Bottling Better Communication


Since implementing a daily debriefing process in November, the Chevron Lubricants plant in Port Arthur, Texas, has seen efficiency improvements of over 10 percent in its packaging operations.

The jug line, for example, achieved a daily operational equipment efficiency of 73 percent on Feb. 6 and 70 percent on Feb. 8. Since OEE data collection at the plant began in 2015, the next highest performing day was 59 percent on Jan. 19, 2015, followed by June 7, 2016, with 57 percent.

Plant Operations Manager David Hammons broughtin consultants from Check-6 Inc., the majority of whom are former United StatesNavy fighter pilots, to reduce injuries and spills on the packaging line and improve teamwork and information flow. The consultants recommended daily debriefs, which are used by combat pilots to rapidly collect and pass on critical information. These debriefs are now practiced in all four of the plants departments.

The theory of Human Performance has been used in the nuclear industry for some time. A good resource can be found in the Department of Energys Human Performance Improvement Handbook (DOE-HDBK-1028-2009). The theory posits that people want to do a good job, but will also make mistakes. To improve performance, an organization needs to place safeguards that are substantial enough to tolerate the natural deviations of worker behavior and the work environment.

Debriefs, or as the DOE Handbook calls them, post-job reviews, are a Human Performance improvement tool that have been effective for operations at Port Arthur. The objective of the daily debrief is to bring the team together at the end of a job to discuss how well it was executed.

The initial goal in implementing the daily debrief was to communicate more effectively. For the packaging department, there were challenges communicating with the maintenance and production departments. The team even struggled to communicate within their own department. The way information flowed within packaging resembled a bad rendition of the telephone game.

To achieve the desired communication flow, three main challenges had to be to overcome:

1. Negative sentiment: It wont work here.

2. Defensive posturing: Dont blame that on me!

3. Organizational silos: Thats not my job. Or, if it is that persons job, Nobody told me about it.

Had these challenges not been proactively addressed, implementing the daily debrief would not have been successful. Left unchecked, they would have resulted in meetings during which operators voiced a laundry list of problems and placed blame throughout the plant. This would cause participants to grow defensive and shut down open communication, and the opportunity to learn and grow would be gone.

It is not uncommon for the packaging departments daily debrief to have 20 to 30 participants, but it would have been difficult to start this way. To better control the three challenges, the first debrief started with a small fraction of the team: four operators, an assistant and a lead.

To allow time for a daily debrief, the packaging lines were shut down 15 minutes early. The first debrief took the form of a meeting to discuss its purpose and ground rules. The debrief gives workers the opportunity to talk about how their day went. The supervisor speaks very little, does not give any work direction, and commits to the team that there will not be a single negative remark. The role of the packaging supervisor is to facilitate the discussion. Minimizing this role creates a powerful forum for the workers and empowers the team. Most of the talking is done by the operators-the experts working with the equipment every day.

Prior to the debrief, the organization primarily operated from the top down. The challenge with top-down organizations is that leaders have difficulty understanding the complications at the worker level that can result from their decisions, which dont always fit the actual application. This can cause confusion, frustration and even unnecessary complexity for operators who are trying to get the job done. Giving a voice to the operators allows problems to be worked out from the bottom up. Operators understand the intricacies of their job, and giving them a voice ensures the safeguards built are a better match for the task. To this end, the debrief was structured by asking simple, open-ended questions to encourage discussion.

It didnt take long before there was a significant improvement in overall morale and engagement. Results included shorter turnover times, faster startups and some of the best daily OEE numbers since data had been collected.

But it didnt happen overnight. I used to view these after-shift debriefs as a total waste of time, said one packaging line operator, but Ive changed my mind. Another operator shared his startup technique, and it fixed all my morning problems.

The intent is to keep the daily debrief under 15 minutes. The facilitator must keep the meeting moving and stay alert for individual discussions going on too long. If there is an issue that cant be resolved quickly, the facilitator must park the discussion for another time. It is also critical to follow up on any actions promised to show the operators that their concerns are relevant and important. This also builds strong rapport with the team.

In the debrief, all participants are equal despite seniority levels. The meeting consists of asking operators three simple questions. Each operator is called by name to give everyone the opportunity to speak. Asking these questions with all the right people involved was the framework for the debrief success.

Question 1: What went well?

Asking this helps avoid the first challenge-negative sentiment. The expectation is that the operator shares several very specific things that went according to plan. Perhaps startup went well, or maintenance personnel did a great job helping with equipment changeover. When the debrief was first implemented, each operator was required to share a minimum of three specific things that went well for them.

It was important to start each discussion with positive comments because, most often, focus is on the negatives, which feeds poor morale and low ambitions. Even on a bad production day, there are a lot of things that go right. Forcing the operators to discuss these things builds positive momentum. The more time spent focusing on the positive, the more positive things the operators found to discuss. Taking the time to recognize a person for a job well done amongst a group of colleagues, even on a bad day, encourages that person and helps encourage the entire team to find ways to work better together.

Question 2: What didnt go well?

This is the operators opportunity to bring up any problems they had. When first implementing the daily debrief, each operator was only allowed to mention one problem from that day. If there was no cap, the meeting would quickly lose focus on growing and learning and shift to defensive behavior and blaming. A one-problem cap also forces the operator to put some thought into the one thing they want to discuss.

Each operator has the opportunity to explain any problem he or she experienced that day, but is not allowed to place blame on any individual. The facilitator must sometimes step in to remind participants that the debrief is not a time to blame, but to learn. This helps avoid the second challenge-defensive posturing. This portion of the meeting has led to the best discussions and the most growth.

A major factor in the success of the debrief is having all of the right people present at the same time to discuss remedies. The packaging departments debrief now involves a team of more than 20 people from four different packaging lines and representatives from several cross-functional teams of mechanics, electricians, production operators and others. This results in much more direct information flow. The diversity of talent allows prioritization and rapid solution-development, which also helps with the third challenge-organizational silos.

In the debrief, operators have brought to light multiple mechanical problems. Once an operator describes the problem, the mechanic can immediately understand it and discuss the solution and the timeframe needed for implementation. The maintenance supervisor and packaging supervisor can quickly agree on when maintenance staff can make the repairs. This discussion can all take place in less than two minutes and everyone involved is informed. Prior to the debrief, this type of quick coordination was impossible. Having decision-makers in the meeting has made an enormous positive impact on operations.

In addition, the What didnt go well? discussion serves as an excellent training forum. The daily debrief helps transfer knowledge between people with different experience levels. When an operator brings up a problem or question in the debrief, it allows all other operators to listen and offer suggestions, and the entire room gets to hear it. Before the debrief, if operators had a problem, they would ask one other person, figure it out and move on. In the debrief, all the best practices developed by individuals can be standardized through collaboration, and the grandfathered knowledge of the more experienced operators can be shared.

Question 3: Is there anything you would do differently?

This final question gives the operator one last opportunity to reflect on the day and consider anything that could have been done to make it better. Sometimes this drives a good discussion for improvement; however, a response from an operator is not required.

The debrief that is done today has slowly evolved to best meet the departments needs. More people participate, and the time has increased from 15 minutes to 25 or 30 minutes. A white board has been incorporated to better track production amounts and capture actions and lessons learned from the meeting. Team members quickly developed a sense of pride in what they accomplished, which resulted in strong buy-in from everyone.

The packaging department at the Chevron Lubricants Port Arthur plant is still in the initial phase of the Human Performance journey, but the daily debrief has been a big step toward a team that focuses on learning and growing. As the maintenance supervisor remarked, This is the best 30 minutes of my day. It helps focus my maintenance effort for the best immediate impact.

John Deck is the packaging supervisor at the Chevron Lubricants Port Arthur plant. He can be reached at

Related Topics

Best Practices    Business    Management