Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breaking the Mould - Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Meeting Señor Schmidt

I was a performance coach working for a company of Management Consultants based in Aberdeen, Scotland, and had just finished four months working on a semi submersible drilling platform on the very edge of the continental shelf in the North Atlantic to the West of Shetland.

I was filling in for a colleague who had started the project twelve months before but had been forced to leave when another company made him an offer he couldn't refuse, more money.

The original contract was not to be renewed so my job was to be a billed bum on a seat for the last two trips while the project wound down.

The winter had been severe in that part of the Atlantic where severe was the normal description for the weather in summer.

It had been a difficult trip so I wasn't too upset when I was able to board the helicopter for the last time and wave goodbye to the rig.

Home at the beginning of December, I put my feet up and waited for news of the next project, hoping all the time that nobody would have any emergencies until after Hogmanay.

There is still something special about the West Coast of Scotland at New Year that cannot be bought or bottled, although there are a number of distilleries that get very close.

I received a call in the first week of January from my office in Aberdeen and after a very rapid run through the New Year's greetings I was asked if I wanted to go back to Venezuela.

I had been to Venezuela several times before but was curious to learn a little more about the project before I committed myself.

This time the job was for a drilling contractor.

I would be working a new oil field in the centre of the country away from the traditional fields in the west.

The client was a partnership between a French Oil Company and the National Oil Corporation of Venezuela.

The country manager for the drilling contractor had six drilling rigs in the country.
Five were in the west and had been on hire for many years.

The sixth had arrived in the country six months ago specifically to work the new field.

The rig was drilling wells which went down to around a thousand feet then turned horizontally to drill along the thin oil bearing sand layer.

The oil was thick and heavy and flowed very slowly.

To create the production levels required the rig would drill up to twenty-four wells in each location, moving the rig about fifteen metres between each well.

When the wells were completed the production would all be brought together at the surface in a single large manifold.

At a business review shortly after Christmas the South American partners had told the drilling contractor, rather unsympathetically, that if they did not achieve a radical change in their performance then they could pack the rig up and ship it back to where they had come from.

The country manager had not been expecting this reaction and for a while was at a loss, he had been doing his best and did not know what he could do to improve.

He remembered hearing of the work that I had done in Europe in similar situations and although for this size of operation I was going to be expensive, he was growing very short of cards to play.

My job was to go to Venezuela and turn around the performance of the rig.

That phone call was the first of two.

Did I want to go?

The second call a week later was to tell me where to get my tickets.

I was lucky that I had to pack in a hurry because in retrospect, if I had considered everything that I didn't know about the project, where I was going, what I was going to do, where I was going to stay, what I was going to eat, I would never have been able to lift my bags for all the contingencies for which I would have packed.

As it was, the only extra item I packed was a mosquito net.

The altitude of the site and the lack of standing water meant that I never heard a single mosquito in the four months I was there, but it was still a comfort to have as I travelled out for the first time.

The country manager who met me in the capital, Caracas, was an Austrian emigré called Gunter and was the man who had control of all the rigs in the country.

I was taken initially to the company offices in Maracaibo where the nature of their problem was explained to me.

In short the rig was on a warning from the client, who was quite capable of forcing them to pack up and remove it from the country.

There was no deadline at the moment but in South America that simply meant that it could happen tomorrow.

The meeting was relaxed but there was an image in my mind of the drilling company tied to the table with a Damoclean sword coming closer to the jugular with every swing.

Gunter had done his research and in me he knew what he was getting.

He was aware of the necessarily long term nature of my work and was reluctant to press too hard for promises of short term savings which he knew would be just that, promises.

However Gunter still needed something to take away from the meeting to justify the extra expenditure to his bosses in Europe.

I was very aware of the politics and asked Gunter what he was looking for.

"What would really impress him?"

Gunter's answer was "An improvement in casing running times."

Running casing was the last operation the drilling team carried out before the rig was skidded across the site - with hydraulic rams - to the next well.

After the well had been drilled the casing would be run all the way to the bottom and cemented in place to stop the drilled hole from collapsing.

When the rig left the site another smaller rig would arrive and prepare the well for oil production.

Without the casing in place the hole would very likely collapse making it unlikely that the production tubing would be able to get to the bottom.

The casing was run into the hole in nine metre lengths.

The actual time that it took to run the casing was not a large percentage of the total time on the well, but there was some pressure to run it as quickly as possible to minimise the amount of time that the formation was open without the protection that the casing gave it.

If the hole did collapse before the casing was in place the consequences were serious.

The casing already run would have to be pulled back to the surface and the drilling bit run again to clean out the collapsed section.

Gunter told me that the fastest the rig had ever managed to run casing was sixteen joints per hour.

They would be impressed if the rig managed twenty joints per hour, a twenty five percent improvement.

I pushed a little harder.

What would really knock his socks off?

What was the best performance ever?

Gunter paused and looked towards Duncan his deputy,

They conferred quietly for a second then Duncan spoke up and said that he thought the best ever, to his knowledge, was twenty five joints per hour.

He thought that one of his other rigs had once achieved twenty five joints per hour in Europe but that you could hardly use something which had happened once years ago in a different country as a target.

Assuring him that I was not setting targets for anyone, but was just curious to learn what was the best, I could tell I had gone too far.

Gunter and Duncan were no longer taking me seriously so I wrote down "Twenty five joints per hour," then closed my notebook and asked if there was anything else I needed to know or they wanted to tell me.

I flew back to Caracas the same afternoon and the following day was on my way to El Tigre, a town about two hundred kilometres north of the Rio Orinoco in the centre of Venezuela.

I was accompanied by Duncan, the deputy country manager, whose job was to introduce me to the rig manager, a naturalised Venezuelan called Willie Schmidt.

We met Señor Schmidt in his office in El Tigre where he rose to his impressive height of six feet four and took my outstretched hand with a dignified restraint.

From what Duncan was saying it was obvious that Señor Schmidt had never heard of the process of "Breaking the Mould" and would have thought the image of a management consultant working on an oil rig rather humorous, if it had been happening to someone else.

Clearly he was not amused that it was happening to him.

Duncan sensed the resistance too and felt that he had to get me off on the right foot by selling the idea of what I was going to do for Señor Schmidt.

As the human race matures each subsequent generation seems to develop a greater resistance to salesmen.

Watching Duncan, even with the authority of his position as deputy country manager, I could feel Señor Schmidt's defences rising higher and higher.

His expressionless face eloquently said that if Duncan were not his boss he would not even be in the same room with me.

I was trying to figure out what I could do to limit the damage that Duncan was doing.

The more defensive Señor Schmidt became, the more work it would take for me to get him back on board later.

At that moment we were interrupted by Santa ("Saint" in English), Señor Schmidt's secretary, who had an urgent call from the rig.

Señor Schmidt was torn between answering the call and continuing to listen to his boss.

While he clearly wanted to embrace the former he felt obliged to do the latter.

He was not going to be happy so I took the opportunity of suggesting that Duncan and I should go and find a cup of coffee while Señor Schmidt talked to the rig in peace.

Duncan looked askance but said nothing.

We followed Santa who showed us to the kitchen then left us alone.

I started to pour the coffee but could feel Duncan's impatience behind my back.

I took my time with the coffee and when I was finished I turned slowly to offer Duncan the first cup.

Keeping my eyes down and focusing on the cup, I turned back to pick my own cup up from the table, waiting for Duncan to speak.

I turned slowly back to Duncan, bringing the cup up to my lips as I turned.

He was going mad but held his peace until I couldn't keep a straight face any more.

I smiled at Duncan who started smiling too, an automatic reaction, but he was still puzzled about what was amusing me.

I thought it was time to put Duncan out of his misery so I asked him what his job was.
He replied that he was the "deputy country manager".

I asked again, what was his job. "What do you do from day to day?" I said.

Duncan thought a bit longer then he broke out into a real grin and said, "What you are really trying to say is that I am not very good as a salesman."

" Exactly" I said, "You've got it in one."

Duncan smiled then stopped and looked a little troubled.

He asked me, "Where do we go from here?

Willie is not very happy about what he is being asked to do.

How will we manage that situation?"

"Don't worry," I said, "I think you'll find that that is my job".

I suggested a beer so we finished our coffees and set about winkling Señor Schmidt out of his office and down to the restaurant of his choice.

He went home first and collected his wife, a charming Venezuelan whose calming influence probably went a long way towards making sure that we were up early and fit for business the next day.

Duncan had to catch the early flight back to Caracas and was feeling a little nervous that we had not spoken a word about business since coffee the previous afternoon, so I assured him that the ball was rolling and I would see him again in three weeks when I came back from the rig.

Señor Schmidt was quiet on the way out to the airport and after seeing Duncan off drove back to the centre of El Tigre.

He turned left at the traffic lights instead of going straight on, and as easy as that, we were on our way to the jungle.

I thought about how the trip had gone so far. The most important man at this moment was Señor Schmidt and he was not happy.

He was the man who was responsible for the performance of the rig, and his behaviour and the things he said affected the way that the crews performed on the rig.

Unless Señor Schmidt changed his approach and what he said to the crews, whatever happened while I was on the rig would stop the minute I left because Señor Schmidt's behaviour would drive performance right back to where it had been before I arrived.

My first challenge was to be able to talk to him.

That might be difficult.

I had been sent to the rig without the people on it knowing anything about me or what I did.

My time had been bought and paid for by the country manager without any reference to the rig.

This sent a message to Señor Schmidt that was loud and clear. "We are sending you this man to help because you are failing." For Schmidt it was like a physical slap in the face.

He had been doing the best that he could and now they were sending him someone who had never been on a rig before to help.

It was insulting.

"How could someone who had never been on one of these rigs before manage it better than he who had been working these rigs for nearly ten years?"

He did not say anything but it was clear from his manner that he had received the message.

I knew that I had some work to do with Señor Schmidt.

From previous experience I knew that trying to sell an idea to someone in Señor Schmidt's position was the wrong thing to do.

As he said himself, he had been doing his best and to suggest that someone like me, a consultant with no experience of working on a land rig could do any better was insulting.

I knew that Señor Schmidt would not consider changing the way he behaved unless he could see value in making a change.

This meant that I had to make the change first and then when he asked me how the change had happened, he would listen to what I had to say.

I knew how to be patient.

Peter A Hunter

www.breakingthemould.co.uk

and at

www.hunter-consultants.co.uk.

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