Maintenance shutdowns, in many respects, prove the rigour of a business’ management systems. While offline maintenance activities are generally planned, scheduled and executed as per business-as-usual techniques, and task-level work scope and individual activities rarely change, the critical difference between daily operations and shutdowns is intensity. A huge volume of tasks is executed simultaneously, dramatically increasing risk in areas such as safety, quality and cost. And, with maintenance workgroups able to swell from 20 people to more than 600, delivering in excess of 7,000 manhours over 24-hour periods, for days to several weeks, the value of optimising work programs to balance maintenance needs with plant uptime is clear. Weak systems can hide in plain sight when work levels are moderate. When they are as intense as shutdowns, there is simply no hiding. In some respects, they are the ultimate test of system strength.

Our team has been involved in major shutdown programs over the past 20 years. We know there is no silver bullet that fixes all challenges. True excellence requires competence in all aspects of initiation, development and delivery. For example, excellent scheduling won’t compensate for poor execution. With that in mind, when clients want to improve their shutdown performance, we start by helping them strengthen, or even develop, a robust, end-to-end process framework and then bring that to life through disciplined application.

Key features of a quality shutdown management system

A strong shutdown management system spans areas such as:

  • Consistent, detailed process and standardised work
  • Advanced work scoping and quick changeover processes
  • Defined objectives and clear expectations
  • Visibility of shutdown cycle progress
  • Trained supervisors and engaged workgroups
  • Improved information flow within teams
  • Improved reporting and data provision

Sounds straightforward enough! However, it’s all too common for chinks to show in the armour fairly quickly.

Common shutdown issues

Here are the more regular issues we see:

  • The shutdown strategy and event plans aren’t current, sufficiently detailed or followed. This results in a lack of alignment that, in turn, results in shutdown management teams not getting enough time to plan and prepare for execution.
  • Work scope definition and management is often poor, with additional work being added to scope in the weeks preceding execution without rigorous evaluation planning.
  • There’s no effective mechanism to give senior management visibility of progress. Shutdowns may last for mere days, but planning and preparation are months in the making. The ability to clearly track progress through process milestones is critical.
  • Even when these high-level structures are in place, too often, specific maintenance task information is incomplete or inaccurate, such as inflated labour hour estimates or missing key parts. The link between macro and micro is obvious – and it’s where process breakdowns easily occur.
  • There is often a failure to recognise the importance, and work demands, of the first and final phases of shutdowns. These ‘book-end’ the rest of the shutdown activity. When they are poorly managed, it negatively impacts the whole.

Key strategies to improve shutdown performance

We encourage leaders to consider seven key strategies in their shutdown management to address these and other issues:

  • Challenge your management system – major sites often have varied shutdown procedures. Standardising your approach is the first win for shutdown excellence – ie stable, predictable processes to drive improvement.
  • Manage your critical path – we always find that evaluating critical path tasks for improvement opportunities delivers value. This includes ensuring near critical path tasks are identified and communicated with workgroups so they understand how close they are to moving on to the critical path if delays occur.
  • Engage senior management – it’s essential senior management are across the development process and have visibility of progress.
  • Hero discipline – a great management framework will always fail if there is a lack of discipline around process compliance. Particularly due to the intensity noted earlier, shutdowns demand discipline to ensure initiation, planning and scheduling are delivered to the required standards at the required times.
  • Embed business improvement techniques – from advanced work scoping to quick changeover techniques, there is plenty of gain to be found in applying known, proven improvement techniques.
  • Track process, not just readiness – shutdowns generally measure readiness, but we highly recommend visually tracking all process milestones – the end-to-end process. This includes the effective close-out and capture of learnings for ongoing improvement.
  • Use your data – shutdown development generates huge volumes of data. Don’t miss the opportunity to use that data to ensure performance hurdles are managed and, more broadly, to predict the likelihood of success.

When plant uptime is at a premium, improved shutdown management is of high value. Specialist support definitely fast-tracks progress, and an independent perspective is powerful, but the strategies noted here can be tackled by project teams as a simple roadmap for improvement. Then, it comes down to how you support ongoing improvement in shutdown performance.