Fashion, auto industries provide ‘lean’ template for late-life oilfields

What can oil producers learn from the likes of Toyota and Zara? How to remove all non-essential aspects of an operation and produce in the safest, shortest, cheapest way, according to Amec Foster Wheeler’s operations manager for late-life and decommissioning.

Oil producers could look to fashion retailers such as Zara for lean-management tips (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Timahaowemi)

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“I’ve been visiting other industries to see how they do it – predominantly car-making, and believe it or not fashion industry, and also the aeronautical industry. When you walk into these manufacturing houses, they smell of lean – everybody buys into the KPIs [key performance indicators] that they’re chasing, everybody’s aware of the structure, everybody’s aware of their place,” Stuart Gregg said during a DecomWorld webinar. 

“When I stand on a North Sea offshore platform, I don’t always get that buzz, and I think that comes down to people actually understanding what lean is.”

Daniel Roos, Daniel T. Jones and James P. Womack coined the term “lean” production in their 1990 book “The Machine that Changed the World”, which documented how Toyota gained an edge on rival car-makers by focusing only on what added value and eliminating waste. Zara, the world’s largest clothing retailer, has also been credited by numerous sources with successfully applying lean-management principles.

Leaning over the red tape

Stuart revealed during the webinar that the UK government’s Oil and Gas Authority and trade association Oil & Gas UK have been discussing setting up a lean academy in Aberdeen. He said many managers, supervisors and engineers in the North Sea oil industry can “kind of grasp” the concept, but that proper understanding comes only through education and training.

“I’m a big advocate in my team of getting people experience so they understand what lean means, so they start to live and breathe it every day, and then bring it into their work life. Some of my colleagues even bring it [the concept] into their personal lives,” he said. “What does it look like? It’s got many different facets: it’s about doing things efficiently; but unless you see how it’s done efficiently, I don’t think it’s something that can be self-taught, it has to be experience and has to be taught by professionals.”

Acteon FLS Vice President Will Rowley was the other expert to feature in the webinar, and he said traditional attitudes would be hard to overcome. He said contractors have tried to bring in lean practices from abroad that are “totally safe and effective”, but in the UK they come up against attitudes and regulations that make the task like “pushing water uphill”.

“There is a lot of cost that can be taken out and we can be much leaner in all our operations. For us in the supply chain, half the challenge is we’re starting from the wrong point. We’re asked to do things that don’t compromise safety – but just aren’t efficient,” he said, explaining that this starting point builds too much cost into the system.

Rowley gave an example from the salvage industry to demonstrate his point: “What you don’t have is government or a ship-owner directing the methodology for removal. What you have is a request for a solution, and then it’s left to the specialist to work out the most effective way of dealing with it. That’s not the situation we have in late life or decommissioning; it’s far too prescriptive.”

Never break the golden rule

Both men agreed that one thing must never be compromised in the pursuit of lean operations: safety. Rowley explained that challenging the validity of existing guidelines does not equate to compromising safety. “We’re just challenging whether the procedures and the guidelines that were put in place 10, 15 years ago were efficient,” he said.

Rowley explained that it was not uncommon for he and his colleagues to find they have knowledge of the fatigue life of certain pieces of equipment, only to be overruled by internal guidelines that state an asset has to be replaced at a minimum of every 10 or 20 years.

“You can go surprisingly lean if you’ve got that right attitude,” he said. “Let’s not create a self-defeating situation where the guidelines are forcing up costs and preventing an asset becoming lean – which then extends the life.”

Gregg agreed with Rowley, and recounted examples in which many tons of secondary steel had been replaced in offshore assets, “when in reality that secondary steel didn’t need to be replaced but that’s what the standards have said”.

Offshore staff would learn more about late-life safety from doing competency courses with their colleagues rather than in organized courses with people they do not know, according to Gregg. He said his firm has already conducted “lunch-and-learns” with the entire crew of an offshore platform for one client, “and they’re getting a lot more out of it and learning a lot more than sitting in a classroom”.

Unless staff understand what is required in late life, he said, they will always revert back to their learnings – which typically include full-production mode, high pressure, keeping equipment in good condition, and doing what the maintenance system tells them to do.

He argued: “It’s a completely different arena in late life. It’s about looking at what do I need, [and] what do I not need to produce this asset safely. It’s about getting the right people in the room to make those decisions.”