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Chevron – using Nimbus Control software to manage processes

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chevron is rolling out Business Process Management (BPM) software “Nimbus Control” across the company – after Chevron’s shipping division had a good experience with the software.

Chevron is gradually rolling out the Nimbus Control BPM software application around the company, following its successful deployment in Chevron’s shipping division.

Nimbus Control is used to help people manage their business processes – but it does it in a different way to most other process analysis or process automation software tools.

Rather than try to automate everything (i.e. give staff a sequence of screens to enter data, like when you book a plane ticket), the software aims to give the user the information they need to do their jobs.

So you can see it more like an intelligent operations manual – or a GPS for your business, so that staff can more easily and quickly follow approved procedures to accomplish their work tasks.

There are limits to how much the “automation” route can work when trying to use software to help people manage their work in the oil industry.

It isn’t possible to organise a company’s processes by some “central Wizard of Oz”, says Jim Boots, senior business process management advisor at Chevron, who was responsible for facilitating the growth of the Nimbus software in the company.

“In Chevron, most people aren’t going to do the same thing every day,” says Mr Boots.

“They come to their desk, turn on their computer, and then access the content which is meaningful to what they need to do.”

Mr Boots estimates that only 20 per cent of business processes in the oil and gas industry are actually automatable.

80 per cent of the processes have “manual” steps, where people go between phone calls, e-mail and software systems to get something done. Nimbus Control helps staff understand these process flows – providing ready access to the right information, work instructions and systems associated with any step.

For example, if someone working in a shipping company needs to send a tanker to the Arctic and they haven’t done that for 6 months, the software acts as the operations manual, to tell them what list of steps they need to follow, to make sure the vessel is appropriate for use and contracted under the right terms and conditions.

The software is designed to help people do what they need to do in practice, so it’s more than just a training manual.

“You have to give the capability to the people. You put something in their hands so they can begin to own these processes. That’s the real key behind what Nimbus does,” Mr Boots says.

“It’s about combining the procedural steps and making sure the right version of the needed information is at people’s fingertips.”

“People can log in and say ‘how do I do something?’ Whatever it happens to be, we present them with the standard approved way of doing it,” explains Mr Swain, senior vice president, North America with Nimbus.

Nimbus’ corporate head office is in Hampshire, UK, with a US head office in San Francisco.

The software is used in many different industries, some of whom have over 130,000 people using it, rolling it out to their entire company.

Choosing Nimbus Control

“I’ve looked at a number of business process software tools,” says Chevron’s Jim Boots. “Other products are focussed on capture, analysis and automation. They are focussed on the automatable parts of processes. But that is not at all what Nimbus is trying to do.”

Mr Boots says that his number one reason for liking Nimbus Control is that it is “really focussed on empowering end users”.

“Once I got going with that – I realised how many good things we could do with this – in our environment.”

The first part of Chevron to use the Nimbus software was Chevron Shipping, the tanker operator, which was chartering vessels from offices in Singapore, London and the US, and was occasionally finding itself in tricky commercial situations, leading to additional liabilities, such as vessel arrivals and cargo readiness not being perfectly co-ordinated.

“They aren’t huge issues but together they add up to a lot of dollars,” he says. “So they said, we’ve got to get our heads around this.  Somehow or another, it was a little bit of a serendipitous connection, Chevron shipping got connected to Nimbus and started using the Control software – and I happened to find out about it.”

“I said, ‘Wow this is really good, this has enterprise potential.’ I set up an infrastructure to support the software, then I started showing it to people to build interest and more people started using it.”

“At the time Nimbus was significantly better than what we were using (to manage business processes) - which was Visio and PowerPoint,” he says. “People often call Nimbus ‘Visio on steroids.’”

Oil company processes

Oil company processes can be described at many levels.

For example, at a highest level, an oil company wants to decide where to explore and produce. At the next level, it decides how to do it, such as doing a seismic survey. Then there are levels where it works out how exactly the task will be put together, who will do what and what checks need to be done.  When you come to the tasks which most people do day by day, you can be about 6 levels down into process decomposition, Chevron estimates.

The fundamental objectives of all companies are pretty much the same, but they all have different ways of achieving it, particularly in companies which have been through many acquisitions.

“Consumer banking for example, or insurance, is at the low end of complexity,” says Chevron’s Jim Boots. “That’s why fewer and fewer people are involved in banking. It is very automatable.”

“The airline industry is complicated but not as complicated as our business. With airlines it’s a relatively small set of procedures, but it’s more complicated than banking.”

“Our industry is out there at the other extreme - highly complex, global supply chain, physical products in very different environments. And there can be a heavy price to pay, if things go wrong,” he says.

The Deepwater Horizon case is a good example to use here, because many people are familiar with it.

The personnel involved were not doing a task which they perform the same way every day, or even every month, so it would not be practical to reduce it to a series of online forms saying this is your next step.

But just from reading the investigation reports, you get a sense that it was not clear who was responsible for which decisions or which processes, which choices were within acceptable limits for the company and when specific decisions were taken.

If the processes had been properly documented, understood and followed, it would have been helpful to keep everybody on track. And that’s where a business process management tool like Nimbus Control earns its keep, because the processes are more robustly managed and you can trust that they are up-to-date and subject to regular audit.

Helping people do the right things at the right time

What the software does, you could say, is provide a level of support and guidance. But since 80% of work tasks in most businesses are manual or only semi-automated, the fact is that people always have free will.  You cannot reduce everything to the simplicity and certainty of form filling and button clicking.  The content people create with a tool like Nimbus Control respects this reality.

For example, when a decision needs to be made, the software can suggest to the user, “now you have to evaluate these factors and use some judgement,” rather than try to tell them what the answer is.

The software might say, “Here’s an unusual procedure – the right thing to do here is to have a conversation with an expert – a real one,” Mr Boots says.

“Some pieces of those procedures could be automated in the sense that unless you acknowledge a certain step has taken place – you can’t go to the next step,” Mr Boots says.

“M” is for Management

BPM is not just a matter of documenting your processes.  The “M” stands for Management after all.  You need to be confident that processes are approved, up-to-date and regularly reviewed. In highly regulated industries you’re going to need to overlay the compliance requirements on-top of the process, and use that to drive compliance audits.  You may need to show where business controls and safety checks apply to the process, and show that the controls are regularly tested and certified.

There’s more to this than initially strikes the eye.  One of the clever things about Nimbus Control is that due to personalized delivery of information to users, you can keep the content easy to access and understand for ordinary staff who don’t need to use the more powerful aspects like audit and compliance.

Also, people don’t need to be at their PCs to work with the software. “The software can give that information graphically, real time, on a handheld device if that’s necessary, which is important if you’ve got a mobile workforce,” Mr Boots says.

A company standard?

Any company with several business units has to figure out how much it will dictate the way things are done from head office and ask all employees to do it that way, or give employees in different divisions the latitude to do things their own way.

But sooner or later in a company’s growth there comes a point when if you want to improve efficiency, safety, quality and customer service it pays to have an agreed method for how various tasks should be done.  Once those methods are adopted by the workforce you’ve got a chance of starting to improve performance.  And that can be very empowering for employees, as their opinions about what should be changed suddenly really matter.  Let’s face it, if everyone works differently, there’s no point in head office listening to improvement ideas.  What works for one person will be inappropriate to another.  But once there’s an established best practice, ideas for improving that still further really matter, and if the improvement works, the effect can be multiplied thousands of times by other colleagues.

“All companies are faced with these challenges,” Mr Boots says. “and software isn’t ever the total answer.  At the end of the day it’s people which count and the way in which they adopt processes and want to be involved in improving how the company operates. Providing our employees with a consistent place to look for process and procedure guidance, and keeping the content easy to understand has really helped in this quest. And since the software helps us collaborate together to improve the process still further it is really paying dividends in our quest for operational excellence.”

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