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Refinery Gets Lean to Remain a Viable Martinez Employer

Mike Taylor, analyzer team leader and a Lean improvement agent

The Refinery’s employees and contractors are helping the facility survive as a safe, environmentally focused and profitable business.

Everybody can help and take ownership. That’s how we’re going to be efficient and get to where we want to get.

Mike Taylor, analyzer team leader and a Lean improvement agent

Typically Lean encourages the use of fewer resources like water, electricity and chemicals. At the Martinez refinery, the focus is on stripping out wasteful activities and unproductive tasks that take more time than required.

Bonnie Roelofs, organizational effectiveness advisor, developed the refinery’s culture change plan.

She and Joe Hornsby, production specialist, are co-leading a team of “Lean improvement agents” who have been trained in Lean tools. About 200 refinery personnel have been involved in 20 improvement projects that were initially on the roster.

“Our senior leaders are aligned behind the culture change plan,” Roelofs said. “The Lean improvement agents and practitioners are using their new knowledge and skills to start making a difference. As a result, there have been ideas for continuous improvement and for taking waste out of our system, which help to ensure that we remain a viable employer. There are many government and company pressures on the refinery to perform at a high level, and continuous improvement helps to ensure that we will be a long-term player.”

Notable improvements have been made at the sulfur plant, where liquid sulfur is manufactured and later sold for use in fertilizers and household and industrial products. Over time, sulfur plant employees had become accustomed to using too much nitrogen in the unit to prevent pipes from plugging and pressure and temperature instruments from corroding.

“We would overshoot the amount, which was the right thing to do,” said process engineer and Lean improvement agent Steve Bonner.  “But long-term, we shouldn’t do that because the extra nitrogen costs more and takes up capacity in the processing unit.”

Bonner, along with the unit operators and maintenance personnel, collaborated on a plan. They consulted with their colleagues at Shell Global Solutions to determine the exact nitrogen amounts to put into the pipes. They also repaired the broken instruments to ensure accurate readings. The improvements reduced nitrogen usage in the sulfur plant and will save more than $750,000 annually.

Another team suggested that the hard copy of the refinery’s business planning document, called the “Journey Book,” be posted on the Intranet to make it easier to find. 

“We also save money and environmental waste by not recycling all of that paper,” said Mike Taylor, analyzer team leader and a Lean improvement agent. 

Noting that contractors had to drive around the site to sign logs to verify their work time, a team recommended that the sign-in/sign-out books be moved to key locations. That improvement will cut out $250,000 worth of wasted time a year.

“It’s not a big financial hitter,” Taylor said, “but the move made life easier for everybody. People aren’t as frustrated.”

Stamping out wasted time — and the frustrations that accompany certain tasks — also foster safer practices, greater efficiency and higher morale. 

“Everybody can help and take ownership,” Taylor said. “That’s how we’re going to be efficient and get to where we want to get. As the refinery gets more effective in eliminating waste, people will be more focused on the job, not on the frustrations. They’re less likely to make a mistake and more likely to go home safe. Production and safety go hand in hand.” 

Working with a Lean mindset also can bring greater job satisfaction.

“When this kind of culture change happens, employees enjoy their work more. They feel better about coming to work because they believe that their ideas are making a difference in the site’s performance,” Roelofs said. 

Shell Martinez Refinery re-launched its Lean journey in April 2010 after four leaders visited Shell’s Pernis facility in the Netherlands to see successful Lean practices in action. After returning, the leaders selected 21 Lean improvement agents and practitioners from a cross-section of refinery functions. These employees took a three-day boot camp conducted by a Lean expert from Shell’s headquarters in the Netherlands. After the boot camp, the agents and practitioners put their tools to work.

“We’re learning the importance of going into the refinery, where the operational and maintenance work is being done, asking questions, helping people to challenge their own thinking about how work should get done and caring about each other’s success,” Roelofs said. “The role of the leader is shifting from one who is a problem solver to more of a teacher/coach. We’re leaving the projects up to employees. We want the person who has the idea to implement the solution.”

 Vendors and contractors doing business with the refinery are also integral in the journey, according to Roelofs. The refinery’s chemical vendor, Nalco, has done an excellent job of waste reduction.

“We will continue to let our vendors know this is a mindset we are bringing into our operations for many years to come. The sooner they understand it, the sooner they’ll be able to offer better products and services that meet our needs,” she said.

Shell’s Global Manufacturing team estimates it will take five years to realize significant results from the Lean culture change, but the Martinez Refinery is trying to achieve success in three years.

-- By Eleanor Hunt