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Feature: Aggreko digs deep to solve fuel-spill problem

June 2012 | by Matt Burns

Whether it’s a teeming urban landscape, a sub-zero climate or a vast desert, Center for Operational Excellence member Aggreko Plc is there.

The Scotland-based temporary power provider has generators in more than 100 countries, a scope that has helped it cross the $2 billion-a-year revenue mark and secure massive deals such as the 2012 London Olympics. But amid the growth, on-site diesel fuel spills have remained a problem.

Aggreko’s generators (pictured left) consume more than 44 million liters of fuel a day, enough to fill 17 Olympic pools. Reported spills from January 2010 through May 2011 totaled about 58,000 liters, a growing concern as the company stays environmentally conscious with its expanding global footprint.

So how does a company stem the flow of spilled fuel at wildly diverse project sites where a million things could go wrong? With the help of COE and the Fisher College of Business, a group of leaders from one of the company’s three regions, Aggreko International, believes the problem is in striking distance from a solution.

The deep dive

Stepping up to the task were John Campbell, François Pouget and Gonzalo Herreros, continuous improvement leads from areas around the globe. They were among 18 Aggreko employees to complete an intensive, year-long Six Sigma Black Belt program through Fisher’s Executive Education arm with teaching assistance from COE leadership.

The team began with an exhaustive examination of nearly 200 different fuel-spill reports, which represented only a portion of all spills and a wide range of system designs.

“With that system variability, it was very, very hard to pin down why we were getting spills,” Campbell said.

A knee-jerk reaction for a problem like Aggreko’s would be to seek a mechanical fix for the spills, but Campbell’s team had a hunch that process was a major culprit. Indeed, while mechanical and hose failures played a role in some spills, process gaffes were the catalyst in more than half the fuel that spilled.

The team arrived at that crucial realization using the DMAIC improvement cycle, which spans steps “define,” “measure,” “analyze,” “improve” and “control.” Using that process, Pouget said, helped structure the study and frequent tollgate reviews with managers.

“This helped us be proactive and make sure we were on the right track,” he said.

Making a list

The team turned a critical eye to Aggreko’s field guide for best operating practices and found a major source of problems: The handbook was unclear, even open to interpretation.

“If this is what you’re telling guys to do with 47 million liters of fuel a day, you have to improve the information you’re giving these guys,” Campbell said.

Working with fresh inspection reports, the team developed a revised checklist and a new standard work instruction form with visual cues and detailed steps. Plans called for digitizing that checklist so workers could carry it around on mobile devices.

This shift in Aggreko’s on-site culture was simple but crucial. Crews filled out – and dreaded – paperwork only after a spill, but by folding the process into day-to-day operations an error that once meant a diesel mess was fixed before it was too late. Just by piloting a simple checklist on seven Aggreko International sites for little more than two weeks, workers identified 83 potential points where a spill could have occurred.

“The ‘A-ha!’ moment was (on-site crews) understanding this is part of operations,” Campbell said. “It’s all stitched into what they do.”

Going global

Senior operations staffers in the pilot phase were daunted by the proposed changes but buy-in has improved and a full rollout is on the priority lists of Aggreko’s environmental and engineering divisions.

“The main focus of our project is to help improve our fueling process by empowering our supervisors and technicians to own the site fuel system and to take the lead in preventing potential risks,” Herreros said.

Mark Sheppard, Aggreko’s global head of operational excellence, said it’s an extremely important effort for the company – and one that likely wouldn’t be where it is without the process-first approach taken.

“Without Fisher’s help, we’d probably still be designing a gizmo that would save the world,” he said.

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This story is featured in COE's spring 2012 newsletter. To download the full newsletter, click here.