Shutdowns, Turnarounds and Outages

Shutdowns, Turnarounds and Outages

All of the major process industries (refining, petrochemicals, power generation, pulp & paper, etc.) have their own nomenclature for maintenance projects. For the purposes of this document, “turnaround” is intended to encompass all types of industrial projects for existing process plants including:

  • I&Ts (Inspection & Testing)
  • shutdowns
  • emergency outages
  • debottlenecking projects
  • revamps
  • catalyst regeneration
  • etc.

where an operating plant must be shut down until the work is completed and then restarted – thus “turning around” the unit/plant. Within this document, “turnaround” is also intended to reference the entire span from pre-turnaround preparations to shutdown to execution to start-up.

Turnaround Specific Management Methodology

The discipline of project management enjoys different states of maturity across different industries. The construction industry probably enjoys the greatest maturity in the field. The software development/IT industry is probably enjoying the greatest growth in maturity at this time. The maturity of the project management discipline in process industries for turnarounds is still very poor and stagnant at best.

There appears to be little, if any, development or dialogue of the discipline within the field. Turnaround failures (budgets blown by millions of dollars, target dates missed by days) are still as prevalent as ever. The same mistakes are being repeated over and over. The main problem is that turnaround managers continue to treat turnarounds as EPC (civil construction) projects and apply an EPC centric project management methodology.

One of the greatest challenges to turnaround managers is realizing that turnarounds are different from EPC projects. They have their own unique characteristics and demands. They require a specialized project management methodology. This document is intended to spark a dialogue for developing a turnaround specific management methodology.


The Project Management Institute (PMI) has published A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) to identify and describe the subset of the project management discipline that is applicable to most projects most of the time. It provides a loose guideline for structuring a project management methodology:

1.1 Purpose of this guide … the primary purpose of this document is to identify and describe that subset of the pmbok that is generally accepted. generally accepted means that the knowledge and practices described are applicable to most projects most of the time, and that there is widespread consensus about their value and usefulness. generally accepted does not mean that the knowledge and practices described are or should be applied uniformly on all projects; the project management team is always responsible for determining what is appropriate for any given project.

It is up to turnaround managers to evaluate the applicability of their specific project management methodology for turnarounds. Many turnaround managers do not have a formal background in project management and have never studied the PMBOK. As a result, there has been little discussion in professional circles of the proper application of the PMBOK for a turnaround specific management methodology.

Most turnaround managers employ an an EPC centric project management approach to turnarounds. In order to analyze the applicability of this approach, we first need to understand the important differences between turnarounds and EPC projects. Then we shall have the proper basis for evaluating a turnaround centric project management methodology in accordance with the PMBOK.

Important Differences Between Turnarounds and EPC Projects

There are significant differences between turnarounds and EPC projects as outlined in the Project Vs. Turnaround white paper. The significance of these differences bears exploring.

Because the scope is only partially known when execution begins, turnarounds demand much stricter scope management controls. A constantly changing scope (and schedule) means that baseline schedules are useless measuring sticks for turnarounds. As the baseline schedule is the entire basis for measuring and tracking EPC project performance, it is clear that a different paradigm is required for turnarounds.

A changing schedule (and manpower staffing requirements) make resource leveling, a popular tool for EPC projects, counter-productive for turnarounds. This issue is explored in greater depth in the Resource Leveling Vs. Critical Mass white paper.

The compressed work basis for executing turnarounds means that all team members have less time to analyze and react to changing priorities. Problems that go unchecked can significantly impact the chances for a reaching the time and budget goals. As a consequence, there is a much greater need for using the schedule to drive the project execution in a turnaround (whereas it is sometimes used mostly as a contractual tool in EPC projects). It is critical for all schedule and progress information to be highly visible, timely, comprehensive and accurate.

With these distinctions in mind, we can now explore the tenets of the PMBOK and start working towards a turnaround specific project management methodology.

Project Scope Management

One of the greatest challenges in a turnaround is scope management. This is true for virtually all phases of scope management as outlined by the PMBOK: Scope Planning, Scope Definition, Scope Verification and Scope Change Control.

Scope Planning, Definition and Verification

Unlike EPC projects which usually have a well defined scope established with a long lead times before the project execution phase, it is common for turnaround scopes to be changing up to the last minute before project execution. There are a number of factors contributing to this:

  • Market conditions (plant profitability) can cause variability in considerations for the budget (requiring scope adjustments), window (squeezing or relaxing the timeframe available to execute the project) and start date (which may affect the decisions on what scope to include, the ability to plan the work, or material availability).
  • Planning input is usually derived with input from Operations, Inspection, Safety, etc. Operations may continue to identify potential scope for the turnaround until the last minute.
  • The availability of specialized tools, materials, equipment and/or resources may affect decisions on how to approach portions of the scope (ie. plans may need adjusting to accommodate a different method/scenario to accomplish the same goal).

One result of this situation is that turnaround budgets are rarely based upon a complete, detailed plan. Turnaround budgets are often based upon conceptual estimates, extrapolations of past turnarounds, or on incomplete planned scopes that are compensated with a large contingency. Because of this situation, it is necessary to review the cost estimate for the final approved scope and make sure it is covered by the approved budget (AFE). If not, either the scope should be culled where possible (or failure to meet the budget will be predetermined) or the budget should be adjusted to reflect the plan (not always politically viable).

Scope Change Control

In a turnaround, the scope will change – sometimes dramatically. As equipment is opened, cleaned and inspected, the extent of required repairs can be determined, planned, costed and either approved or tabled for a future window of opportunity. Every add-on to the schedule should be processed with a defined procedure for evaluation/approval.

An additional challenge is presented in companies where the existing culture allows operators to direct work crews (or get supervisors to direct work crews) to perform work that for one reason or another were not included in the approved project scope. The only solution is to change the culture to respect the defined procedure for add-on approval. Operators and Supervisors/Superintendents must buy in to the add-on approval procedure and field hands must be directed to work only on approved scope as directed by their Supervisors. Where this is not possible (or “a work in progress”), it is imperative to at least document and account for these unapproved jobs where performed so that progress tracking (earned value) may give a meaningful impression of the productivity of the field work.

Management needs to excercise care when evaluating add-on repair scope to ensure that existing resources, productivity and time can accommodate the work (where the repair scope is not operationally/safety critical). Management can end up in a position of balancing the impact of add-on repair work against the culling of original scope where resources become constrained on non-critical (both time and operation/safety) work.

It is desirable to classify scheduled/progressed activities according to two main criteria:

  • Approved Scope
  • Unapproved Scope
  • Cancelled Scope
  • Original Scope
  • Add-On Scope

Project Time Management

One of the most obvious signs of the low maturity in turnaround project management is the state of the planning and scheduling that is intended to form the foundation of the management process. A successful turnaround management methodology must set a high standard for the planning and scheduling to be successful.

Activity Definition

Planning activities that are overly broad in scope are one of the biggest obstacles to using a schedule for any meaningful purpose:

  • They are difficult to estimate with confidence
  • They can mask details that the planner neglected to consider
  • They preclude a detailed critical path analysis where more detail may allow refinements in the logic
  • They detract from the accuracy of progress estimates (estimating % complete is more difficult)

Because of the compressed nature of turnarounds, there is a very small window available for recording and processing progress information in order to generate updated schedules for the next shift. The greater the detail in the activity definition, the less thinking/guesswork is involved in assigning progress to the defined tasks.

Activities must be clearly defined, and should be measurable. This means anyone should be able to determine if a particular activity (as defined) is in progress, or completed. Activities must be defined every time there is a break or change in work content, and/or by changes in the work crew. See the Turnaround Project Planning Primer for more information on Defining Activities.


It is of paramount importance to understand that, unlike EPC projects where a baseline schedule is often used as a firm contractual commitment, for turnarounds a schedule should be a considered a guideline tool to drive the execution of the work. This issue is fundamental to developing a successful turnaround management methodology.

Turnaround managers have a lot of discretion with regards to scope management in turnaround schedules. While there will be portions of the scope aside from the critical path work that must be executed within the instant project, a significant portion of the scope may usually be postponed to future turnarounds or maintenance opportunities. As priorities shift depending upon the scope of add-on repair work and resource constraints, managers need a turnaround schedule that offers flexibility in managing the non-critical work.

Baseline schedules (other than critical and near-critical paths) are meaningless for turnarounds once they start. For turnarounds, it is expected that as inspections are performed, a changing scope (and therefore priorities for constrained resources / non-time-critical work) and often poor schedule compliance (for unavoidable circumstances) will force the schedule for non-time-critical work to change from update to update.

Because of the dynamic nature of turnarounds, it can be counter-productive to employ soft logic and resource leveling schemas that level the schedule. Both techniques are designed to produce a static plan for execution that is not practical for turnarounds. Soft logic will necessitate constant time-consuming changes/updates to maintain a meaningful schedule once deviations from the schedule occur (and this is expected in a turnaround). Resource leveling schemas that alter a hard logic schedule will introduce multiple problems within a turnaround context as outlined in the Resource Leveling or Critical Mass? white paper.

It is instead preferable to maintain a schedule for critical and near-critical path analysis and to allow field supervision discretion in directing their crews on non-time-critical work according to changing priorities and circumstances. Turnaround managers should monitor progress trends, productivity/earned value and scheduled resource requirements every update to ensure that sufficient time and resources are available to complete the non-time-critical work within the span of the critical path.

Project Cost Management

Turnarounds are notorious for overrunning the budget. Part of the problem, as mentioned earlier in the Scope Planning section, is that budgets are rarely based upon the detailed plans/estimates for the scope. Many turnarounds have failure predetermined! Should budgets be based upon a detailed plan (or at least cover the estimate for it), turnaround managers have a reasonable basis for managing costs according to the formula used in EPC projects, as laid out by the PMBOK:

  • influencing factors that create changes to the cost baseline to ensure that changes are agreed upon
  • determining that the cost baseline has changed
  • managing the actual changes when and as they occur

At the end of a turnaround, the final scope of the execution usually encompasses several categories of work:

  • Known scope (planned/estimated)
  • Anticipated repairs (may or may not have been planned/estimated)
  • Unanticipated repairs (not planned/estimated)
  • Unauthorized work (not planned/estimated)
  • Cancelled work (planned/estimated but culled during execution)

So, prior to execution, the turnaround manager may have a budget set including known scope, anticipated repairs and some contingency for the remaining items. Because most indirect costs (not necessarily material costs though) are keyed off of the direct labor costs, the key to successful cost control in a turnaround is execution control (keeping resources productive) and scope management (balancing add-ons against non-critical work).

Earned Value Management

In most cases, it is very difficult to obtain a meaningful earned value analysis in a turnaround. There are several problems that conspire to frustrate the system:

  • The process for capturing and approving actual hours usually lags the progress updates by at least one shift if not two or three
  • The application of the correct work order / cost code number on timesheets is poor
  • Unauthorized work is charged to existing work orders / cost codes but not captured for planning / estimating

Where earned value analysis is conducted, it may be most meaningful to compare numbers broken out by resource type instead of by work order / cost code. In this fashion, managers may have a some measure of the productivity of the resource relative to the schedule.

Project Quality Management

According to the PMBOK, project quality management entails several aspects:

  • quality planning
  • quality assurance
  • quality control

Of these, quality assurance and quality control are usually well defined (and in some cases, government regulated) for safety concerns in turnarounds.

Quality planning on the other hand is an issue that is usually poorly addressed by turnaround organizations. It is recommended that organizations employ a system for capturing and improving plans and estimates for recurring jobs from turnaround to turnaround. This entails benchmarking during execution and a follow up review post-execution to update the system. Too often, the follow up review never occurs and it is left to chance that the planner will remember necessary details the next time a turnaround involving the same unit is planned.

In many cases where the preparation time for planning a turnaround is compressed or inadequate, there is a better than average chance that turnaround plans based upon templates (or historical plans) will suffer from cut and paste syndrome and not receive due consideration for customizing to the instant situation. The best solution for mitigating these problems is to use a planning system like eTaskMaker.

Project Human Resource Management

Most turnarounds involve managing a large contract work force to execute the project. The dynamics of organizational planning and staffing acquisition are usually well understood. The industry is mature enough that project roles and responsibilities are well defined. There is a mature support industry of specialty and general contractors to supply the necessary human resources.

Probably the greatest challenge that turnarounds present over EPC projects is the management of the human resource pools. This is true at a macro (overall staffing levels) and micro (delegation of work to labor pools) level.

Most turnarounds’ staffing levels can be represented with a bell curve. Staffing levels for specialty skills are brought up slowly as units are blinded and vessels opened. Staffing levels are reduced as repairs are completed near the end of the turnaround. Managers should analyze staffing levels versus schedule requirements frequently (in some cases daily) to ensure that sufficient manpower is available to complete the bulk of non-time-critical work within the span of the critical path while also demobilizing excess manpower to control costs.

It is critical to the successful execution of a turnaround for field supervision / superintendents to foster a cooperative teamwork spirit with regards to managing the existing labor pool. Where supervisors / superintendents are held accountable for meeting individual schedule and progress goals, competition for (and hoarding of) skilled labor can occur and jeopardize the project success. Supervisors / superintendents should should bear equal responsibility for meeting the overall schedule and progress goals.

Project Communications Management

One of the single most important aspects to successful turnaround management is communication. Because of the compressed time frame, there is less time available to everyone in the turnaround team to overcome the problems caused by poor communication.

Communications Planning

Many turnaround organizations do not have a communications plan outlining team members’ information needs, delivery schedule and distribution system. Ad hoc reporting on an as-requested basis does not provide the necessary foundation for maintaining high visibility of the project to all stakeholders. A proper communications plan should include/address:

  • Executive Management (summary schedule, progress)
  • Turnaround Management (scope, schedule, progress, manpower)
  • Planning / Scheduling (scope, schedule, progress)
  • Inspection (schedule, progress)
  • Operations (scope, schedule, progress)
  • Safety (scope, schedule [permit requirements])
  • Warehouse (scope, schedule)

Information Distribution

Since turnarounds are so dynamic, information needs to be updated every shift to maintain visibility and control. In order to help field supervision stay on top of changing schedule priorities, it is recommended that complete schedule updates be initiated just before the end of every shift so that updated schedules may be disseminated to the field at the start of the next shift. Without complete schedule updates every shift, the schedule will quickly become meaningless as a tool to manage and drive the project scope and execution.

Stakeholders in turnarounds are always pressed for time. It is recommended that all disseminated information conform to standard report formats. Familiarity with the report format(s) will allow team members to read and digest the information quickly while minimizing the potential for misinterpretations.

Performance Reporting A turnaround project should not be analyzed in the same manner as an EPC project. The dynamics and characteristics of EPC projects and turnarounds are different. Baseline schedules that drive EPC project analysis are relatively meaningless for turnarounds after the first couple of shifts.

Turnarounds require specialized metrics for analysis. Some examples of specialized metrics for turnarounds are:

  • Summary Progress Curves for measuring/tracking/trending against earned progress
  • Critical Mass

Project Risk Management

Turnarounds usually entail a high degree of risk. Because the scope of work is only partially known, managers must prepare for the possibility that the effort to clean or repair equipment may exceed estimates and expectations when the equipment is opened and inspected for the first time.

In general, it is not practical to attempt to model all potential risks within the project schedule. There are virtually infinite possibilities for required repairs on the more complicated pieces of plant equipment like compressors, heaters/furnaces, towers, etc.

It is recommended that risk analysis be considered for critical and near critical path work in the schedule as they have the greatest likelyhood for impacting an on time completion. Managers must balance the costs for maintaining any specialized parts or materials for identified risks against the costs for a possible schedule delay should they need to be procured at the last minute.


Turnarounds are very challenging and dynamic high performance projects. They have many unique characteristics that differentiate them from other types of projects. The EPC centric approach to project management does not work very well for managing turnarounds.

It is hoped that this document may spark a some consideration for employing a turnaround specific methodology to managing turnarounds. Considering the stakes, it is high time for industry to raise the bar in the maturity of their turnaround management methodology.

Evaluating your turnaround/shutdown? Read the articles below for more information:

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