SMS don’ts

Email today from a younger engineer:

After sitting through another pipeline SMS over the last few days I thought of a possible entry for your Pipelines OZ blog.

Every SMS has an individual feel to it based on the persons involved, and while this is of course important in order to get various points of view, sometimes this can also be a downside when it comes to keeping everyone on the same path.

What I believe would be quite helpful is for the greater industry to have some form of guidelines/opinions/suggestions for making sure these workshops remain on track and relevant.

Based on your experience I would really like to hear your thoughts on the whole process, and any tips you may have picked up.

That is a perfect cue for me to again mention the SMS Facilitators’ Forum in Brisbane on 16 May.  I would prefer to put a direct response on hold until after the forum where I hope to learn a fair bit more myself about how other people run workshops.  Every SMS I attend runs the same way because I’m always the facilitator so despite the fact that I’ve run lots of workshops I have a fairly narrow perspective.

Having said that, I do get to see quite a few reports of workshops run by others, and sometimes I don’t get a good feeling about them.  Too often I get a sense that the workshop was too focussed on ticking boxes rather than thinking laterally about things that can go wrong and probing into the operations and management practices as well as the obvious external threats.

The things that give me this impression are

  • Meticulous review of every individual pipeline feature, even though 98% of them are absolutely routine so all but the first one of each type add no value to the process.  In contrast, I have run an SMS for a major pipeline of hundreds of kilometres, including lots of metropolitan area, with a final total of less than 200 threats in the database.  For historical and practical reasons there wasn’t the data available to look at every individual feature so we didn’t even try, but I’m confident that that SMS was an effective and thorough examination of the pipeline.  So take full advantage of AS 2885.1 Clause 2.3.2.4 Threats to typical designs.
  • Slavish adherence to the threats list in AS 2885.1 Appendix C rather than ignoring those that are irrelevant and expanding the list where appropriate to explore issues particular to the pipeline.
  • Ignoring the management system; ticking the box for every little track crossing won’t help if there are serious deficiencies in how the pipeline is managed.  In fairness, AS 2885 does not point strongly in this direction but I reckon it’s fair game, and have found that important recommendations often arise when weaknesses in the management are recognised.  This may get a higher profile in future as the new AS 2885 Part 3 gives increased emphasis to the Pipeline Management System.
  • Taking a HAZOP approach; it’s pretty easy to recognise when the facilitator and report author is an experienced HAZOP leader who is trying to adapt the AS 2885 process to what he/she knows rather than adjusting their way of work to meet the AS 2885 requirements.
  • Failure to present a clear summary of the actions.  I have a strong view that the actions arising from an SMS are by far the most important output.  They are what turns a potentially unsafe pipeline into a safe one so they deserve a clear presentation in the report to make it is easy for those responsible to get on with implementing them.  Leaving the actions in the 40th column of a spreadsheet with 2000 rows does not count as a clear presentation.

Expanding on the last point, an SMS has the potential to generate a huge amount of data, and there is a real problem of losing sight of the significant issues among masses of trivia.  Managing the data to make sure that the gems remain visible is important, and one way of maintaining visibility for the important stuff is to minimise the data relating to trivia.  That brings us full cycle back to the first point above.

None of this directly addresses the original question about the actual facilitation process – after the forum I hope.

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3 Responses to SMS don’ts

  1. Chris Hughes says:

    I believe that the most important factor in an SMS workshop is having a facilitator who is
    a) Experienced
    b) Knowledgeable (the two often go together, but sometimes don’t!), and
    c) Totally independent.
    The third point is crucial. If the facilitator has an interest in the project (such as being in the design team) or is in a position where he can be pressurised to accept low-cost options instead of low-risk options, there is a real risk that the workshop will not achieve the correct result.

    • petertuft says:

      The independence question is a tricky one and can depend on the nature of the SMS. A substantial part of my business involves being an independent facilitator so I should be biased in favour of that approach, but even I can see that it is not always necessary. Some pipeline companies run in-house SMSs for third party works (encroachments) on the pipeline easement. Being in-house facilitator they are not independent, but in that situation their bias (if any) is likely to be towards protection of the pipeline rather than minimisation of costs at the expense of safety. Sometimes the third party recognises that, which where I come in to provide the independence. That reason for an independent facilitator is almost the opposite of what you suggest. We still manage to produce (I think) an SMS that strikes the right balance that keeps the pipeline safe while avoiding over-the-top protection costs.

      • Chris Hughes says:

        Point taken. My experience as an independent facilitator has all been with either new pipelines or existing networks and the workshops have only involved the pipeline owners – for that scenario I stand by my original comment.

        The thing I emphasise at the start of each workshop is that each attendee has to satisfy himself that he would be prepared to stand in the witness box in court and justify the decisions made in the workshop as regards the safety of the public, the pipeline, and the environment in the event that something goes wrong and a disaster eventuates. Safety is something we should (and I believe most of us are) be continually aware of and putting into practice: the formal documentation of it in an SMS is, in a way, an insurance policy that can be referred to if something goes wrong. Most of the things brought up during an SMS we were doing instinctively 25 years ago – we just weren’t documenting them as we do nowadays.

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