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Using operational excellence to drive organisational process safety

30 October 2015

When a company takes the time to look at its overall process safety and realises there is significant room for improvement, they cannot “simply” decide to get better. Due to the size and complexity of operations of many companies, there has to be a more robust and systematic approach to improving process safety within the company. In this article, Lisa C. Hutto of Chilworth Technology, Inc. looks at the Operational Excellence System (OES).

The first OES was introduced after the Exxon Valdez oil spill – Photo: NOAA
The first OES was introduced after the Exxon Valdez oil spill – Photo: NOAA

An OES is developed to more effectively manage process safety in order to meet the rising expectations of regulators, complex regulations, shareholders and communities.

Over 20 years ago, Exxon developed and implemented the first and one of the best known OESs as a direct response to the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill and as time has progressed, Exxon has continually improved and enhanced it. Due to the positive outcomes from Exxon’s OES, other oil and energy companies followed suit and developed their own systems. Developing an OES is a way to see if company actions are achieving goals on the way to process safety excellence.

Developing an Operational Excellence System

Operational excellence systems create value through systematic and repeatable actions that are well-defined and addressable for everyone within the organisation. It relies on properly documented standard processes that should lead to continuous improvement of operating performance. As part of a functioning OES, everyone in the organisation understands and/or knows how to find out how to perform their tasks and has access to the necessary resources. 

Developing an OES is a first step that companies can take to design a path to a first-class process safety management system. The success of the OES depends largely on the system integration process into the company. Integrations start at the base level of management and supervisors. The base level is also known as the “supporting base” for process safety elements as well as employees. The actions from employees on a day-to-day basis determines the success of the system. While anyone can design a great system, a successful OES is dependent upon interaction from employees and the ability to coach others towards a new way of approaching job tasks and getting better each day.

When developing a company-specific OES, it is important to understand that it is not “just another manual”. An OES is a set of rules developed by the company that describes how the company operates to fully achieve operational excellence. Some companies spend too much time developing the OES and not enough time implementing it. In order to be successful with the OES, proper focus must be paid to the implementation process and then determine what is working and what isn’t, in order to make the correct modifications. Part of the implementation process includes developing the accountability that ensures compliance.

Some key components of a successful system include:
•  Responsibility(s) requirements at all levels from operators to managers;
•  Defined common goals in an understandable context;
•  Company and site expectations;
•  Defined method for promoting continuous improvement; and
•  Acceptable methods for sharing successful practices and behaviours.

Implementing the OES

A successful implementation begins with carefully thought out designs and principles that directly relate to goals for successful process safety. The best-designed systems are, well defined, simple for ease of application across the company, and reinforced by the company’s accountability and performance management systems.

Staying focused throughout the process is essential. Try not to make the system too complex. While the new system may be part of one person’s everyday job, it may not be to others. All attempts should be made to avoid making the system ‘everything’ to all employees. Everyone has a part in the system, but it is too difficult and complex for each employee to be responsible for everything.

Grouping the OES requirements into elements and subgroups during the implementation process helps simplify the process. The OES should cover all areas without overlap. Define how to measure the OES and any tools that should be used as part of this process. Measuring should include metrics that verify the quality and conformance of the OES. Expectations must be clear to prevent confusion or make it difficult to measure compliance within the element.
Take the time and decide what the primary focus is when implementing the new OES.

Determine the business objectives and then incorporate the system into the business operation. Decide what management tools are needed, and the amount of needed time for planning and performance management needed to update and reinforce the OES.

Organisational Capabilities

Determine the company’s ability to maintain and develop processes. Ensure the following are clear and defined:
•  how internal processes and systems are measured for compliance;
•  what site-specific competencies are needed to maintain the OES; and
•  what employee skills and efforts  are required to achieve the organisation’s process safety goals

Many companies focus more on building organisational capabilities such as lean systems/projects and talent management. Only about a third of companies focus their training and development in building their process safety capabilities, which could result in better business performance.

Companies tend to not take into consideration how process safety affects business performance. Companies run well when they do not have much downtime due to incidents or mechanical failures. Excessive downtimes have an effect on profits, as well as the employees running a process.

Part of implementing organisational capabilities requires changing the way people think, act, and interact. Things such as culture, teamwork, and leadership are critical in the process, but they can sometimes be very difficult to implement. Three areas that are considered as “critical” for successful OES’s are:
•  building a strong process safety culture;
•  implementing strong management practices; and
•  leadership at all levels.

Long Term Goals

As a company moves forward with building the OES into its processes, it can sometimes seem overwhelming when looking at the project as a whole. It is essential that timelines are set up for each segment of the OES. Sometimes the company may have to take a step back and reorganise to make forward progress again.

When developing the OES, consider starting with less complex elements and focus on them first. Starting with the less complex elements allows the company time to understand how to properly develop each element before proceeding to the more difficult elements. A fully functioning OES  takes time to develop. Set reasonable timelines and goals as it may take many months or years before the full OES is implementing and measurable.

The company may not see immediate changes or it might not. The point is, do not stop implementing and improving just because there has been some success, or not much visible success from the program. The OES is a work in progress and it may take time to see the benefits. Track the changes so that a credible metric can be made.


Many companies are under extreme pressure to improve their process safety systems while still managing operations, stricter regulations, rising operational costs and competition from other companies.  Having an OES in place is often no longer considered an option, but a necessity for a more demanding market. A well implemented OES can guide companies towards the safe behaviour that is needed to reach company safety and production goals.

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