Volume: 3 | Issue: 2

Is Overworking Ourselves Resulting in Ineffectiveness?

This month, I have a dilemma: whether to opine on the technical complexities of emerging oil and gas facilities, or to share some thoughts on issues we face—the increasing demands on our time and the increasing complexity of many of our jobs. To make the choice in topics, I spoke to a few friends and colleagues in projects, facilities, and construction (PFC), and they unanimously suggested that I should stick to the technical stuff.

I started to frame an assessment of how our facilities are becoming more complex in some sectors, and reached out again to see if I could “borrow” some examples. Interestingly, most people were too busy to help, so I thought I would focus on the one area I am involved in—subsea developments.

My early draft was interesting enough and could have been interesting to those of you in subsea, but I felt it was too narrow. So once again, I tried to get some examples from others, and I got the same response: “Sorry, too busy to help.” When I enquired why, it became obvious I should write about the complexity of our work, the demands of competing priorities, and how sometimes we have too little time to do our jobs. So here goes.

The year is now in full swing, and my current assessment is that our sector of the oil and gas industry is as busy as ever. No one appears to have time to play golf, go fishing, or participate in other pastimes that relieve the pressure of working to produce oil and gas. Nothing new there it appears, but when reflecting back on 2012 and 2013, I am observing a trend that many folks are working even longer hours than ever before. Why is this?

Over the past few months, I have spoken to a few “industry leaders” and, on the whole, they also think that our dedication to work may have gone too far: We could be overworking ourselves into ineffectiveness.

The consensus rationale is that several areas of PFC are below the critical mass of facilities engineers required to do the work currently on the books. There is also a consensus that many of our facilities are getting more complex and require more “engineering hours” to design, construct, and commission. There is acknowledgement that this is not a self-imposed drive to complexity. Our facilities are responding to higher standards, more difficult operating environments, and more difficult-to-process hydrocarbons.

What are we to do when the conundrum of too much work and too few resources stares us in the face? There is no simple solution, but there is evidence to support that in the long term, quality work is best achieved by taking the time to do it right, prioritizing effectively, and by recognizing and eliminating what I call “nonsense work.”

The latter is my personal angst, and I suspect all of you reading this sometimes despair at the nonvalue-adding aspects of your job. We all have them and many may never go away, but once in a while, we can claim a small success and eliminate the nonsense/low value/you-want-me-to-do-what aspects of our jobs that erroneously appear more important than the engineering hour. (I define the term “engineering hour” as when an engineer’s brain is being used to create value that is not limited to engineering.)

Turning a nonsense hour into an engineering hour is a good way to increase productivity and more effectively utilize the talent in our industry. Perhaps the actual number of engineering hours worked should be the true measure of efficiency and effectiveness for what we do and how we use our engineering resources. This is a better measure than the bland “work hour,” I would argue. 

The growing awareness of the benefits of optimizing our intellectual horsepower, combined with the tools available to us, gives us good places to look to create added value. For example, Lean Sigma is a workflow optimization tool that, if used correctly, can help to eliminate nonsense work. I see this being used more throughout our industry. Equipment manufacturing was an early adopter of this approach, and we now use it in major project workflows, technology qualification, and in the development and promulgation of engineering standards. This is by no means new, but I think we are becoming more proficient and creative in applying such tools and actively looking for improvement opportunities. 

Having said this, I would wager that overall 10%+ of productivity gains are still a prize to be won. We need to aim for improvement, especially if we are to allow ourselves the luxury of hitting a 5-iron or casting a fly occasionally.

Let’s assume success: We eradicate the nonsense hour. What would you do with a little extra time? I would like to think I would spend the time wisely—perhaps investing in a self-development opportunity, attending an important conference, forum, or society meeting, or perhaps just taking the time to investigate a new technology. My self-imposed rule would be that it has to be valuable to me and my job, and it also has to be fun. There is no point in liberating valuable time and then wasting the opportunity it gives to reward ourselves with something enjoyable.

I have concluded my concise treatise on the complexity and time issues. In the next Oil and Gas Facilities, I will return to the technical stuff.

In keeping with the idea of how to spend time wisely, for the third year in a row, the SPE PFC Committee will organize the dinner event at the 2014 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition (ATCE), to be held in Amsterdam on 27 October. The theme will be managing aging assets, a subject of strong interest in offshore Europe and in many older land-based facilities across the world.

The format of the event is simple with four or five invited expert panelists giving short presentations and leading a discussion with audience participation. In the past 2 years, the dinner event has proven popular, as it gives people a chance to relax and catch up with friends and to network and engage in a topic of wide interest. The conversation is typically enlightening, sometimes controversial, but always stimulating and enjoyable.

In addition to the PFC dinner, the Flow Assurance and Separations Technology Technical sections will have special sessions at the ATCE. The flow assurance session will explore multiphase flow in general and answer the question, “Why should we worry about multiphase flow?” The separations technology session will focus on optimizing separation for changing production profiles, including debottlenecking brownfield assets to increase capacity. Both sessions are primed for success, so if you are in Amsterdam for the ATCE, come and join us. It will be a good use of your time.

Of course, the annual meeting is not your only opportunity to invest in self-development. There are a number of SPE conferences and meetings planned with relevant PFC topics, including the Offshore Technology Conference, the International Oilfield Corrosion Conference and Exhibition, the International Oilfield Scale Conference and Exhibition, and the Latin America and Caribbean Petroleum Engineering Conference. If you are attending one of these events while reading this magazine, I hope you have a successful and enjoyable time.


Paul S. Jones is the subsea unit manager at Chevron and a past SPE technical director of Projects, Facilities, and Construction. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Oil and Gas Facilities.


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