Today’s challenges
Reducing operating costs and increasing efficiencies - without negatively impacting power production or safety – are key challenges for power stations today. And where better to look for cost savings and improvements than in activities that take a significant chunk of overall costs, such as shutdowns, turnarounds, and outages (STOs), large capital projects, and routine maintenance and inspections.


STO events and capital projects are usually sizable in scope and budget; executed under strict time constraints, with severe financial impacts for project delay; and often require significant changes in scope during execution. This combination often results in the "perfect storm," making effective project controls one of the most important elements in successful execution.


Invest in technology?
Many owners have invested millions of dollars in a range of technological solutions, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Enterprise Asset Management (EAM), Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS), and Enterprise Project and Portfolio Management (EPPM). But despite the investment, there has been no appreciable improvement in work execution.


So why are STOs, capital projects and routine maintenance and inspections still inefficient, often negatively impacting cost, schedule and budget?
I believe that this question can only be answered by taking a closer look at the challenges. One of the first things visible to industry outsiders observing any STO or integrated capital project is the sheer mass of communication and coordination that is required. To meet this challenge, plants often hire more staff than necessary in order to improve communication and coordination. But this fails to solve the problem, merely driving higher costs and negatively impacting efficiency. What is critical for successful and improved execution is VISIBILITY. And visibility requires collaboration and fast, up-to-date communication.


It’s all about communication
There are two important types of communication in an STO and capital project event: vertical communication and horizontal communication. Vertical communication is the feedback from the line to the STO event management team. If this communication channel is not operating efficiently, the STO management team has reduced visibility to progress and problems, and is adversely impacted in its ability to make rapid and effective decisions concerning execution. Horizontal communication is the communication across work execution groups and teams, such as the various maintenance shops and operations. Inefficient work hand-offs and lack of communication affect work competency and execution, as well as generating coordination delays.


An STO event is akin to a relay race. If you are waiting to run your leg of the race but cannot see the prior runner (think predecessor) approaching, how smooth will your baton hand-off be? Poor or limited communication has an adverse causal effect on the execution of STOs and capital projects, resulting in blown schedules and budgets.


Can more be done with less?
All this begs the question: Is it realistically possible to perform the same amount of work with fewer human resources, without introducing new risks to the schedule? I believe the answer is unequivocally YES, provided that technologies enabling visibility, communication and collaboration of workers, field management teams, and leadership are embraced.


It’s all about digitalization
Visibility, communication and collaboration can be achieved through digitalization, which has the potential of bringing both vertical and horizontal communication and visibility to all stakeholders and enabling efficient collaboration.


Consider the connection of management teams and workers in real-time through digitalization. Fieldworkers can execute their tasks on demand using mobile devices and apps based on digitalized workflows, forms, and checklists (functioning as Electronic Work Packages). Meanwhile, field managers can monitor the status, work start risks, and ensure collaboration using tools such as real-time electronic wall charts enabled with key performance indicators with BI analytics.


Automating the collection of data on work progress alone will save organizations incredible amounts of work, and speed communications from the line. However, bringing all STO or capital project event resources together on the “same page”, streamline communications, and instantaneously identifying and communicating problems and opportunities to the appropriate personnel offers the most significant impact on overall event control.


Furthermore, from my experience, in addition to identifying things that could negatively impact schedules, such real-time, online connection enables the identification of opportunities to get ahead of schedule. For example, it can enable searches for jobs that are ready-to-work, because the predecessors have been satisfied, and no other constraints exist. It then communicates the early start opportunity to the connected workers and field managers who can take advantage of the early-start window.


Digitalization – it’s the key to optimizing workforce performance and execution in STOs and capital projects.