Your Not Dorothy and This Ain’t OZ

So why are you clicking your shoes together, saying “There no place like home, There no place like home”?

Although you are not in Kansas anymore once the outage starts that doesn’t mean you’re somewhere over the rainbow either.

Dorothy, kills two witches ,tames an unreasonable wizard, deals with flying monkeys and gets her friends a brain, heart and courage and after all that she misses the balloon ride home. Sounds like an outage to me.

Like Dorothy we all have the ability to get what we want, in this case better Outages, we just have to believe it before we click our heals together.

Outages are to power plants like OZ is to Kansas (and you thought the SAT’s were over). They are similar, but one has witches and flying monkeys trying to kill you, the other is trying to take away your dog. Like I said, similar but definitely different.

THE POINT: Outages cost money and they operate differently than day to day operations. In the above example Dorothy needs the help of Glenda The Good Witch. Glenda laughs at the Wicked Witch of the West and floats into Dorothy’s life just when she needs her.

I’m your Glenda The Good Witch (to get the full humor of this please see the most recent description of myself in Outages 101). I have been up and down the yellow brick road a whole bunch of times and have dealt with more than my share of witches, flying monkeys and disagreeable wizards. I have also handed out many Diplomas’, Testimonials and Medals to more than my fair share of Scarecrows, Tin men and Cowardly Lions.

Although I’d like to think of myself as the “The Great and Powerful Oz”, I’m really just a man behind a curtain who knows what levers to pull and wheels to turn and when to do either or both.

Outages can come in on time and budget, but just like Dorothy, to make that happen you first have to believe.

THE STORY: Once in a land far, far away, perhaps somewhere over the rainbow, a Tim Burton rainbow, I was an Engineering Manager. My Company was with was just completing an acquisition of a plant from Westinghouse and I was the Engineering Due Diligence Manager.

Westinghouse’s Plant Manager, let’s call him the Wicked Witch of the East, and I got into it more than a few times. One of the last tiffs we got into was when he wouldn’t let me in his office, so I told him when we took over his office was going to be mine…..and it was. Not really dropping a house on him, but close enough.

Buying a plant (I’ve been through several) is difficult even when everything goes just right and it never goes just right.  He was just doing his job protecting his company and I was doing mine protecting my company.

After we took over Operations I, like Dorothy, wanted nothing more than to go home. We had a victory dinner with everyone involved and at that dinner the President of the company, let’s call him, The Great and Powerful Oz, told me that my new assignment was to increase the plants availability from the 8 year average of 80% to 92%, I had a budget of 15 million and 18 months to do it in, talk about getting a broom from a witch, yeesh!

So off I went through the Haunted Forest, the plant, on my way to the witch’s castle, the outage.

As a power plant engineer I had a basic logic tree, in my head, when fixing something in a plant that is broken. It worked once; we either, wore something out, changed its use or fixed it wrong. This simple thought process worked for me.  I had fixed a great deal of broken things in many a plant with this little gem.  However I was not in Kansas anymore. To put a point on it, almost every component I looked at was not designed to work in this application. The boiler flue gas velocity was too high because the tubes spacing was too tight, the conveyors were never going to work at the angles they were built to, each ash conveyor shook the control room every time they cycled. Like I said I was not in Kansas anymore.

From April till about August we modeled a whole bunch of changes on every piece of equipment that we could safely test our ideas on.  By the end of August we had a list of modification we would accomplish during the outage in October.

The outage in October (the witch’s castle) would take each of the plants six boilers down with staggered starts so we would never have more than two boilers down at one time.  The entire outage window would be 4 weeks and we would burn up more than 117,000 man-hours in a month.  To say this would be difficult would be an understatement of gigantic proportions.

“The Tin Man”, “The Scarecrow” and I planned an entire outage: contractors, design equipment, order products pieces and parts. We planned an 117,000 man-hour outage in just 4 weeks. My boss at the time “Mr. Red Pencil” from your outages iPod, would definitely be The Cowardly Lion although shaky at the start he would eventually become “KING OF THE FOREST”.

Two week before the outage, the plant was picketed for and virtually shut down for two days, more flying monkeys.

Until the night before the outage I didn’t know if the Union contractors we had selected were going to show more flying monkeys.

The night before the first boiler was coming down the unions let us know that they would be showing up to the outage….phew that’s good now the scaffolds can get built and even some of the boiler work can go on, as well…peachy.

Saturday the first boiler came down, it was a little rocky but it was down and we were started, nothing to do now but make the girls feel pretty or shoot-em.

We planned for the bulk of the manpower to start on Monday morning so that we would minimize overtime.  Monday morning we had better than 150 contractors starting, a big day and this would really be the start of the outage, setting the tone for the rest of the work….I didn’t see the sign “WATCH OUT FOR FLYING MONKEYS….THEY ARE BAD!!!”

Monday morning from about 6 to 10, I welcomed all the different contractors to the site, walked each through their jobs, just to confirm we were all on the same page.  Just before lunch, I went by the first contractor to start to make sure they were set up and going.  Their stuff was there and their guys were just standing there.  OH NO! HELL NO!  This is not going to be the way we start.  My eyes bugged out my safeties started to lift when they said they are still waiting on a permit.

“OH YEAH!!! WELL I’LL FIX THAT RIGHT NOW!!!!” off I went with their Forman to the permit room.  I was thinking all the way to the permit room this is the last time I’m using these guys, I was so pissed that these guys were starting these shenanigans on the first day.  Steam was coming out of my ears and I’m sure I was denting the grating as I walked.

When the permit room came into view, I saw about 10 contractor Forman standing in front of the doors of the permit room. I was confused was everybody slacking off was it some organized thing…no, we had union and non union guys working the same job…maybe they are pissed at each other..hmm maybe. When I got up to them I asked the first one “What’s going on” he replied with the same thing the other Forman had told me. “They’re not giving us any permits”. “Did you ask?” “Why are you out here?” The questions just flew out of my mouth as I walked through them into the permit room.

When I got into the permit room I was greeted by the supervisor in charge of writing permits, he was to be the head flying monkey.  I said “the contractors say that we are not issuing permits” he said “they are right”.  I then asked “why?” He then said “the contractors are not going to be issued permits until their areas were deemed safe”.  I said “how are their areas not safe?” The head flying monkey then started to spout, chapter and verse about safety this, safety that, about mid diatribe I left and went right to the plant manager. I burst in his office and started screaming, in retrospect not the right move, I must have looked like a flying monkey myself. When I had let out all my steam, his response, when he could get a word in was “Safety First”. I had nowhere to turn can’t shoot-em, time to make the girl feel pretty.

I went up and addressed the head flying monkey, “what’s it going to take to get these permits issued?” He said “you simply have to comply with our standards and policies”.  I said “what are we not complying with right now that precludes us from getting a permit?”  He turned around and pointed to the SOPs that were behind him and said “maybe you should read these and then you would know”. I implored, cajoled, persuaded him to the best of my abilities.

That Monday we managed to get one contractor a permit.  The following day, after the right atmosphere was set and the proper coffee and doughnuts were applied, it took us four hours to get all the contractors permits. Eventually, like all flying monkeys, he went away.

This outage in particular has many MANY stories to tell.  The story that’s germane to this conversation is when all was said and done we spent a little north of 13 million dollars on all of our modifications and outages.  And after 18 months the plant had an availability of 91.67%, not 92% I grant you, the President never let me forget it was not 92% either. Finally like Dorothy I was able to go home.

2 thoughts on “Your Not Dorothy and This Ain’t OZ

  1. Orville Harmison

    I know where you are coming from …. I worked commercial construction all over the country for 35 years and had my unfair share of flying monkeys and witches… Some bureaucrats were easy to deal with and others almost impossible. In El Paso, Texas it was almost a closed community to any outsiders even if you were hiring contractors & spending big money into the economy. New Orleans they didn’t even hide that you had to bribe them first before you could even think about getting a permit … the work is easy, its the people who make it difficult and also the people who do wonderful impossible things to get the job done.

  2. Joseph Grynbaum, P.E.

    Great story and wonderful delivery. It encapsulates a whole host of interpersonal issues that often get in the way of communicating. I am a power industry consultant and part-time mediator. My goal in mediating engineering and construction disputes is to try and move the parties from accusations and personal attacks to problem solving. It takes a while and it requires much venting but often leads to a party driven settlement that works. I bet a lot of what you bring to the job is similar. I agree with Orville’s comment above. Keep writing!


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