The staff that’s entrusted to operate and maintain critical facilities are the most critical and valuable assets there are in the overall scheme of sustained continuous operations. No matter how well a facility is engineered, designed, and constructed, and no matter the quality of the equipment and systems installed, eventually they will fail if not properly operated and maintained by people. The best facilities not only rely on people, but on teams with clear direction and objectives, properly provisioned with the tools and resources required to accomplish their goals and duties, and perhaps most importantly, motivation to excel.

In short, the best run facilities have established a culture of excellence. Staff take ownership in their work, support their team, and are proud of their accomplishments, large and small, immediate and long-term.

I have been fortunate in my career to have visited many sites, and more recently to have assessed and evaluated many facilities in their performance as compared to “industry best practices.” My observations have been varied and ranged from one extreme to the other. Some were fundamentally sound and others appeared to be “hanging on by a thread,” and most were somewhere in between. In almost every case the culture matched the history of reliable performance.

First impressions are often a good indicator of the substance beneath the surface. Facilities that are clean, with everything in its place, that are well lighted and labeled, freshly painted, and have no damaged pipe insulation or missing screws in panels and covers, etc., inevitably have sound maintenance practices. It is the attention to detail, never cutting corners, and correcting problems as they occur that ensure problems don’t compound into the “perfect storm” that results in mission impact.

The opposite is also true. Facilities with poor housekeeping, dirty floors and surfaces, torn and stained insulation, missing tags and fasteners, etc., typically have staff who accepts mediocrity. New problems are harder to spot when old issues remain unresolved. For example, the risk of critical alarms going undetected increases when staff is already aware of related, less critical, and unresolved alarms that exist over time. Another example is pipe leaks that are more difficult to identify when damaged insulation allows condensation to build up around pipe joints.

The solution is not as easy as a fresh coat of paint and improved housekeeping. Nor is the staff typically the problem. The issue is one of management and resources. Even the best staff will succumb in the face of overwhelming tasks and lack of provisions. The key is to establish clear minimum standards, match the resources to the tasks, and provide leadership and supervision to hold staff accountable for the outcome.

A good starting point is with clear and reasonable standards. These should stipulate what is considered acceptable performance and become the measuring stick for management to use to judge if the site and staff are performing adequately. This includes how the site should be staffed including the duties and responsibilities of each staff position. They should clearly state what maintenance will be performed on each piece of equipment and system, and how often. They should list which procedures are required, how often they get reviewed and updated, and where they are posted and maintained. They should stipulate the required training and certifications staff need to be allowed to perform associated duties and tasks. There should be a standard for how anomalies and emergencies are handled, communicated, escalated, resolved, and closed out including root-cause analysis and lessons-learned processes. In essence, every program should be based upon and supported by a corporate and/or site standard.

" First impressions are often a good indicator of the substance beneath the surface. Facilities that are clean, with everything in its place, that are well lighted and labeled, freshly painted, and have no damaged pipe insulation or missing screws in panels and covers, etc., inevitably have sound maintenance practices. " 

Resources and tools are more than staff and wrenches. It includes robust programs such as computerized maintenance management programs (CMMS), a document management and control program, detailed operating procedures, vendor and contractor management protocols, critical work authorization (aka “change control”), and other facility management programs expected of a critical facility. And just as importantly, the staff needs formal, site-specific training and hands-on drills and exercises to ensure they are proficient in using these programs and responding to expected and unexpected events.

Management’s most important task is to establish this culture of excellence. When facility operating staff have clear standards in place and understand what is expected, and are provided the means to meet these expectations, they will generally succeed. Most staff, and especially those who have experienced work situations where mediocrity is the norm, will value the opportunity to deliver quality performance. And they will take ownership and pride in being part of a quality site, with sound processes, that invests in them as professionals. These staff naturally form common bonds with like-minded people and become teams with common goals and objectives, and who self-police their environment.

But here is a word of caution — management must ensure that the staff understands that every aspect includes some level of supervision and accountability. Management will “inspect what is expected.” Site staff should be aware that management will perform routine, scheduled site tours as well as random inspections. Site staff should expect routine audits of each program to determine how well staff is complying with the standards. This should not be a “catch me if you can” situation, but a collaborative effort where deficiencies are considered opportunities for improvement, where staff give input on how the standards, programs, or outcomes can be improved, and not considered a blame game with fear of retribution.

The key is for management to be part of the facility management team, and not a separate entity, or else an “us vs. them” mentality may develop. Management must spend sufficient time “in the trenches” to fully grasp what their staff is up against and thereby be in a position to judge what resources are required and to earn the trust and respect of the staff.

And one final thought — people, unlike equipment, actually get better and more reliable over time. Whereas equipment wears out and becomes more susceptible to failure with age, people continue to improve as they become better trained, gain experience, and understand the history and lessons of the past, and develop what is perhaps the site’s most valuable commodity of all, “institutional knowledge.” One common characteristic of a site with a culture of excellence is a very low attrition rate. It is typically one measure of how well management has performed.