Control your move to remote operations

Successful companies manage change in an open environment by understanding the structure of the operations team, the contributions of the staff and the systems required to support them across all modes of operation.

By Bridget Fitzpatrick May 28, 2020

In many cases, the infrastructure required to support a move to reduced onsite staffing or a move to remote operation may already be in place. Reducing onsite staff has increased focus in the current COVID-19 pandemic. The initial knee-jerk philosophy may be to ensure “the same level” of process safety and reliability is maintained across this transition.

It is unlikely the same level of process safety and reliability can be achieved without meaningful effort and cost. Significant staffing changes must include a serious evaluation of organizational change management and the understanding that current operational reliability is more a case of luck than excellence in organizational design.

The history of organizational change management

Many early industrial accidents that led to regulations that now manage the process industry identified issues around change management. One type of change that repeatedly emerged were changes to the organization. This led to the development of the management of organizational change concept (MOOC).

If you Google MOOC, you are likely to get more hits for “massive open online courses” than “management of organizational change.” Back in the early days of process safety, MOOC was a common term, and most companies had standards and checklists for this type of change. Today, the better search term is likely to be “organizational change management” (OCM).

In the U.K., the HSE website has a wealth of information, as does the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) site in the U.S., among others.


One reason why organizational change is difficult is because organizations are not well documented or perhaps even well understood. Changes to the organization have obvious (hard) and more subtle or hidden (soft) aspects. CCPS suggests a seven “S” model, which includes:

  • Hard aspects: Structure, staff, skills and systems
  • Soft aspects: Strategy, style and shared values.

CCPS and HSE books and reports have sound starting points with draft policies, guidance on safety reviews and myriad checklists. Developing customized checklists that use local terminology and focus on these seven dimensions can be effective.

A warning about checklists

A wealth of supporting materials is available, but they must be used with caution. Consider the flowchart in Figure 1 for assessing a change in staffing.

Stepping through a checklist without due consideration may result in an ineffective result. Some of the publicly available checklists for the scope of Figure 1 are more than a dozen pages long and still fail to consider much beyond basic staffing and the reliability of alerting systems.

Other key questions to consider related to remote operations include:

  • Is the overall workload for the new staffing arrangement within human factors limits?
  • Are the alarm system metrics at or exceeding target performance levels for both onsite and remote staff?
  • Are the actual response times still within range of functional safety study assumptions?
  • Do staff go into the field during routine operations to assist when needed?
  • Do staff go into the field to troubleshoot upsets?
  • Do staff go into the field for an emergency response?
  • Are there additional cameras or acoustic monitoring devices required to have sufficient situational awareness?
  • Are there additional field devices that need automation applied to allow for remote intervention?
  • Do staff support the emergency response team, ambulance or fire crew?
  • Do staff possess unique process knowledge that may not be leveraged without casual communication?

Several famous process safety incidents have had some of the same elements that can be traced back to organizational change management. Two of the common root causes are: 1) not understanding the real functions and roles that staff undertake, and 2) not understanding the manual tasks (both monitoring and intervention) required to avoid impacts. In simple terms, the organization may not have a complete picture of who does what, and what needs to be done.

Stories from incidents

The classic example of staffing changes resulting in an incident is the Esso Longford gas explosion in 1998 that interrupted the public natural gas supply in Australia. One item cited was the engineering staff had moved to a location around 100 miles away, which impacted the level of interaction between the engineering and operations teams and affected the degree of engineering involvement for day-to-day operations. This was a complex cascade of events, but it is worth a review.

Bottom line: Many methods exist for staffing design, though no one method is cited as the best practice and commonly cited options are complex. For a MOOC change, it may be easy to fall into the trap of a staffing study and redesign. This may be warranted, depending on performance. However, it is more important to focus on the effect of the change to staffing to ensure a smooth transition and not jump into a total redesign.

Dimensions of impact

Experience suggests the following dimensions be reviewed for impact:

  • Personnel roles and responsibilities
  • Personnel qualifications and training
  • Unique experience and staff skills
  • Critical tasks and procedures
  • Impacts across all modes of operation
  • Resources and tools needed under new design
  • Impacted policies and standards.

This appears reasonable and not too complex. However, it takes strong attention to detail and openness to being honest in how the organization functions to be effective at managing the change.

  • Personnel roles and responsibilities
    • While likely an incomplete picture, a review of defined roles and responsibilities will frame the process. A common overlooked item is staffing to support emergency operations. If too many personnel are moved remotely, the emergency team staffing and backfill plans may need to be adjusted.
    • Another overlooked aspect of this is the frequency of on-call status in a changed team setting. Being on-call is a burden that must be recognized and managed.
    • In many cases, the experience and skills of the current staff may exceed the base job descriptions. Backfilling with different people or allowing roles to rotate through a team will highlight the benefits present.
    • Just acknowledging the excess skills and accepting the impending loss is not the best approach. Specific plans to provide access to other resources or tools will be important to manage the performance level.
  • Personnel qualifications and training
    • One method to ensure the end state team has equivalent capabilities is to brainstorm the qualifications of the current team. This will highlight any areas where the end-state team may need additional training.
  • Unique staff experience and skills
    • This is one area that may result in the most pain as the changes are rolled out. This is prominent when roles move to a rotational support basis.
    • This can be captured by storytelling around major historical upsets. This effort is worthwhile to capture that knowledge and to identify prior successful and unsuccessful responses to upsets. This will highlight areas where manual intervention may warrant additional automation, where additional cameras are required or where a shared on-site resource across different operating areas may be needed.
  • Critical tasks and procedures
    • In many cases, existing job descriptions may not fully capture the critical tasks and procedures. A simple brainstorming session, augmented with scanning checklists, will supplement the existing scope.
  • Impacts across all modes of operation
    • Storytelling around the best and worst days of operation is an effective method to derive this information.
    • Staff that has participated in process design and safety reviews may remember reasoning for redundancies.
    • Long tenure staff will remember failures and action plans from the failures.
    • Brainstorming across modes of operation may result in adding emergency operating procedures and human-machine interface (HMI) support that may divert an impact.
    • Discussing the best days will highlight support needs for optimization of quality and efficiency.
  • Resources and tools needed under new design
    • It is unlikely no new resources or tools will be required to meet the target performance. Any change is an upset to routine and muscle memory. New resources and tools can include anything from low cost tweaks to new automation.
    • Some of the most effective tools support easy communication between teams that are no longer co-located in general as well as at shift handover. To be most effective, teams need to be continuously learning and managing their knowledge transfer systems.
  • Impacted policies and standards
    • Any significant change will result in either real or apparent impacts to policies and standards. It is important to walk through a review and hear the teams’ concerns.
    • An important consideration is a clear and open discussion of any items impacting compensation.
    • Any significant change will result in either real or apparent impacts to authority, responsibility and accountability. This may be the most important aspect to discuss openly since the new team needs to feel empowered and capable to the challenges. If the authority to operate, and the responsibility for performance and clear targeted metrics are not established, it is unlikely the team will be successful.

MOOC methods and visualization

Most MOOC studies have relied on what-if scenarios, impact checklists and brainstorming. Using these tools can be effective if the scope of deliberation is broad enough and is facilitated in an open environment. Perhaps the best tool to help visualize the status is the bow-tie method, which is often used in safety studies. Bowties are constructed with “causes” on the left and “impacts” on the right with control and mitigation elements aligned with each entry (see Figure 2).

In this example, the causes (or threats) and impacts (or consequences) related to an “unrecoverable incident while remote” is shown. Example upsets are shown on the left and impacts on the right. Preventable controls are shown between the causes and the unrecoverable event in the center. Mitigation barriers are shown between the unrecoverable event and the impacts.

It can be effective to brainstorm in a general structure, where items that control or mitigate are grouped with existing and new ideas. Easy to use software exists for bowties, but simple Visio or Microsoft Excel tools also can be leveraged. Try to not let the use of the tools slow the brainstorming or add too much complexity early in the development of the ultimate recommendations.

Example presentative controls to consider include adding:

  • Automation to additional field devices for remote actuation
  • Critical spares
  • New instruments for items not monitored or for redundancy (this could include cameras or acoustic monitoring devices for situational awareness)
  • Updated critical standard operating procedures (SOPs)
  • Roving onsite staff to provide some site staffing (maybe a drone)
  • Additional preventive maintenance (PM)
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) for reliability.

The example mitigation barriers include:

  • Recognition of the existing safety instrumented system (SIS)
  • Adding trips or shedding systems
  • Adding critical SOPs
  • Adding alerts for remote intervention.

Looking ahead

Change is the road to the future. The most successful companies are ones that seek change and manage it in an open environment. To do so, the organization must understand the structure of the entire operations team, the planned and unique contributions of the staff, their skills and the systems required to support them across all modes of operation. This must be managed with a strategic vision, cultural style and shared values and goals. It is not easy, but with a focus on details, it is not even close to impossible.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.

Wood is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) and a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Bridget Fitzpatrick is the global technical lead for process automation at Wood. She has an MBA in technology management from the University of Phoenix and a SB in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is active in supporting the Open Process Automation Forum standards work. She sits on the ISA Standards and Practices Board as managing director for the ISA 18 (Alarm Management) committee. She is one of the U.S. experts on the IEC61499 committee. She is also an ISA Fellow.