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The perfect turnaround

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Turnaround management is under pressure at Eubonia Chemicals. With the impending turnaround (TAR) of the petrochemical facility in Leutonia, the management wants to set a benchmark. Not only is it taken for granted that the project will remain within the cost and timeframe of US$ 11 million and 35 days, but the turnaround is to become a blueprint for similar projects at other Eubonia plants. However, the new pipeline ordered far in advance will not be delivered on time. The turnaround manager had been aware of that risk when commissioning the pipeline, but the chosen manufacturer was simply cheaper than its internationally renowned competitor, who had even promised to deliver before the appointed date. But now the delivery is late, completely disrupting the whole timetable and putting the management under extreme pressure.

Fortunately it’s not for long, because it’s all just a game. Instead of being punished with financial losses as in reality, the management’s mistake only incurs a loss of points, which is also not so severe if the managers have at least recognised and costed in the risk of a delayed delivery. ‘The simulation is completely realistic,’ said Frank-Uwe Hess, CoCEO at T.A. Cook and the inventor of the ‘TARfighter’ model. Over the course of a three day seminar the participants slip into the role of a project team which subjects the petrochemical facility of the fictitious Eubonia Group to a temporary technical overhaul within the computer based simulation.

A total of 18 months are proposed for the preparation, planning and execution of the turnaround; for the seminar, three to five days. From initial preparation through to recommissioning, the participants have to work through a total of 40 work packages involving several thousand individual decisions. They point out risks in timetabling, negotiate with contractors, improve communication and define new projects, always with the intention of implementing the TAR at minimum cost and meeting all deadlines, while not endangering the safety of the facility or the quality of the work.

Ideal kickoff

The TARfighters get direct feedback about how good their planning and their management actually are via the core element of the training, a specially developed piece of software designed to simulate a turnaround project. In small project teams the participants pit themselves against one another and can apply previously learned theoretical principles directly in simulated practice, and then discuss them. ‘The simulation training is a good kickoff before a real turnaround project, because in it the managers are already working together and they gain real insight into what really matters for a successful TAR project,’ said Hess.

Since the first simulation training course at the start of 2012 in Houston, Texas, TAR managers have successfully overhauled the fictional petrochemical facility at more training courses in Europe, China and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the simulation is the conclusion and highpoint of the intensive modular Turnaround Management Certificate course. Now T.A. Cook also organises the training course as an in house event in companies. The target group for the seminar is not solely made up of managers from the petrochemical industry. TARfighter is equally suitable for managers from other plant intensive branches of industry, as the problems which are simulated could arise almost anywhere.

Reporting to the Board

After each project phase the teams receive feedback from the training facilitator, which also includes how they have worked together in their group. ‘The success of project management is largely dependent on personal modes of behavior, so we place great importance on it,’ said Hess.

For that reason the tutors also use the simulation to highlight factors outside of the purely project related issues. ‘The trainer then takes the role of the Board of Management,’ Hess explained. If things are not going well the project manager may be called to account. Or the team may be assigned an external adviser. ‘Naturally, no one wants that. The managers are appropriately motivated to take the matter into their own hands.’

The program participants include both experienced TAR managers and production employees who rarely prepare a turnaround, or are doing so for the first time. ‘This mix is very stimulating, because the less experienced colleagues often make simple enquiries, questioning practices that experienced managers take for granted,’ said T.A. Cook Manager and TARfighter trainer David Woods. For example, service providers’ proposed dates are often taken as fixed and not questioned further. If for example a crane is only available on one day, most turnaround managers plan other work around that date, instead of negotiating alternative dates with the service provider.

Time is money

Ultimately, there are two lessons to be learned from the training: firstly, planning is both the beginning and the end in a turnaround project, because the sooner managers recognise risks, the more cost effectively the alternatives can be planned. Secondly, that means that managers should have the courage, especially in the early planning phase, to revise decisions that have already been taken, as and when required. ‘The sooner critical decisions are questioned, the better,’ said Woods. For example, when it becomes clear during the course of preparations that the financial budget is not adequate or that the timeframe cannot be adhered to, the project manager should discuss the problem with the Board of Management. ‘But in fact that happens much too rarely in practice,’ observed Hess. Instead TAR managers often attempt to meet targets that are far from realistic and only inform the company management at the last minute that their team will not be able to implement a project as planned. ‘TARfighter impressively demonstrates how rapidly project costs rise, the later the managers tackle problems,’ said Hess.

Past results of the simulation show how widely they can vary. The record, set by a TARfighter team from Shanghai, is a positive project contribution margin of US$ 4.5 million with a project duration of only 64 weeks, instead of the estimated 72. The negative record is US$ -4.9 million and 81 weeks. ‘Particularly in the early phase of a project, managers should be flexible so that the planning works out in the end,’ said Hess. This is because a decision is reached about the success of the plant turnaround when it is over, both in the simulation and in real life.

Written by André Schmidt-Carré, on behalf of T.A. Cook.

Edited by Claira Lloyd

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