All posts by Marco Biffi

2015 Q1

Editorial – Managing by Fear

This editorial is written by candlelight – and thank goodness for resilient laptop batteries! Yes, it’s power shedding time again in South Africa. A situation to which we are getting used and with which we will be forced to live for months, if not years , to come. The damage to the country’s economy is significant and the response from authorities is totally inadequate.

The irony of it is that no money in the world will buy the time, skills and experience required to bring things back onto an even keel. As taxes increase in an effort to find some respite from this absurd state of affairs (phraseology here is intended) the realisation is that adequate planning for expansion and timely execution of effective preventative management, amongst others, would have avoided this disastrous situation.Manage by Fear

Along a similar vein, an engineer approached me recently concerned about the possibility of a catastrophic failure of an ammonia refrigeration plant.

The opening question was “What can we do to prevent this from happening?” The thought of a couple of tons of ammonia being liberated in a few minutes is daunting and points to extensive damage and dispersion of a toxic plume. The million dollar question is: when does the hazard become a real risk? The simple answer is “when the hazard is not under control”.

The designers of the Titanic felt that they would be able to manage the hazard posed by icebergs by providing water-tight bulk heads that could be isolated in case of an iceberg strike thus limiting the ingress of water. Note: the ship had a single skin hull and therefore rupture in the event of an iceberg strike was to be expected. The problem was that the designers had not anticipated an incident where the iceberg would open-up the hull like a sardine can, flooding more than the maximum of compartments required to ensure the ship would not sink.

The fact that there were not enough life-boats, adds to the tragedy – by the way looking at the outcome of recent ship wrecks it may be argued that some lessons have not been learned yet. Irrespective of these considerations, the Titanic would not have sunk if the collision with the iceberg had been avoided – and it would have been possible, even without radar, if the ship had been travelling at a more moderate speed.

The point of this discussion is that too often we allow situations to deteriorate to a point beyond which catastrophic outcomes occur or where only costly emergency repairs will resolve the problem. In the case of the Titanic there was a sense of invincibility: the dawn of the twentieth century with its numerous technical innovations lead the owners and operators of the ship to feel comfortable that even if an iceberg was struck, the ship would not sink.

In the case of Eskom, the fact that the available power generation capacity had dwindled to well below acceptable reserve levels through inadequate planning and maintenance of ageing power stations, did not seem to be important to the powers that be until now.

Insofar as the ammonia refrigeration plant is concerned, here is a thought: we will never be certain that a catastrophic failure will never occur. However, modern refrigeration plants, designed to SANS 10147 specifications include numerous safety devices, working together to prevent catastrophic failure.

If safety measures are not observed, instrumentation is not calibrated and tested as required, if safety systems are by-passed and if the plant condition is allowed to deteriorate, incidents, with significant consequences will definitely occur. Annual plant shut-downs are costly but necessary. Routine inspections by experienced personnel will highlight incipient problems that may be rectified in a timely fashion – the design code contains adequate factors of safety. The fact that will interest management is that a well maintained and properly operated plant will be optimally efficient.

As with so many other things in this modern world, too often, we are willing to skip plant maintenance, delay repairs (“the plant has two pumps after all”) and ignore small glitches (“bypass that interlock!”) for the sake of saving a few “bucks” here and there – and ignoring the fact that we are exposing the company to much greater risk and potential for catastrophic failure.

Only when we can achieve this new level of performance, consistently, we may say that we need not manage by fear but are dong it intelligently

Often, poorly operating equipment is kept going beyond certain acceptability levels thanks to good design codes and manufacture but at the peril of serious failure possibly leading to injury and production losses. If I were to say that the solution to the ammonia plant issue required X millions, my engineer colleague would have gone away and done some sums as to the commercial feasibility of my solution against some risk that would not be easily quantifiable.

That would not make sense since there is a good chance that the X million solution would also be allowed to become ineffective within two years from now, given the very same, demonstrated culture of poor maintenance. What is required is, again a change in behaviour: recognising that the solution is at hand so long as we do what is necessary to operate and maintain equipment in accordance with the design specifications. Only when we can achieve this new level of performance, consistently, we may say that we need not manage by fear but are dong it intelligently.

Paraphrasing some wisdom of old “it seems that there we never have the time (money, resources) to do (and keep doing) something properly but lots to do it again – or to have it fixed and suffer the damages!”

Marco Biffi, Honorary Editor