“It is not enough to do your best. You must know what to do, and then do your best.” – W. Edwards Deming
If recent history is any indication, energy companies expecting to survive in the years ahead are going to have to adopt a new business philosophy. As is the case with any commodity producer, market price is a factor for financial success. The problem, though, is that many companies have come to rely on it as the only factor and, as a result, surrendered the ability to control their own fate. While crude prices are contributors to financial success, they do not have to be the only factor in determining whether a producer is profitable or not. What is needed is a new business model – one that enables companies to produce oil responsibly and profitably whether prices are $70 or $30. If an energy company cannot figure out how to remain profitable in a world of wide swings in oil prices, it may as well find something else to do because its future, if it has one, is going to be severely compromised.
As companies in other industries have discovered over the years, a business model guided by lean thinking can help secure a future in a world of unpredictable and widely variable market conditions. Although the acceptance of lean in the energy industry has increased over the last several years, there is still significant misunderstanding about the need for transformation in order to achieve the level of success that organizations in other industries have experienced. After several years of failed attempts to achieve improvements through tools-focused approaches like 6-sigma – where improvement methods are placed within existing systems and the responsibility for solving problems is delegated – some organizations are starting to understand the need to apply a new philosophy that integrates improvement at all levels of the business in order to achieve the big gains that are possible in safety, environmental performance, production, and cost.
The industry is still in its infancy in understanding and applying lean to the point where it will reduce its addiction to oil price. When accompanied by true and fundamental transformation, lean can help an energy company take full advantage of the periods of high prices while preparing for the inevitable drops without feeling the need to implement drastic measures that damage long-term health.
COPYING DOESN’T WORK
Applying lean to an oil and gas producer, as with any company, requires a clear understanding of the philosophy rather than attempting to copy how Toyota – or anyone else – does it. Copying drives a focus on the tools and ignores what you can’t see – the fundamental changes in the company’s systems (e.g., leadership, hiring, training & development, promotions, etc.) that are necessary for success. For years, though, Toyota provided the only real example of what many now refer to as lean, and those wanting to learn approached the deployment by rolling out tools like kanban, 5S, or value stream mapping. The problem is, without a clear understanding of lean as a system that requires transformation in the way the organization operates, the best one can expect is random improvements that are difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.
When people begin to truly understand lean, including systems thinking, psychology, and the application of the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, they begin to approach work differently, and become much more focused on what’s truly important to the organization. The way people think about problems shifts and the organization starts to replace the traditionally overly complex, gut-feel, boss-knows-everything approach with a simpler, more scientific way of operating.
In the most basic terms, lean is about:
- Having clear standards based on the needs of the business;
- Following standardized work that enables the standards to be met;
- Quickly identifying when a standard cannot be met (i.e., when a problem occurs);
- Identifying and addressing the causes for not meeting standards (problem-solving);
- Knowing when a standard needs to be improved and having a method for doing it.
Although it sounds simple, making the above work effectively requires transformation in many of the company’s systems as well as its culture. When a company ignores the signs that its systems or culture are interfering with improvement, lean becomes a burden and is seen by many as a waste of time.
WHAT TO DO
Once people in the industry begin to understand and appreciate the various aspects of lean, including a focus on continual learning and the connection to the organization’s fundamental purpose, things will start to change. The thinking that drove improvements at Toyota like reducing setup times on stamping presses from 3 hours to 3 minutes or completely eliminating wasted paint during the body painting operation while reducing color changeovers to seconds, can help contribute to greatly reducing an oil producer’s cost per barrel, shortening its lead time from exploration to first oil, and significantly reducing emissions while improving safety. It won’t necessarily happen in one year or even two, but the improvements along the way will show the potential of a culture that is aligned and improvement-focused throughout the organization.
Some of the keys to assuring the successful application of lean to an energy company include the following:
- Leaders must understand and actively drive, rather than delegate, the transformation. To do this, they must be taught what to do, be open to coaching, and accept the responsibility of creating a culture obsessed with improvement;
- Establishing a culture where continual learning
and development is highly valued and expected of every team member from the newest hire to the CEO; and holding leaders responsible for coaching and developing those on their teams;
- Developing a clear and consistent purpose (i.e., the mission and vision) for the organization – and staying true to the mission while ensuring that all activities are oriented toward achieving the vision, including helping everyone understand how the work they do connects to the purpose;
- Designing systems that enable problems to be shown quickly and clearly, and ensuring people feel comfortable showing the problems in their areas. Any area or team that does not have problems only means that they are not being shown, which is likely caused by cultural reasons;
- Ensuring a single clear and consistent approach to lean. Do not allow alternate training or tools to come into the organization unless it is driven by, and clearly connected to, the deployment. Do not let anyone add confusion by introducing new tools or methods that do not fit within the standard approach.
When deployed correctly, lean entails a vastly different approach than most people are capable of understanding at first. Through real-world practice, effective coaching, commitment, and patience, people will start to understand and see the big gains that are possible through an effective transformation. As the organization starts to unleash the talents of its people through the combination of daily problem-solving and breakthrough thinking, the ability to create an organization that improves profitability by producing energy safely, cheaply, and responsibly regardless of the price of oil will become a reality, and rather than blank stares, eye-rolling, or resistance when concepts like perfect safety, drastically shortened lead times, or zero emissions are presented, people will become energized and focused on making them happen.