May 142020

Like some dystopian drama set in the near future, the COVID-19 Zombie Apocalypse has had a huge effect on the world; finance, business, health, travel, social and more. Globally we hit the E-Stop button and nearly half the world’s population has been on some form of lockdown or movement restriction, and many of the lockdown restrictions were implemented with little notice to businesses and plant operators.

Now we are getting to the restart.

When you shut down a system for a planned, extended, period, you go through a shutdown procedure. You document and understand the state of the system, in the knowledge that you are transferring from a safe state, to a safe state, going through only safe states, and this can take some time. Lockdowns around the world should not have led to unsafe states for systems, but inevitably they will have done. Chemical plants are an obvious candidate for problems, but any manufacturing, construction, transport, hotels – anything that was closed in a hurry – is a candidate for problems on restart. Yes, even something as seemingly benign as a hotel or café – out of date food, invasion by mice, weekly maintenance left uncompleted. A system viewpoint and a quality management ethos will lead to a more organised restart.

The styrene gas leak that killed at least 11 people and hospitalised in the order of 800 in Visakhapatnam, India, followed a chemical plant restart after a 6 week shutdown. Charges have already been brought, and while there may have been negligence, if we were to look at the system and try to understand, there would likely be some valuable lessons. The details of this accident are not well enough known in the public domain, and speculation is not useful at this stage so I will move away from what has happened, to focus on what we can prevent from happening.

As with many of the situations I encounter, I think it is useful to take the simple model of understanding the as-is situation, understanding the desired to-be situation, and then finding a suitable route to move from one to the other. A little time spent on that understanding of the as-is will pay back. If the shutdown was uncontrolled, then the as-is may take some time to gather. Consider your car – has it moved in the last 6 weeks? If not then you shouldn’t just expect it to start first time, and drive off normally. The fuel will be ‘stale’, the battery will be flatter than normal, the tyres may be damaged, the brake discs may be rusty. Put the human inside the system boundary and you find that you are out of practice with driving. Expand the system boundary to include the other road users and then expand to include fuel delivery. As a country switches on travel the supply of fuel needs to keep pace. We will be encouraged to avoid public transport and to not share our cars, car parking, and road congestion need to be considered. Staggered start times for working, and use of bicycles, may not be enough.

We saw supply chain issues when the lockdowns started, and we will see supply chain issues as they end.

The consequences are much greater when the restart has the potential to cause significant damage, injury, or death. This is where we need a considered approach. A full understanding of the system state, of the transitions, of the interfaces to other systems. In addition to looking at things as a system, it is helpful to have a quality management mindset. A zero-defects attitude, and the vocational certainty to speak up when you see something wrong. An organisational culture built on quality management principles will support the analysis from the systems approach.

The issues on returning to work are not just about the start up, but also about what the new normal looks like. Safety procedures that required two people to be physically close may have to change to respect social distancing, or may have to be modified to ensure adequate PPE is in use. Regular safety processes will be added to with social distancing, PPE measures, monitoring of health, and contact tracing. The human element cannot be ignored here either. People have been away from work and each other, and have been under significant stress with worries about their finances, families and futures. The renewed social interactions will distract from the detail of the work and the safety practices. Technology can be used to supplement practices and procedures, but only when considered as part of the system of systems environment.

Building in systemic safety, considering the humans in the system, keeping the Quality Management culture will not only keep us safe as we hit the restart button on the world, but will also ensure that we continue in an improved environment of safety and understanding.

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