wrong and make informed decisions to get back on track. Additionally, when doing a full critique at the end of the project, STO leaders can determine ways to better plan future outages.
Properly managing STOs—covering scope, cost, schedule, risk, and change—will always be a primary challenge for the utility industry. However, by successfully applying the best practices above, organizations can meet this challenge and be positioned for success in both planned and unplanned events to keep current projects on track, improve the overall planning process, and minimize costly delays. ■
—Dave Bullard is senior director, Product & Industry Strategy with Oracle CEGBU.