T.A. Cook has been helping clients all over the world to manage highly complex plants and teams for a number of years. This support is based on a wealth of experience and data, profound knowledge of asset-intensive industry, and monitoring of global trends. All of this knowledge is gathered, processed, and managed in a highly focused manner.
Interview: Christian Raschke
Mr. Wagner, what do you think of technology?
I have learned that any technology is only as good as the way in which it’s used. My children, for example, love Alexa. This regularly causes chaos at the breakfast table. One of them calls out: “Alexa, what will the weather be like today?” while the other shouts: “Alexa, tell us a joke.” Then they want it to play music and I just want peace and quiet. The same scenario can be applied to companies. There is currently a great deal of movement when it comes to communication within teams and projects, using messenger services or Webbased project management software, for example. However, these programs are only as good as the way in which people use them – just like Alexa is only a helpful assistant if it is given structured commands.
You are responsible for knowledge management at T.A. Cook. What is your overriding strategy here?
T.A. Cook possesses a huge amount of knowledge and data on production and maintenance processes and projects in plant-intensive industry. Our employees have around 20 years’ professional experience on average – in our industry as well as others. My job is to gather, structure, process, and pass on this knowledge so that our consultants are in a position to offer each client a tailored solution. After all, while situations and tasks can be very similar, we nonetheless realize that each client is different and each challenge unique.
What is your approach?
We define best practices from previous consulting projects to ensure that our experts are working on the basis of the best knowledge, wherever in the world they happen to be. Yet we also look around at other industries. Are there approaches there that we can adopt or modify so as to make them suitable for our clients? It is essential to take cultural differences into consideration as well as the skills and knowledge of the workforce and contractors and – really importantly – the time factor. Clients expect noticeable change and a significant improvement in processes within six months.
So, your job is to gather together all the knowledge about processes, projects, mentalities, etc.?
Exactly. We evaluate all of the different experiences gathered from projects in our three business units: Consulting, Conferences, and Engineering. To this end, we ask our colleagues for the lessons they have learned after each project. In other words, we ask them about the methods they used, how they worked, which KPIs they used as a basis, what kinds of problems they encountered, and how they would improve things. We also talk about the management tools used and how communication with the client can be optimized.
And how do you pass on that information – also given that T.A. Cook’s consultants work all over the world?
That really is a challenge. From a purely technical perspective, we make sure that everyone can access the tools and databases at all times. In doing so, we of course have to ensure that central and local storage systems comply with the statutory regulations and security standards that apply to the client. From an operative standpoint, it’s about filtering the information and then simplifying the search. We use various databases, wikis, and toolboxes to do this.
In short, you make sure that the consultants are aware of the best solutions and, in turn, use them to achieve the greatest possible success for clients.
Exactly. We are more or less the consultants’ toolmakers. We maintain and improve our colleagues’ tools of the trade. Let’s take shutdown periods, for instance. These are highly complex projects, but it is also the case that the problems are often similar in nature. How can clients determine how far advanced the preparations are, how good they are, and whether all the risks have been taken into consideration? To this end, for example, there is a dynamic milestone plan in our toolbox for the preparation stage. This sets out precisely what has to be achieved within a certain time frame, the date by which the logistics planning has to be completed, tender invitations sent out to the market, and so on. In turn, we have compiled a list of more than 40 typical risks in a risk register and graded them on a scale of one to five, making it a very detailed basis for assessing and classifying risk. The benchmarks are another tool used to enable us to compare aspects such as the efficiency of the work being carried out by maintenance organizations. In our Maindex database, for example, we have
no fewer than 53 KPIs that focus on maintenance alone.
Does this represent the first step in the direction of artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0?
It will become more efficient. IPEP makes up roughly 80 percent of OSI2020 because all other applications are based on this new database. The engineering is merely the start. Other aims include mobile maintenance, more effective shutdown planning, big data evaluations, and complete simulation of chemical processes in our plants. We’ve also already looked at augmented reality. However, it is presently of little value because we first have to establish the foundations. Of course, others are already experimenting with it. At the moment, however, these are still demonstration attempts rather than widespread usage.
What improvements are you expecting and in which areas?
We are still at the very beginning. Mathematical models are already very good at forecasting an investment project’s results or a maintenance organization’s performance. In the course of their development, we always take working conditions within the industry into consideration in addition to the raw data. However, the results always remain theoretical. That is why our knowledge management within the models always takes occupational psychology backgrounds into consideration as well as the expectations of employees working in the plants and their willingness to change. This is something that we are also constantly passing onto our colleagues.
This means that for all the technology, the focus remains on people; personal contact remains the most important aspect?
I am completely and utterly convinced of it. There is an old Chinese saying: Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand. This really is the case. The greatest efficiency is achieved when people are allowed to directly apply the knowledge they have learned. That is why we still run many training courses whenever possible, both in the context of client projects and internally.
What about digital formats?
They are a valuable addition. We use webinars, for instance, to prepare the ground for upcoming personal training courses or regularly freshen up existing knowledge. It is exactly the same with our digital flash cards. Accordingly, our colleagues can decide which subjects they wish to explore in greater depth at a time that suits them and then go online and find the information themselves. We also offer this to clients within the context of projects, which works really well if they want to set up performance monitoring or even award certificates for achieved learning objectives.
You yourself previously worked as a consultant on projects for seven years. To what extent does this experience now help you in the area of knowledge management?
I am familiar with how things work in practice and I am familiar with the problems that occur. It definitely helps. And I have mainly learned to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic. It either helps or it doesn’t. In other words, when running training courses or preparing for a project, I always try to establish which methods and models are really practicable for the individual client and capable of achieving the desired effect.
And what subject areas will shape knowledge management at T.A. Cook in 2018?
I think we will talk even more about so-called business intelligence tools – especially cloud-based software solutions for processing and presenting information. We are already using dashboards for viewing the progress of shutdown planning, for example. They provide live information on the number of prepared work packages for each location, the milestones that have been achieved, and the volume of planned man-hours, making it possible to see any delays at a glance. However, the question of how we will be able present all this gathered data in an even more meaningful way, and draw the right conclusions from it, will certainly keep us very busy in times of big data and Industry 4.0.