Tag Archives: Outage

The Magic Finger – Directors Cut

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, your 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 driver is having a bad hair day”. Off went 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 was the “great and powerful…well me” now I 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 “if you didn’t see it, or touch it, 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”


Directors Cut Notes

Socrates would be in the middle of a conversation about the job and suddenly hold up his crooked pointer finger and if someone had not touched whatever we were speaking about (usually me in the beginning) all conversation would stop and you had to go out right then and there and come back with a dirty fingertip or he would not speak to you.

After I was fully indoctrinated in the “Magic Finger” society when these instances would happen (He holding is finger up) I would respond with my own one finger salute (the pointer finger, not everything is R rated!)

Once this ground rule was established (as well as many others) it was truly amazing to do great things with Socrates and never have to really say anything.

The highest expression of this seamless team work was that we were able to design and install a class “A” project in a nuclear plant with non-nuclear trained mechanics. In 6 months we demo’d 41 tons of stainless by hand, ran hundreds of feet of pipe, converted 3 fifty foot high tanks all while the engineers designed it in the field with us. We did all this while maintaining all of the nuclear class A package standards. Team work doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Ten Commandments


Like Moses coming down from the mountain top I have been gone for 40 day and 40 nights.

My measurement of 40 days and 40 nights is more in line with Clarence Darrow’s

Portrayed by Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind”

In reality, just a fancy way of saying a long time. Now back to my allegory

I have descended from the mount with the ten commandments of a great outage.

  1. Honor thy Outage, it’s different treat it as such
  2. Thou shall be safe
  3. Thou shall realize nothing is easy, you must make everything as easy as possible
  4. There shall be only one Boss, pick one
  5. Thou shall not talk about what thee has not seen
  6. Thou shall inspect once, completely, quickly and mark everything consistently 
  7. Thou shall not complain,  either shoot em’ or make the girl feel pretty
  8. Thou shall track the money every day
  9. Thou shall order on Thursday what thee needs over the weekend
  10. Honor the close out,  is different than the rest of the outage

Sounds impressive doesn’t  it?

Well I’m no Moses

In reality I was just trying to create a clear concise list of what to do and not to do. When I started to make the list I thought of the Ten Commandments and I got all Charlton Heston on myself.  I had visions of people printing it up like posters and hanging these pithy rules all over the place.

But I’m just a guy from Jersey with a bunch of stories (some funny, some horrible) that people call experience. Below is my list, I reserve to right to update it and change it from time to time. I didn’t come up with all this stuff in a vacuum. It’s the result of interactions that have taken place over the 250 outages that I’ve had the honor to be a part of.

Please forward me any feedback to make the list better

My list looks like this

1. Outages Are Different

An analogy that I often use is a plant is like a NASCAR race and most of the time the car is on the track going round and round. This is the plant running when the car comes in for a PIT stop this is the plant in the outage. How odd would it be if the car pulled in the PIT and then the driver goes out to change the tires? In the end for a car to win, somebody drives the car and somebody else runs the PIT stop.

Blogs that pertain to this are

Money Ball

You’re not Dorothy and this Aint OZ

Outages 101 Don’t Be Penny Wise and Dollar Foolish

The Magic Finger

       2.      Safety is about focus, not forms.

Look somebody in the eyes and if you see crazy don’t put that guy on the crane. Sounds simple right? That’s because it is, in today’s world we have all sorts of certifications, training and licenses. That’s all well and good but it’s been my horrific experience that the fatal accidents all happen when someone has a problem of a personal nature that has their attention elsewhere while they are on the job. It’s all of our jobs to realize that in each other and say something.

Blogs that pertain to this are

It’s Not A FKing Ice Cream Parlor

Common Sense Safety

The Things That Don’t Work Don’t Get Used


       3.      The easier you make something, the easier it is


                Straight from the Yogi Berra archives. Outages affect the plants bottom line in three ways, downtime, material costs and contractor costs. All of these items can be significantly affected with just some

Questions…How do we do this faster?

Thought…Well if we bought three impact guns it would go faster

Planning…Get three impact guns by the next outage

Observation…Well that worked better next time we should stage the plates before the outage

Change…Whatever you need to, to get better

Blogs that pertain to this are

Now Row in the Same Direction

Get in the FKing Boat

The Art of War, Six Sigma and a Guy from Jersey

Sit Down Shut Up and Do What I Say


             4.      The chain of command is there for a reason

                Be clear on who reports to who and who’s the boss. Contractors get told what to do by everybody…not good. Engineers generally feel that they report to nobody…not good.

The story about four people: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.

                                There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it.

                                Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.

                                Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.

                                Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.

                                Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody

                                wouldn’t do it.

                                It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when actually Nobody asked Anybody”

Blogs that pertain to this are

Every Ship Needs A Captain

5.      If you didn’t see it or touch it shut the fuck up!!!!

That’s right 4 exclamation points (I still think I need more but let’s move on). Let’s go back to the PIT stop shall we. Imagine the guy changing the tire on the right front stops in mid PIT stop and walks over to the PIT boss and says “I heard the gas guy say that the gas can is too heavy”(just writing this makes me get my “angry eyes” out). A great outage has very little talking during it. Prior to the outage you should be exhausted with how much you talk but once the bell rings it’s time to shut up.

Blogs that pertain to this are

The Magic Finger

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


6.      Get the engineers in and out

It takes a lot of conversation and planning to get all you can during the inspection of the unit. To get the inspection done completely you need to sit down and identify all the things you need to see during the outage including how you are going to measure and mark what you see. You need to develop tracking systems to record the as found conditions. You need to agree on what color paint means what. As found work is the major variable of any outage. The faster you inspect everything the more time you have to react and manage the emerging work scopes.

Blogs that pertain to this are

Engineers, Engineers Everywhere and Not a Scope to Execute

Your Outages iPod


7.      Never complain about under-performance…do something!!!!

Yes more exclamation points. If someone or some company is under performing you only have two choices, change them out or live with it. If you can change them out, do it. If you can’t, live with it and please just shut up about it. Constantly berating someone is never, I repeat never, a good idea. It makes the beratee feel like shit (do you do your best when you feel like shit?) and it implies that the boss (the berator) has no balls (My jersey coming out) which weakens the boss’s authority over the entire project. Not to mention that everyone is watching and you are training everyone in your plant how to act. The last contractor that fell down on the job, I got them tea (to keep them healthy) food brought in (to keep them feed and on the job) and thanked them for all their efforts everyday…because we had no other choice.

Blogs that pertain to this are

Always Make the Girl Feel Pretty

8. You have to know where the money is every day, cost to date and cost to complete

If your daily planning meeting reviews a schedule that’s 24 to 36 hours old and you go over costs as a percent complete of each project…let me save you some time, it’s never going to work. You need to close the books every shift from a dollar stand point and to do that the schedule has to be accurate as well. If it takes a department to get management these numbers   then stop, It’s never going to be correct or worth it. You system should be simple and accurate. We have developed a system that will tell you cost to date and cost to finish with 5% 4 hours after the end of each shift. It’s not a sale plug it’s just to let you know it’s possible and to set the mark to be beat.

9.      Stock the air and gas rack on Friday like you aren’t getting a delivery for a week

A bottle of Argon cost $65 (In 1996 dollars, That’s when I first gave this speech)

That same bottle of Argon can cost $16,200 on a Sunday

  • 10 contractors @ $120/hr             $1,200
  • Delay scaffold coming down           $5,000
  • Loss of revenue                                    $5,000
  • Employee OT                                         $5,000

The same bottle of Argon after the outage is $65. Argon doesn’t go bad.

10.  Every outage starts out asses and elbows but somewhere near the end it changes

At some point during the outage you have to get everyone’s focus to shift from production to close out. During production everything is about “how much got done?” . During close out everything is about “Is everything complete and signed off? ”. These are two vastly different ways of operation and the outage manager has to signal that team needs to change focuses. Back in the day I used to do this during one of the daily outage meetings I a speech I titled “It’s been lovely having you all here, now get the fuck out!”

11.  You need to have two meetings a day during outages

Wait there’s more than ten? What’s going on? Rule #1 outages are different. Outages are a team sport. What team do you see in any sport that doesn’t huddle up in some fashion? The meetings should not be long; however every contractor Forman should be there. Cover safety first, then production and then schedule. Here’s a secret – no one likes to finish last. The contractors will compete with each other to not to be last.

Get in the F**king Boat

When I took over a project, outage or plant, I had a certain je ne sais quoi best illustrated by the phrase “Sit down, shut up and do what I say.”

Needless to say, not everybody was happy with working for me, but hey that’s life in the big city. When people aren’t happy they act out in all kinds of manners of passive aggressive behavior. I had the “Oh, I didn’t understand you” the “Oh ….ahh I know that what you said but, I thought this would be better” and my favorite “I didn’t want to bother you” or it’s redheaded cousin “I couldn’t get in touch with you”.

In all of my experience I have NEVER had any of my direct reports ever directly disobey me so when It happened, I was…..confused. I didn’t know that move was even an available option. The scene I describe in “Why don’t you make them listen to your tapes” is an absolute true story. I had no idea what to do with the staff of this plant, Fire them all? A bit extreme, but like I said, not doing as I command was so foreign to me that I had no idea what to do

Would I really fire all the management of the plant?  No. Would I create a situation that they would all leave? Absolutely. If not for my son’s idea it would have gotten ugly.

When I showed up with the first tape and told everyone that would have to listen to it, it was clearly a statement of “get in the f**king boat or else!” Although it probably did not look like that at all.

What happened when we started to listen to the tapes was that everyone did get in the boat. It gave the team a common language and let them hear what I was trying to tell them without their need to resist me because I said it.

When it was all said and done we listened to four tapes and at the end of those 4 weeks we all got along swimmingly. The plant, that just a year before was the worst plant in the company, broke every production & safety record at the same time, with the same team.

Here are the tapes that we listened to with a brief description of what I think the best points of each tape is

By Tom Peters

For me this tape should be the start of any new initiative. It has a great line “change happens in an instant” and it’s a true. So many people talk about how difficult change is and how long it takes, but in reality you can change anything instantly. It’s maintaining the change that takes effort. I have used so many of the lessons of this book that 10 plus years later I still use gems like “dougnuting”, “spring cleaning” and “the bump into principle” on a daily bases. I personally resonate with Tom Peters and love all his works. I highly recommend him to any and all management in our industry. Please visit his website , or click on the picture to find him on Amazon.

By Dr. Wess Roberts

The tape is recorded like Attila is sitting around a camp fire just instructing his Huns. Every vignette of Attila speaking to his Huns is a gem. An example, directly from one page of the book:

On Tolerance

  • Every Hun has a value- even if to serve as a bad example
  • The error in appointing an incompetent chieftain is in leaving him in a position of authority over other Huns
  • To experience the strength of chieftains we tolerate some of their weaknesses
  • Suffer long for the mediocre but loyal Huns. Suffer not for competent but disloyal Huns.

The magic of this tape is that it establishes a code of conduct that everyone in the plant starts to follow. So as things happen in the plant we would discuss what Attila would say about this or that and then the group, not me, would decide the fate of a particular decision.

The tape is great; I fell in love with it all over again preparing for this. The biggest point behind all of this is a plant is a collection of people and their habits. If a plant is not doing well it is always because of the habits of the personnel of the plant. Here is where 99% of managers go wrong, they try and get the personnel to stop their bad habits. You can’t stop doing something; you can only start doing something else. Attila’s entire lesson’s for his Huns are the habits of a successful plant. Just start doing them.

By Dr. David Schwartz

There is a basic principle I live my life by - if you can dream it you can achieve it. I may have gotten that little gem from this or any of the hundred other self-improvement tapes. The point is you have to imagine what you want before you can go out and create it. From Mathew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” To do this you have to ask for something and that’s where the imagination comes in.

The Magic of Thinking Big got everyone on the team to imagine something new. We lamped up the plant for holidays like the Empire State Building. We designed a new safety program called “Common Sense Safety” that had toys in meetings, which received acknowledgement from OSHA. None of these things could have been done without first “Thinking Big.”

By Marcus Buckingham & Dr. Donald Clifton

I suck at spelling, grammar and punctuation. I spell so bad, I stump spell check. Spelling and writing are not strengths of mine, however, communication is. Supposedly 85% of communication is nonverbal and I agree. So what’s a girl to do? Do I burn the midnight oil and practice my spelling in hopes to be mediocre at some point (Here’s a hint….HELL NO!) I do what I’m great at, and get somebody who is great at spelling and grammar to go through what I write. (So when you read a blog and there are misspelling and grammar issues all over the place you should know that I was most likely pressed for time and posted it myself, my secret is now out) Thank you to all that help me.

The point is, do what your great at. Find someone else to do what you’re not great at. In so many plants I have seen so many people plotting along doing stuff because it’s their job. While it’s true that stuff needs to get done, it is also true if you let people do what they are naturally good at, you will get better performance with less management. So listen to the book, take that test, and get your personnel doing what they are great at. Your job will be easier and your performance will go up.

Money Ball

I had an entirely different blog planned out for today, but you see I had nothing to do @ 8pm tonight and I wasn’t tired. Trolling the “on demand” selections I came across “Money Ball”. A friend just recently told me to watch it, because in her words, it was a very soulful movie. I responded “I thought it was about money and baseball”, she answered it is that, but so much more.

Watching the movie, I found myself moved and often teary eyed. A truly great story and from what I have read online after the movie, truthful. I’m no baseball expert, but the internet seems to confirm that the 2002 A’s hold the record for consecutive games won in the American league, 20 in total

Why would I cry?, big tough guy like me, you know the description by now part Shrek, Luca Brasi and an average sized grizzly bear.

I’ll let you in on a little secret…I care.

I have been in this industry, Power plants, for half of my life. I have pissed people off, I have angered many and yet I bet you money that you the worst of my detractors would say I cared (perhaps too much)

You see, in general the people in our industry give it their all, those who do not stick out like a sore thumb.

 Just because you work hard does not mean that you will be successful. I makes me crazy when people work hard in the wrong direction.

 So why did the movie effect me? Well naturally I identified with Brad Pitts character (The similarity was at times uncanny). When you’re the only one in the room that thinks the way you do, it’s never easy. The resistance and shear ill will that gets directed at you can be toxic at best, undermining at worst.

 What does this all have to do about outages? Well easy, the movie is about how to win for at least money as possible sounds like an outage to me!

 The basic concept is: if you want something to change then you need to change something

Not rocket science I know, yet nobody wants to change do they?

Let me ask you. Do your outages start when they are supposed to, finish when they are supposed to and come in under budget?

If they do then great, but if they don’t what are you going to do different next outage.

Everybody in a plant can change a tire on a car, How long do you think it takes, let’s see

Pull the car over off the road                      20 seconds

Put the car in park and shut it off              5 seconds

Pull the emergency brake                            5 seconds

Get out pop the trunk                                   10 seconds

Get the Jack and the spare out                  30 seconds

Place the jack and get engaged                 20 seconds

Remove the hub cap                                      10 seconds

Break the lug nuts                                           60 seconds

Jack the car up                                                  120 seconds

Unscrew the lug nuts                                     60 seconds

Pull the old tire                                                 5 seconds

Put on the new tire                                         5 seconds

Start all the lug nuts                                        30 seconds

Tighten all the lug nuts                                  60 seconds

Jack the car down                                            60 seconds

Put the hubcap back                                       10 seconds

Return the jack and flat to the trunk       60 seconds

Get back in the car start it up                      10 seconds

The above list of steps is a total of 580 seconds, some of the steps could be wrong but in general I think this describes a very quick tire change

Like I said everyone can change a tire

Here’s a You Tube video where they change all 4 tires in what looks like to me, 16 seconds


That’s a quite a difference but what’s a few minutes right?

Let’s take that thought out for a spin, shall we?

A plant has a down day cost of $50,000 per day that means each second would be worth $0.58. So if we applied that cost to our tire change that would mean that you changing the tire would cost you $327.12 more than it should cost you

Now I can change a tire to, but if it cost me $327.12 more than it should I certainly would start doing something different

I can hear you now, They have special tools!, They are set up for it!, They train to do that!, They have more people!.

Yes that’s the point, but if you would like to continue to change your own tires and spend that extra money that’s your choice. I cannot in good conscience watch you do it and say nothing. Buts that’s me

What would saving 10% cost and schedule mean for your plant?

What plant improvements could you do?, What would the bottom line look like? What kind of training would that fund? Lastly what does that do to your bonus?

Why Don’t You Make Them Listen To Your Tapes?

This from my 8 year old as we stood in front of the audio book racks in Barnes and Noble in early 1999

What were we doing there?

Well, you see I read a set of books when I was around ten. It still shapes how I think to this day and I wanted to get this series of books for my son and read them together.

He was not impressed or interested in these books, but I didn’t let that stop me. Onward I pressed, after all he was 8, what did he know?

We got his books.  We passed by all the fun stuff in the kids section and marched over to the audio book section…he got his now it was time for me to get mine

As I surveyed all of the offerings my son started asking me questions.

“Why did we get these books”, I explained for what felt like the hundredth time, “you see Joe, when I was a little older than you I read these books and they shaped how I think even to this day. So I want to read them with you so you can learn the lessons for yourself straight from the source”

“Why are we looking as these tapes” … Don’t you just love when the questions just KEEP COMING! My son was mad about me dragging him to a store to buy a BOOK!!! Of all things!  AND  he was going to made his displeasure known…”We’ll  like those books we just bought, they teach you things you haven’t learned yet.” I continued to peruse the selection.

“Why are you mad at the people working for you”….You see he was present to a few outstanding rants on the cell phone with members of my current team (Rants= yelling loudly, neck turning purple, veins in my heads growing to inordinate sizes)…”Well ,it must seem like I’m mad at them but really I’m just confused and frustrated. You see, daddy has been a boss for a long time. Longer than you’ve been alive. I have never had anyone working for me disobey me. I don’t know what to do with them; they’re good people they just don’t think like daddy.”

Then from the mouth of babes “Why don’t you make them listen to your tapes”. I’m so thickheaded that I didn’t get it. “Why would I do that Joe?” He told me “Your making me read these books so I can think like you, if they listen to your tapes then they will think like you do right?”

I’ll tell you sometimes I’m amazed at how dumb I can be and how smart my son is when he’s trying to teach me a lesson


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for life. Apparently this is a Chinese proverb, I had thought it was from the bible, again I’m wrong.

Management in a power plant can be like trying to grow grass in granite. It’s like that Chinese finger trap; the harder you pull the more the trap has you. So what do we do most of the time…pull harder, the trap will break eventually. I have had the privilege to manage thousands of people in our industry. A great deal of them moved up the ranks. Some of them become supervisors, department managers and plant managers. I did the meaner than everyone thing. You know the kind. The guy that thinks he knows more than you do, the do what I say thing kind of thing.  Nothing worked so quickly and so well as listening to those tapes as a team. Truly teaching a man to fish is the way to go.


 As the beginning of this blog talks about, I was frustrated. It was just after a bunch of successful outages (The ones described in Outages 101). I had come to the plant with my usual “sit down, shut up and do what I say” and the magic wand speech (a blog for another time) just before their major outages. I ran the outages with an iron hand as I always did, but I had hoped that once the plant saw the success of the outages they would not fight me as much…I was wrong. After the outages, it seemed they were more determined than ever to see my ideas fail. It was as if they were saying “well you may have been right this time but your wrong now”. Each new thing I introduced to the facility was met with more and more resistance from the supervision and management. As each new program succeeded the next program took more and more effort to get it through (The Chinese finger trap). Me being part Irish, part Italian and part Viking and all hardheaded, fought back. If it wasn’t for my son schooling me I’m sure I would be still fighting today.

After I got what my son was saying to me at Barnes and Noble, we went home and I bought a tape recorder to tape hundreds of blanks. I gave my wife the tapes I wanted copied and made her make 20 some odd tapes of each.

I showed up on a Monday with the first tape we would listen to as a team. I called a meeting and informed everyone that they had till Friday to listen to this tape and we would have a catered lunch in the conference room where we would have a discussion about the tape. People raised many objections, I told them not listing to the tape would be deemed direct disobedience and offenders would be suspended (I told you I was…Bullish from time to time)

Friday came and we had a great discussion and lots of ideas came from it. Next Monday there was another tape but I didn’t have to threaten anyone this time. All in all there were about 6 tapes over 6 weeks.

This plant had its worst performance in 1998 and by the end of 1999 the same crew registered record breaking performance in both production and safety at the same time.

I think my son’s idea speaks for itself.    

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

When You See A Snake, Kill It

Once upon a time, I was a planner during a particularly large outage. Some of the major jobs included an air preheater basket change out, nose tube replacement, burner corner replacement (a CE tangentially fired unit with 64 burners) including brining gas lines to each of the corners, and a re-insulation of the entire boiler after an abatement. During this especially hectic time, management decided to perform a wrench time analysis.

The results of the analysis came back with impressive results. Our job site had almost double the wrench time (68%) vs. the other job sites (in the 30% range). This large percentage differential raised questions and suspicion from the “Suits.”

Naturally, the first thing the Suites focused on was that these numbers were fake. We were soon accused of tricking the auditors. After much conversation and investigation it was determined that our 68% was in fact real. Imagine that.

After it was agreed on by all that my job site had a superior wrench time then the others, we started to delve into the reasons behind it.

As it turned out, the primary reason that we had a much better wrench time than everyone else was because we set the job up differently than everyone else.

Our traditional tool control during an outage was to have one central tool room where all the tools were checked in and out of every day. We changed that. Instead each Forman was given both a set of jobs and the time to lay out a written list of the tools that they needed to perform those jobs. Once the Forman generated their lists, they were given job boxes with the tools they listed. The tools were then signed out to the Forman and he or she was responsible for their own tools from there on end.

When upper management found out what we were doing they were incensed. They felt that there would be a free for all with the tools. They declared that any tool lost would be taken directly out of any bonuses or raises of the project manager (my direct boss) or me.

When it was all over (upwards of 170,000 man hours) my team was well under our tool budget, much to the surprise of upper management.

Not only did the team have a significantly higher wrench time than other jobs, we also had better tool control. More importantly, we came in under budget and under time for the entire outage. This feat had not happened in my division for many, many years.

Moral of the Story

A dear friend of mind once related to me a speech he heard by Bruno Bic (the pen guy) to his company. His opening line was “When you see a snake kill it, don’t write a memo, don’t send an email, don’t make a policy, just kill it”. The way we did tool control, prior to this, was horrible. It took too long and controlled too little. So in the fashion of Bruno Bic, we tried something different and that yielded huge results.

Rule of Thumb

If you have a management process that looks cumbersome and time consuming, guess what? It is. Find a better way and there are huge performance gains in store for you.