Friday, March 02, 2007

Energy Lessons: the Columbia Disaster

On February 1, 2003, the NASA space shuttle Columbia was attempting to complete its twenty-eighth mission when it blew up during re-entry. The events leading up this tragedy, as well as the recovery efforts in its aftermath, generated many lessons that are potentially of great value to industrial facility managers. In no way does this discussion mean to trivialize that event. In fact, because lives were lost, we owe it to those people to learn as much as possible from their experience.

It is not fair to say that mismanagement of facilities will lead to spectacular failures and loss of life (although industrial accidents do claim lives every year). More to the point, a lot of facilities operate with less-than optimal integrity, which absolutely costs money in terms of wasted fuel and productivity. The organizational causes of energy losses and accidents are strikingly similar to NASA’s shuttle experience. Mechanically, there are only a couple of similarities between space shuttle operations and, for example, an industrial steam system: these are large pieces of machinery that generate a great deal of heat and force. The similarities are more pronounced in terms of management priorities, procedures, communication, data interpretation, and professional culture.

Investigation into the Columbia’s demise emerged in the popular press. These compare to catastrophic steam system failures.

1. Clues to failure were available well in advance of the catastrophe, drawing attention to the shuttle’s insulating tiles. Concerns with the integrity of these tiles date back to the shuttle’s initial delivery in 1979. Because the tiles were a source of ongoing but minor concern, decision-makers were apparently lulled into a sense of complacency—it had yet to cause real problems, so why intervene? Think now about those steam plumes and excess venting that many steam facilities endure. “It’s always been like that” is a typical explanation.

2. Perceptions and priorities were divided along professional lines in NASA. On one hand, technical staff focused on data, measurement, and verification, while program managers dealt with budget cutbacks, expense savings, and deadlines. The goals and teamwork between these two very different professional cultures were less than perfect. Many steam utility improvements—especially those with zero-cost—are behavioral in nature. They may be the result of better coordination between utility and process staff. A lot of dollars can be saved just in timing and balancing steam loads in concert with process demands.

3. Failure is often the result of a series of incidents, not just one. A chain of events may involve technology, communication, data interpretation, and the structure of accountability. Analysis of Columbia’s failure was not limited to assembling pieces of the stricken craft. It also involved an audit of email communications among staff. In countless manufacturing plants, steam operators never see the fuel bills that procurement staff process every month. If the data in those documents are not shared, then clues to operating anomalies and run-away costs remain hidden.

Let’s shift now to the recovery efforts in the wake of the shuttle’s crash. This was an effort that covered several states and involved everything from U2 spy planes to scuba divers and sniffing dogs. What was remarkable about the recovery effort was the volume of material it retrieved. Experts said that at best, 15 percent of the structure would be recovered. Through April 22, 2003, teams had in fact recovered almost 40 percent of Columbia’s unfueled weight.

About 130 federal, state, and local agencies had to collaborate to make this happen. Usually, activities that engage authorities across jurisdictions are a recipe for confusion, red tape, and turf battles. This was largely avoided in the case of Columbia’s recovery. What made this successful? And what are the lessons for steam utility management?

There was clear and singular “ownership” of the process. All jurisdictional authority coalesced around NASA’s lead. The lesson here for the steam community: a steam or energy champion is usually vital to the success of energy management efforts. This is an individual with knowledge and authority to act. The “champion” is the visionary, coach, and arbitrator who keeps everything on track.

Clear and simple goals facilitated jurisdictional coordination. Look now at the manufacturing plant where utility, process, financial, logistical, and other managers must be on the same page. Business provides its own rallying cries: Return on investment. Building shareholder wealth. Global competition. To be effective, these managers have to know how their respective areas contribute to a central goal, and then focus their teams accordingly. Shared goals precipitate trust, which then yields better communication.

Skilled workforces bring the highest value. The Columbia recovery effort engaged “the best of the best” from each contributing jurisdiction. In steam as well as any other operations endeavor, the value of training and motivation is underscored by this lesson.

A final thought regards sustainability of effort. The Columbia space shuttle disaster is an episode—a singular event that captured the dedication of staff involved in its closure. A tragedy so visible and of such magnitude naturally evoked focus on the part of recovery teams. Quite simply, there was a vast but finite acreage to cover, and they could declare victory when they covered it all. Manufacturing is not quite the same. Plants will operate year in and year out, and managers never have a true “finish line.” Instead, they have a fluid business environment, and with that challenge also comes the opportunity to periodically adjust the plant’s focus in achieving its goals. Therein lay the dynamics of motivation as well as sustainable energy management success.



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