Plants & Facilities

Operations Excellence: The Foundation of a Performing Plant Design


Operations Excellence: The Foundation of a Performing Plant Design
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I was recently reminded of a typical mathematics class during my primary school days. The teacher would present a problem, and the students were expected to provide the solution. As a kid, I would quickly look for the answer by backtracking the steps, working to be one of the first in the class to crack it. Years later, throughout my professional career, I utilized a similar process that has proven to be quite effective. That is to say that working backward from the answer to the problem—both then and now—has been a winning process. 

My long track record in the end-to-end lubricants supply chain—ranging from procurement, to manufacturing, to logistics, to plant design, to commissioning, to start up—over the past four decades has provided me with one fundamental truth to bank on: Operations excellence is the cornerstone of success to any good plant design.   

I have been fortunate to have been involved in a few oil majors’ grassroot plants in India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. While working on these projects, we designed and constructed them with the end goal always in mind. Of course, the final vision is what largely drives a project, but sometimes the end point looks a bit different in light of project execution and fast-tracking. In other words, what you get ultimately is not always what was perceived initially. 

This predicament reminds me of a cartoon I once saw that outlines the 12 phases of project development. It depicts the differences between how each department interprets a requirement in the development of a tree swing. It also addresses issues that arise when projects do not go according to plan.

Though the cartoon is nicely depicted, the intent of every leadership team is to prevent potential pitfalls. I have listed below some of the most salient points to avoid such issues. 

Key Success Factors

Employ an accountable operations professional from start to end. An important facet of project delivery, it is an absolute requirement to employ an experienced operations leader from the inception of the project. Additionally, this should be someone who works on the project full time. Most times, this is not the case and what is initially lost by omitting this role is never truly recovered. 

With an extensive operations background, I had the pleasure to join in many projects at Day 0—from the feasibility stages of the project through to the commissioning and running of the plant. “I need to bear the pain and pleasure of what I create initially” is a clear driver of getting things as right as possible. This is rarely 100% achieved but could be very close if there is continuity of operations personnel.

Ensure every bit of operator action is included in the design input. No detail is too small. That is to say that every minute detail is critical for a successful plant. Current pain points and best practices form the fundamentals of a good design.

Simulate the operation at every possible step of concept. Keep imagining and keep living the future. Most projects do not care to simulate the future plant at the feasibility or concept stage. In my experience, it is crucial to simulate as early as possible, and 3D modelling is one proven method to let all concerned, including the operator, have a say in how to improve the concept.

From a designer’s perspective, typical 3D modelling provided a futuristic, three-dimensional view of the facility and was a great resource for me to review with the cross-functional teams, especially shop floor staff. This allowed for continuous improvement of the design. 

In earlier days, one had to labor through the typical engineering two-dimensional drawings (classical plans and elevations) and review the design. This made it extremely difficult to understand, imagine and improve the design from an operator’s viewpoint. As a result, many design improvements—or even errors—were noticed too late after the plant was ready for operation. Unsurprisingly, this led to plenty of rework as well as cost and time overrun. 

I used to dream of the functioning plant at the concept and early stages of the plant design. In fact, some solid improvements did come from such subconscious reflections, and alas, the next day when we ran the idea, it often proved to be feasible and exciting. 

Run the design through different sessions, as inputs matter. More than that, the inner voice matters. I have found that sounding board concept generally works best, especially in the beginning stages of concept and design. The more you run the 3-D model through different teams, the more the refined output is. Even if there were not many explicit points of interest, self-reflection during such sessions often marks vast changes to the design.

Instincts do matter, not just mathematical calculations. While instincts matter in most businesses, lubricants manufacturing—barring some key steps of the process—is all about logistics, supply chain and efficiency. While mathematical calculations, engineering included, can be the basis, many times gut feeling judgments are helpful, too—a fact which has been amply evident when I look back on the past. I am also aware of the missed opportunities where numbers could not take me where I wanted to go. 

Experience-based or gut feeling judgments helped me in my earlier creations when deciding on options. One example involves the typical flow rates of pumps feeding packaging lines. While calculations would lead to a certain design, past experience rounded it off to a more practical specification. Even the number of storage tanks for finished products in a packaging plant was a result of such instinctive judgment guided by certain basic calculations. 

I must stress that decisions should not be made based solely on gut feeling or calculations. Rather, a combination of the two usually leads to the best decisions. 

However, it is important to note that numbers and calculations are more relied upon by decision makers, and judicious use of numbers is key to success. 

Cost matters but not at the cost of operability. Investment decision is always driven by ratios, and there is constant pressure from the top to keep it down. Be careful not to be done in by this pressure. Yes, it is true that unfavorable ratios do not allow the project to get off the drawing board, but optimum use of resources is vital.  

Operability—which includes maintenance in all cases—is key and can never be compromised or postponed to somehow get the project done. Repairs and reinforcements in the future will cost multiple times what it would have cost to do it right the first time. “Do it right, or do not do it” is the mantra to success. 

Look for breakthroughs in design, not just incremental steps. I was amazed at a recent speech from one country’s prime minister that talked about how companies typically fix targets based on an incremental expansion of the preceding year’s performance. He was categoric that such targets limit the capability and do not allow the full realization of one’s potential. This was extraordinary coming from a politician who was thinking like a businessman. 

It is true that I believe that the past influences the future. But in terms of design, there needs to a blue ocean strategic approach. For instance, some hardware that I had designed had capacity to deliver double to triple the capacity of what was currently in vogue—from 80 cubic meters per hour of pumping capacity to almost 300 cubic meters per hour. This increase enabled the facility to produce more product in less time and preserved spare capacity for businesspeople to explore new money-making opportunities. 

At any rate, it often comes back to the same principle: the judicious use of numbers to a performing asset. In most situations, I observed that by the time the asset comes into operation, it is already short of capacity and expansion projects have already kicked off. Beware of this! Once completed, a successful project must not require solid capex attention, at least for a few years barring some extraordinary business growth, which is a good problem to have. 

Share best practices and learnings beyond boundaries. I believe that sharing is caring. For an industry that I have worked in for decades, I feel responsible to share as much as possible, so that we can collectively progress. Over the past couple of years, I have been able to provide some deep-dive inputs into leading lubricants greenfield projects (right at the inception stage) and have seen those through to the next stage of improvement. Learning from past mistakes—and especially the mistakes of others—helps to avoid recreating the wheel, so to speak. 

The journey goes on and my passion for creating and seeing newer lubricant plants blossom and perform is evergreen.  

Ganesan Ganapathi has 40 years of experience as a supply chain and manufacturing professional with leading oil companies such as BP, Shell, Total and Bharat Petroleum. While leading operations, supply chain and plant management with these companies, Ganesan has noteworthy contributions in the space of Strategic and Master Planning of Supply Chain and Manufacturing. He can be contacted via LinkedIn (