A lean journey is never easy, and when enthusiasm wanes it can be a struggle to stick to the plan. Technical training and development lead, Mike Riungu, talks Kimberley Barber through the lean journey of Wood Group PSN. He discusses what the company did to re-energise its lean programme and how to avoid failure.

Kimberley Barber: What does Wood Group PSN do?

Mike Riungu: We are a global provider of high integrity, brownfield energy services that support our customers to optimise performance, maintain production, reduce operating costs and provide integrity assurance. A large part of what we do centres on managing the operations and maintenance of offshore platforms and onshore terminals producing oil and gas, and delivering engineering modifications as part of that. For example, when parts of a facility require updating, upgrading or replacing, we can do the engineering around the change. We also carry out pre-operations, hook up & commissioning, engineering, construction, project management, training and decommissioning for asset operators.

KB: Where is lean applied in the group?

MR: Because we operate as a service provider, we support lean practices on installations that are committed to a lean transformation. Our support teams look at the operations and maintenance of offshore oil platforms to manage the planned maintenance work, as well as correcting breakdowns, managing shut downs and trying to prevent the backlog of maintenance from building up.

Planned maintenance requires the integration and coordination of people, equipment and the materials needed to carry out the work according to plan. What the industry has found in the past is that this process can get very disconnected, which can often impact KPIs. There can be a build-up of unnecessary inventory and scheduled work can end up being delayed because the logistics are not effective. It’s difficult, as you could be 200 miles from shore, constrained by harsh weather conditions, restricted numbers of people and limited work and storage space.

KB: What other difficulties do you face?

MR: The shift patterns of our onsite workforces are a challenge. We work with teams whose duty routines can be two weeks out of four or two weeks out of five on any given platform or plant. These people are a vital part of the ops and maintenance crew, which includes a number of different contractors. There are also the specialists who come in to do particular maintenance on critical technical equipment.

On one installation I worked on there was a crew of 500 in total but only a maximum of 120 people on board at one time. We had great difficulties getting the same message across to all those people who are only together in one place for a few days at a time. It’s a logistical nightmare.

KB: What defines lean failure?

MR: Often we have found that we start with early commitment and enthusiasm for lean and the potential gains are very visible. The costs are high, the risks are high but the opportunities are huge. We see a sizeable investment in the early stages, but once we get beyond value stream management and into the difficulties of getting the engagement and development visits completed, enthusiasm and commitment can wane very quickly – because it’s not easy.

With one operation, we had planned outputs for the entire maintenance process but it was six months before some of the changes we had been talking about made it into operation. By that time, the typical resistance was strong.

This delay was compounded by the difficulties in reaching people to help them understand what we were trying to achieve with lean. It wasn’t sufficiently targeted; everybody got the same fairly high-level overview. There was very little focus on identifying who were going to be the key players in embedding lean practice in particular areas, and making sure it was carried forward. Because those key people were not identified and engaged adequately, some were able to avoid being pulled in and committing. This supported the resistance and hampered the understanding of what actually needed to change and how. Critically, middle management was not trained in how to facilitate, engage and support changes on the “shop floor”.

KB: How long did it take for you to realise that things weren’t going as expected? MR: The original timetable was three months to have implemented some significant changes. None of the enablers were visible after three months, and we knew then that things weren’t going to plan. Six months passed and still no enablers. We had to go to almost a year before some of the changes started to come through, but by then the focus had shifted from the “shop floor” to the central office. The subsequent changes were led by head office driven processes, rather than best practice execution on the ground.

KB: What was your main focus throughout the process?

MR: People engagement. The value stream mapping sessions were the first opportunity for many to contribute to improving work. A very strong leader in the organisation had put his energy behind the transformation, but moved on after about a year and the significance of our role diminished. Resistance and conservatism grew and we lost the ability to influence and really drive change.

KB: How did you turn things around?

MR: We went back to the original plan and tried to re-energise it. We got the management teams involved and made sure they knew we were continuing to support the operations teams. We focussed efforts on re-engaging the onshore teams to help them understand how and why their processes needed to support lean operations. We shifted the focus from process and production to people’s contribution. We found that the drive from head office had shifted from processes to procedure and even impacted IT, meaning the changes that were coming through really focussed on how IT systems were being used, not what they delivered. These additional changes completely sidelined any operations based focus.

KB: What were the reasons that the plan went so far off-piste?

MR: There is a natural tendency for engineers to grab hold of processes and technology as it is something they can touch and feel. There was a lack of focus on the real issues. These things don’t really work if you start to focus too much on processes and technology; they only really work if you focus on people, behaviours and trying to change habits.

People always come first – which is also the basis of ADVANCE, our programme to help customers install lean capability in their organisation. Once you have trained people in lean methods, they will actually go ahead and start to refine and develop their own processes, technology and IT systems to fit their own way of working.