Monthly Archives: October 2011

Outages 101, Don’t be penny wise and dollar foolish

This week we are going to start a new format for our discussion, please let me know what you think.  The intent of this blog is to share the knowledge I have accumulated over the past 200 plus outages in short easily understood points, that in total, make up our Zone Outage Control process. Each week I  will share a personal vignette that I hope illustrates the need and value for that point. I can be a tad ….shall we say long winded, and although I’m often in love with my own prose, I do appreciate getting to the point as quickly as possible, so without further ado here we go


Outages are a different than day to day running of a plant. For a visual image of this imagine the plant as NASCAR, racecar speeding around the track and an outage as the PIT stop. Each operational environment has vastly different behaviors required for success.  If you try and run your outage like day to day operations it will cost more, take longer and be less effective

I joined a plant, in desperate need of a turn around, about a month before their outages. This plant had an outage expense budget of $5.3 million dollars and they had traditionally overrun their outage budgets by 20% ($6.36 million). They averaged 11.5 days per boiler outage (3 boilers) with each boiler down day worth about $60,000 loss of revenue.

The Zone Outage Control™ process saved the plant millions of dollars and was the cornerstone of a great turnaround from worst to first in just one year. Our outages came in for a total of $4 million; we saved $1.3 million against budget and $2.3million against historical spending. We did all of this with no capital, just a change in behavior/process during outages

We also shortened the outage duration to an average of 8 days (really 7.65 but really what is .35 of a day). Which had a net effect of, an extra 3.5 days per boiler  @ $60,000/day per boiler. All in, an extra revenue of $630,000 for the year

The plant went on to a banner year; it broke every production record while at the same time breaking every safety record. The overall effect of our efforts increased the plants EBITA from 30 million to 35 million in one year


 The plant had a great many problems, Operations and Maintenance hated each other. The employee turnover rate for the past year was 52%. They missed there budgeted performance by the worst margin in company history. In short it was bad, bad, bad. About 5 weeks before the first outage, I actually got a quote from a contractor that read “because working at this plant is so difficult please add $15,000” on a $45,000 job. This is where we started

 I laid out the plan, I wanted everything we would need for the outage, tools and material, right next to every door that they would be used in; to say that it was met with a tremendous amount of resistance would be putting it in the kindest of all possible lights. I however can be very…… determined when I have to be, saying it this way is also putting it in the kindest of all possible lights

We rented welding machines; people screamed “the contractors do that”. I said “but then we pay for it at their rates plus mark up” plus this way we can set them all up on straight time instead of during the outage on overtime in the heat of battle

We bought 5000 feet of welding lead, one of my Forman said “we might as well give each contractor some as a gift when they are leaving; they are going to take it anyway”. I said “I will save us more money than it’s worth ($5000)” he scoffed and said “well it’s your ass that’s going to get fired; we will never see any of that lead again”

We staged all the material for the outage in the field next to each door that it was going to be used in. The Purchasing Manager said “I’m going to charge everything that you take out of the warehouse to the outage the minute it leaves my shelves”. I said “do what you have to do, but do not reorder anything until I say so”. He wouldn’t do it; he went to the Director of Purchasing to stop me and my madness. Just think of it material all around the boiler who would control it? What if someone wanted to steal the feed chute hopper wear plate, who would be there to stop them? I got a call from the director and I tried to explain my point but failed. Soon after that call I got a call from the President, he wanted to know if I planned on pissing everybody in the company off at once or just one by one. I said, I tried being diplomatic but I guess I need more practice. When it was all said and done all the material was laid out next to the boiler.   

I rigged all the superheat panels that we needed for the outage to the roof. Engineering said the roof couldn’t hold the weight. I had the roof trusses evaluated and brought steel beams up to engaged 4 roof trusses to support the tubes and I cut a hole in the side of the building and built a mono rail to move the panels in the boiler. We built carts to transport the panels

I rented port-o-johns for the roof of the powerhouse. Safety said I couldn’t move port-o-johns through the building because of sanitary concerns. I rigged them up with the tube crane and built an outhouse for them and a smoking hut on the roof as well.

It went on and on and on. By the time the outage came along everyone was just waiting for the mess that I created to come crumbling down around me.

The outage started and low and behold, things seemed to run fairly smooth. The contractors were amazed, all of them hated to work at this plant and now it even seemed fun. We played music in the morning and had coffee and doughnuts a few times. People thought I was CRAZY!!!!. The president flew up and took a tour of the outage because he had heard so much about it. When he was done walking around he said “It all looks fine, but what are the dollars and cents”. I said that everything was well within budget; he looked skeptical but let me continue.

As we got a few days into the outage, Tuesday to be exact, everything was going very well. I laid out every job on my “Magic Whiteboard” (a story for a different time) and realized that we were going to finish the outage in about 7 days. Pretty good I thought to myself. I sat back and mentally went through all the jobs again in my head to see if maybe I had missed something. Zone #1…. no, Zone #2….I’m good, Zone #3….they will get it, Zone #4….that’s going really well, they will be ready for the rails tonight….wait a minute, where are the rails, I haven’t seen them yet (neither had my “Magic Finger”). Off I went to go touch the rails with my “Magic Finger” I went by the job…no rails, I went in the ally…no rails, I went by the warehouse…no rails, I went to the lay down area…NO RAILS !!!!!.  I went to my office and paged my planner, “hey come up and see me please”

In he strode, eating a half a sandwich. I said “where are the sifting conveyor rails”. He said “there coming in Friday”.

Here I need to take a minute again to describe me for those of you who have yet the pleasure of meeting me. Body: Shrek meets Luca Brasi meets and average sized bear, Face: wise, warm, insightful, angelic some have said. However when mad ….well you know the cartoons when steam comes pouring out of the guys ears, That plus my eyes bulging out of my head like Roger Rabbit and to top it off a loud booming voice that can put Pavarotti to shame

Now back to our story. When my planner said “Friday” well I was not happy. I proceeded to explain to him in a high decibel mono directional way that I wanted the rails NOW!!!!. He went back to his office and started making calls.

He returned and said that Friday was the best they could do. I said get someone else to make them by tomorrow it’s just angle iron bent and hardened flat bar. My planner was confused, he said “but we paid for them already why don’t we just wait. My eyes widened as I looked up and he immediately backed up and started talking faster. “We would waste $25,000 dollars”. I got up and told him to sit down. I then explained very curtly that he was to rent a flatbed with a driver, buy all the angle iron and wear bar, get the yellow pages and a cell phone and bring everything to me by Thursday morning. I didn’t yell, I didn’t scream but I believe he was more afraid of me now than he ever might have been, he got up and said yes sir and left.

Every four hours he called in and let me know his status, we got most of the rails Thursday morning and all of them by Thursday night. My planner had done an amazing job he didn’t sleep for two long days. He got it done. He thought I was crazy but he did what I asked.

Friday morning came, the 7th day of the outage and like in genesis, I was looking for a rest it had been quite a journey but we did it. As I was winding down from the fight, so to speak, my planner came up with a grin on his face, I asked him “what’s up” he said he just got a call from the people making the first set of rails, they had some problems and wouldn’t have them till Wednesday now. We both laughed

My planner went on to engineering and then came back to this plant as my successor and had a longer run than myself.

the Only Way to Find a Leak, Stick the Magic Finger in the Hole

This is the story I was beginning to tell last week and then I got half way through it and then realized that first I need to explain what the magic finger is. Now that that is done we can move on. In the rest of this story every time I mention a finger realize that it is the “Magic Finger.”

Our story this week starts once again at the feet of Socrates.

We were finishing a major boiler outage we had performed over 1000 tube welds and were getting ready for our first hydro, we were going for a final hydro pressure of around 3600 pounds.
Socrates pulled me aside and said, “Kid ,the only way to find a leak is” he sticks his finger up in the air “to stick this in the hole, you can never tell where the water is coming from and often what looks one way from 10 foot away is completely different when you stick your finger in the hole.” He was indefatigable and he made me promise I would forever more find leaks this way.

This was Socrates; of course I would do what he asked. After I agreed to always do this he then said “Now you not going to listen to me, there will come a time went you don’t stick your finger in the hole and you will have to re-hydro because you did not….that’s when the lesson sinks home.” I assured Socrates that this would never happen. He just smiled and said “when it happens and you feel miserable just remember everyone messes it up at least once.”

The Hydro began; we (my “magic finger” and I) found a total of 3 leaks and one potential leak. The potential leak was up high in the corner of the boiler above the burners, there was no obvious water coming out just a wet spot on the tubes. I have the men hang a single man climber (For those of you not familiar with this scene let me describe it to you, Imagine an upside down milk carton where one side is 60 feet long and the other 100 feet and the milk carton is approx. 11 stories high. Now to get somewhere inside the milk carton you need to rig up a window washing platform (like you see on skyscrapers) and they come in all various shapes and sizes). The climber couldn’t be hung directly where the leak was so I would have to have a rope hung from a different location to pull myself over to the leak.

So let’s take a minute to paint this picture, my body type is Shrek meets Luca Brasi with a dash of Bear thrown in. Now take this impressive human form and put him in a metal basket hanging from a 5/16th steel cable, then have this menagerie of attributes go straight up about a 100 feet in the air and then, much like the circus, the bear has to swing the climber back and forth like a pendulum on a grandfather clock until I can catch the rope hanging from the corner. Once I catch the rope I can pull myself to the corner resulting in the climber hanging at about a 30 degree angle me hanging on the rope with one arm and flash light and magic finger in the other looking for the leak.

Not to mention, I don’t like heights and I am not terribly coordinated at all.

So there I hang looking for where the water is coming from. When all of a sudden I hear a loud rumble, I have no idea what to do, let go of the rope, hang on the rope etc. etc. no idea. So I just lock up, rope coiled around my left arm hanging on the climber with my right when all of a sudden water comes raining down on me from everywhere and I wind up completely drenched. Moments go by I have no idea what’s happening but eventually the water stops. I’m shaking soaking wet and hanging about 100 feet up, I slowly let go of the rope and let the climber swing straight. The motor of the climber was not working because water and electric don’t play well together, so I had to hand crank myself to the bottom. It took about an hour.

When I got back to the trailer, I learned that someone had pulled the gag out of the safety and that’s where the water can from.

Socrates asked me if I found the leak. I told him that I did even though I had not stuck my finger in the hole; I didn’t want to go back there I was terrified. He held up his finger, as if to say “are you sure you stuck your finger in the hole”, I lied and nodded yes.

With my Lie, Socrates made the decision to drop the water in the boiler and fix all the leaks that we had identified. When it came time to fix my leak I thought for sure I would be able to find it. I lit the area up inspected each tube inch by inch. I even flapper wheeled the tubes clean and PT’d them (Dye penetrating testing) NOTHING!!!!. I eventually had to fess up that I had not “stuck my finger in the hole.”

When I told Socrates he was not mad, he said “I told you, you wouldn’t listen.” I immediately tried to defend myself “I was hang there, soaking wet had to crank myself down” He held up his hand to stop me and rubbed his pointer finger across his thumb “You know what this is?” I shrugged my shoulders with “I don’t know”, He continued” it’s the smallest violin in the world”, “I told you, you wouldn’t listen and you didn’t, I’m not surprised”. I left the trailer ashamed and dejected.

The next day in the morning Socrates asked me how I was doing” I feel like shit” he said “Good, now I know you will never make that mistake again”. We had to re-hydro the boiler which took days and I eventually found the leak. It was a cold side attachment and if not caught could have killed someone if it let go during the operation of the unit. Once I found that leak we then looked at other spots in the boiler typically to that and replaced all of the corner tube so that no one would be hurt, the outage was extended for about a month so that we could address this very important issue.

When we were done and in the process of the final Hydro, Socrates and I were sitting in the control room. He turned to me and said “You did good, If you hadn’t found that leak someone could have died”, I responded “But I F’d up the first hydro” he said “what did you expect” “you have to satisfy the boiler gods, you have to respect how simple and yet difficult this job is. You’ve learned that now and you will never forget it.”

In the many years, hundreds of hydro’s and the countless times I have passed this lesson on. The simple truth remains. The only way to find a leak is to stick your finger in the hole, it sounds sophomoric and simple and in truth it is, but that’s what works every time all the time. The” boiler gods” need to be respected because at the end of the day people can die, that is the truth.

Moral of the Story:

There is only one way to find a leak, stick your finger in the hole. Simple things are not often thought of as important. In outages the simpler things are the better, there are enough curve balls that you cannot expect so making everything else simple lets you handle those curve balls better

Rule of Thumb:

Whenever possible whoever is going to repair the leak should be to one to stick their finger in it, Holes with water coming out are easy to find maintaining the discipline to do the simple thing is the tough part

The Magic Finger

When I was a planner I had the good fortune to work for an extraordinary man… let’s call him Socrates. Much of what I say first came out of his mouth. I miss his teaching and fellowship every day.

Socrates had many lessons about how to run outages, to tell many of them I have to first describe what the Magic Finger is.

To the casual observer the “Magic Finger” looks like the pointer finger on your hand and in truth it is. The magic of the “Magic Finger” is much more complicated to explain but like all things of genius, it is eventually elegantly simple.

My first job with Socrates started in a strange way.

Back in the day we traveled from job to job in 40 cargo containers made into field offices. We were setting up my very first “big” job as a planner, more than a hundred thousand man-hours. We had material to stage, scaffolding to build, rigging to hang, tools to load in. Lot of stuff to do and I was chomping at the bit to get it going

Socrates, however, would not let anything start until he had 10 drum door gaskets on a nail over his desk in our trailer. Being young, brass and ambitious I wanted to start, I had things to do and here was this funny old guy sternly saying NO!

I tried to convince him, tried to go around him, tried to get other Forman to convince him, he would not be moved. Finally after a few days, I overnighted the gaskets. The next day I hammered in nails over his desk and hung the gaskets. Socrates was finally happy, he took his finger and touched the gaskets and said “Kid, do you know what this is?” holding his finger towards me “It’s a Magic finger”

I burst out “are you ****in kidding me, I have over 50 trucks of stuff waiting to get here and you give me this magic finger BS, you nuts”. Luckily, Socrates was a very patient man, he laughed at my juvenile outburst. He then said come with me. We walked outside and touched all the nose tubes, the burner corner parts, the superheat pendants, I could barely contain myself, I had work to do! And this guy was making me touch each part that was lying around the plant. After each thing he would make me touch it with my “Magic Finger” and hold it up to him. This went on all day, after a while I just relented I figured today was shot tomorrow is another day.

The next day I had a veritable army of manpower, equipment and stuff to do. I told one Forman to get the nose tubes and get them in the north well, another Forman I told to get the burner parts laid out etc. etc. all day long people asked me where things were and miraculously I knew (or I should say my “Magic Finger” knew) the day went very well as did the entire outage.

During a different outage years later, I did not use my magic finger. I was too busy and too important I had people for that now. We were installing a system on a high pressure 1.4 million pound per hour boiler that would pressure drop and desuperheat the steam to 400 psi with 10 degrees of superheat.

I was told that one of the three main stop valves were being delivered, these were big valves but we were in the “big” business nothing scared me. I got the call from receiving that the valve was here. I got the forklift guy on the radio and told him to pick it off the truck.

Sometime later he came up to the trailer and said he couldn’t get the valve off the truck. I belittled him “awe did the big bad valve kick your ass”, He just looked back at me and said “it’s a big valve and it ain’t coming off the truck, it’s your problem now smart guy” and then he stomped out of the trailer.

I found one of my Forman “ can you go down and get the valve off the truck, the forklift is having a bad hair day”. Off went Ray (the Forman) and he soon came back “That’s the biggest valve I ever saw, It’s not coming off the truck”.

I was incredulous, I the “great and powerful…well me” had to stop what I was doing and walk the three blocks to the elevator and down to the street, and back another two blocks to get to the truck, cursing loudly and liberally as I went. When I got to the back of the truck and turned to see the valve I nearly fell over just from the sight of it. It was absolutely the biggest valve I have ever seen and I knew instantly I was an ******* (you know the word). We had to send the truck to our crane yard and lift the valve off with a 50 ton crane.

The magic of the “Magic Finger” is contained in the phrase “did you see it, did you touch it, if you didn’t shut the “F” up”. Try this test, Ask a question and listen to the answers you get more times than not you get something that is resembles an answer but not the answer.

For example:

Q. “Do we have a spare shaft”
A. “There should be one in the warehouse” …you see this does not answer the question does it!
Q. “Can someone check the shaft is in the warehouse”
A. “That’s the ware house guy/girl’s job they should know
Q. “Can we call them right now and see if the shaft is in the warehouse”
A. “I’m on the phone with them they say that there is a shaft on the shelf”
Q. “Is it the right shaft”
A. “It should be”
This can go on and on, I’m sure I’m being over dramatic and this never happens in your plant. Lets take the “Magic Finger” out for a spin and see what that conversation looks like
Q. “Do we have a spare shaft”
A1. “I don’t know, my “Magic Finger” did not see it or touch it so I’m shutting the “F” up”
A2. “Yes”
A3. “No”

This seems much simpler to me, but then again I’m a simple guy.

Moral of the Story:

Being able to communicate clearly and succinctly doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work and work takes tools. The “Magic Finger” is a tool; it is a tool that gets used over and over again and again. It has never failed me although I have failed it many times

Rule of Thumb:

Listen to the answers you get, If they are not to your liking, teach them about their “Magic Finger”