An Introduction to Operator Variability in Gasoline Blending
by David Kerry
Since joining the company in 2016 one of the areas I’ve focused on within Trindent’s Oil and Gas vertical is gasoline blending. When explaining the work we do to friends and family I often use the analogy of baking cookies (after reading my colleague Abhilash’s recent post it seems we’re a firm with a sweet tooth). Picture the following: you own a bakery. Your customers pay for a minimum number of chocolate chips in your cookies and anything below that number is unacceptable, while anything above that number is excess. This is money you’re leaving on the table because chocolate chips, as opposed to basic ingredients like sugar and flower, are expensive – so it’s in your best interest to minimize the amount of chocolate chips you ‘give away’. Now, you’ve got a number of bakers working for you who like to make cookies their own way: some carefully measure out chocolate chips, others add them generously, and one of them has even been known to use the whole bag to ensure their cookies always get a passing grade from customers. We refer to this type of inconsistency as operator variability, and it is one of the leading causes of quality giveaway in gasoline blending. Trindent’s approach looks is to decrease this variability in three key areas: the gasoline blending processes, the systems used to measure quality and performance, and the behaviors of employees at the point of execution, as well as management. In this post, we’ll take a brief look at what we often come across in assessments of our clients’ blending operations:
Non-standardized gasoline blending processes. Blending is often referred to as an ‘art’, decisions are made based on ‘gut feelings’ and the results can cost a refinery millions. A process gap as small as improper laboratory instrument flushing can have huge downstream implications, which are often poorly understood on the front line. A lot of these legacy processes continue to exist because it’s “how it’s always been done.” This is part of what makes bringing Trindent on-site such a valuable exercise, we work with our clients to challenge the status quo and leave no stone unturned in introducing highly-repeatable streamlined processes that produce predictable results.
A lack of gasoline blending management systems. Giveaway from specification is not always measured, and when it is, the results are rarely shared with front line supervisors and employees. This visibility is key in driving accountability and a culture of continuous improvement. In addition to developing tools to measure and manage performance, our approach involves bringing critical information as close to the point of execution as possible to support decision making processes. One example is a tool we developed that determines limiting specifications in real-time, guiding the blender board operator on what to target, providing insight into analyzer performance, and minimizing quality giveaway on each and every batch.
Complacency and a lack of accountability. Of the three areas, behaviors can be the most challenging to change. For instance, measuring individuals in an area where performance hasn’t historically been tracked can be an uncomfortable exercise in the beginning. However, when you approach these conversations as an opportunity to explore roadblocks to performance, and not as a disciplinary measure, they become valuable to everyone involved. Gasoline blending can be one of the most challenging jobs in a refinery, and I’ve seen operators transition from uncertain and hesitant to supportive and eager to improve over the course of an engagement as we remove ambiguity and uncertainty from the role by providing them the tools to be able to confidently make decisions.
One final note is that operator variability isn’t a sign of poor performance or a lack of competence, it’s symptomatic of broken processes, lacking management systems, and ineffective management behaviors. What makes Trindent’s approach to these challenges so effective is that it is applicable not only across refineries, but across products and even industries. So whether it’s gasoline, polymer products, or even chocolate chip cookies, when it comes to reducing quality giveaway and improving overall profitability, Trindent’s track record shows we make it happen.