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Connecting the shutdown to your business strategy (Part I)


The challenge for managers in any business is to identify the critical elements that determine success or failure in their respective disciplines. Doing so is a three step process:

1. Reinforce and exploit those elements that generate success;
2. Eliminate, so far as is possible, those that lead to failure and finally;
3. Recognize those that are beyond their power to affect.

Managing shutdowns is no different. Out of vital decisions, activities and constraints that drive a shutdown, the manager has to distill and extract those critical elements that determine the outcome of the event. Further, if excellent performance on a continuing basis is the objective, then the elements must be fashioned into a framework that can be used as a blueprint for success on an ongoing basis.

This article presents such a framework. It was developed in Great Britain over a period of years by a number of professional shutdown managers and engineers. Their aim was to understand in detail how shutdowns worked — and why they sometimes didn’t — so that a system could be developed for repeatable success. The final product of this process is the Framework for Excellence for Shutdown Management.

The framework is deceptively simple but the managers and engineers who have used it around the world (now numbering over one hundred), either to audit their company’s performance or as a framework to create a comprehensive shutdown methodology.

It is simply a checklist of basic requirements. At a higher level, it is a tactical tool that allows us to focus time money and effort where they are needed. At its highest level, it is a mechanism to promote strategic management thinking. But before plunging into the main body of this article it may be advantageous to examine three larger frameworks that influence the ability to use the Framework for Excellence.

The shutdown in a business context
The function of business is to generate profit. Profit is what is left when the cost of production and distribution is subtracted from the selling price. Production requires a reliable manufacturing plant to produce sufficient throughput of the right quality of product to make it worth selling. The function of maintenance is to protect the reliability of the plant. A shutdown in its simplest form is a large maintenance event during which existing plant equipment is inspected and refurbished, new equipment is installed and redundant equipment is removed — all to promote reliability in the plant that provides the production that generates the profit.

In establishing this direct link between shutdown effectiveness and business effectiveness, it may seem to the reader that I am simply stating the obvious. I am. And the reason is: in dealing with a large number of companies over the last 10 years, I have met many managers and engineers who, if their actions are any guide, have forgotten the existence of the link or never knew it existed in the first place.

The shutdown as a project
A shutdown has all of the elements of a project but it also has some unique features to it. The most crucial of these distinctions is the uncertainty generated by the project. Admittedly, there are uncertainties in any kind of project, but these are normally generated by the environment — late delivery of materials, etc. However, one thing that is known, and usually very well defined, is the scope of work.

In the case of the shutdown there is an inherent uncertainty that lies at the heart of the project — the actual work scope of the project is unknown until we open up equipment inspect it. For the purpose of this article we shall call this "emergent" work simply because it is work that only emerges after the project is underway.

Under normal circumstances, emergent work may increase the work scope by between five and 15 percent. Under abnormal circumstances the increase in work scope and its attendant difficulties can increase the impact of the emergent work to the point where it may dwarf the original work scope. Unfortunately, as plants age, as we lose more and more local knowledge of our plants through employee down-sizing, and as we outsource more and more work to contract companies who (rightly) require visible payment for every task they perform, there is an increasing risk that the abnormal may become the norm unless we do something to reverse the trend.

I am frequently asked by clients "Why are we not doing our shutdowns as well as we used to?" The answer may well be: "Because over a period of years you have changed the way you do shutdowns and you have not made adequate provisions for the change." Of course, there is always the niggling suspicion that we never actually did them as well as we thought — but that’s a whole other can of worms.

Because of the uncertainty, we schedule work, enter into contracts, and procure resources against a plan that is, at best, an intelligent estimate, very often a hopeful guess, and at worst, a venture into the unknown.

As responsible engineers however, we cannot, in the face of this uncertainty, simply wring our hands and hope for the best. We must develop a routine for handling emergent work that will allow us to eliminate as much of the uncertainty as we can before the event and minimize its impact during the event.

Uncertainty, coupled with the need to exert control over it is, in my estimation, one of the main factors that make a shutdown a unique type of project.

The shutdown as a process

If, as I and others contend, a shutdown is a rational process then we should be able to describe it in simple terms and lay bare the logical sequence of events that leads from the first to the last action. There are others who contend that it’s much more complicated and, for reasons best known to themselves, hide behind the parapet of confusion. "We’ve always done it this way!" is their credo. The rational process is made up of five main phases.

PHASE 1 — Initiation
This is the strategic phase in the process. It is the most crucial because it forms the foundation for everything else that comes after. It is also, sadly, the least understood and the most ignored of the phases.

Initiating the shutdown is the responsibility of the senior management of the company. It requires the concerted input and commitment of the senior managers in all key elements of business including, but not limited to, business, marketing, asset management, engineering, operations/ manufacturing, maintenance, quality and safety.

It is the responsibility of these managers to consider and balance the drivers, constraints and requirements of the shutdown to ensure it is performed on a sound business footing. It is also their responsibility to formulate the objectives and limits for the shutdown that will define the context within which everyone else will work.

PHASE 2 — Preparation
This is the longest phase of the shutdown process during which information from many sources is collected, validated, collated and processed into plans, schedules and estimates. The common name for this activity is "planning". The reason we need to plan a shutdown is because it is a complex event. But the planning of a shutdown is a complex process — so does that mean we have to plan the planning?

The answer is most certainly yes. This preparation network highlights the large number of activities that have to be performed within the preparation time frame to ensure all is ready for the event start date and the tasks are not only completed, but have been approved by the senior management.

PHASE 3 — Execution
Execution of a shutdown is performed by a (relatively) large group of people in a small geographical area using many different working techniques, some of which are inherently hazardous, under time and financial pressures. This requires an effective organization working for a professional manager to carry out the plans and schedules required to meet the objectives of the event.

The event itself can be further sub-divided into three main phases.

1. Shutting the plant down — when the plant is brought offline and, if necessary decontaminated and pacified.
2. Performing the scheduled work — when all of the planned major tasks, minor tasks and bulkwork are carried out, including any emergent work
3. Starting the plant up — when the plant systems are recommissioned, tested and brought back online until full production is achieved.

How these three phases are integrated will have a significant effect on safety, costs and duration.

PHASE 4 —Termination
This phase has two distinct features:
1. The handover of the plant systems to the production teams; the removal of all traces of the shutdown from the plant; and the final inspection and hand back.
2. The debriefing of the personnel involved in the shutdown to learn lessons from the event that can be used for future improvement; and the shutdown manager’s final report that records the conduct of the event and will provide a starting point for the management team charged with organizing the next event.

PHASE 5 — The interim
This phase, as its title implies, is the period of time between the termination of one event and the initiation of the next. The types of activities carried out during this phase are those that will facilitate the learning process from one event to the next — updating and archiving of shutdown systems, procedures and documentation, training needs analysis and the recruitment and training of key personnel, review and amendment of contracts, and the introduction of new operation and maintenance techniques aimed at reducing the need for, and the impact of, shutdowns.

It must be pointed out that this phase would only exist within companies that considered the business of shutdowns as a continuous process with the events as successive links in a logical chain stretching over the life of the plant. Companies who view shutdowns as discrete, unconnected events that happen once every few years can never reap the benefits of the interim phase.


Tom Lenahan is an acknowledged expert in the field of plant shutdowns and turnarounds. Based out of the U.K., Tom has worked and consulted internationally. His 1999 book, Turnaround Management, published by Butterworth Heinemann shows the maintenance manager or project leader how to get the job done correctly. He can be reached at www.T-T-L.co.uk/.