The Challenge: Developing a Reliability Culture

In some organizations, reliability is not just a word, but a culture that has been built over a period of time. Developing a reliability culture is not solely a top-down approach or dependent on the company’s vision. Sometimes, it is taken as a normal, routine job, while other times, it may get a fast-track status.

In fact, all the giant organizations in the oil, gas and hydrocarbon industries are aware of what reliability of their assets is. Their management information system (MIS) will have some numbers that keep top management happy that reliability is maintained and assets are not deteriorating. That is, of course, until some failure takes place and then everyone becomes busy finding out the “why” of the failure. Most times, the answer is: “Except for this particular instance, the systems are maintained.”

So, what happened in this “particular instance?” To illustrate, let’s look into a classic corrosion under insulation (CUI) failure case that occurred in a refinery in 2013. It involved a pipe section with a nominal 210 mm internal diameter and consisted of a straight section, some 1,430 mm in length (see Figure 1). Its failure led to an explosion and fire at the refinery site, leading to the evacuation of the site and resulting in millions of dollars worth of damage to the facility.

Figure 1: The corroded pipe section that contributed to a refinery explosion and fire in 2013

The root cause of the incident was threefold. First, management failed to adequately assess the suitability of the installation design with respect to the proximity of the walkway bracket to the pipe work (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The proximity of the corroded pipe to the walkway bracket

Second, there was a failure to ensure that the implemented installation was adequately weatherproofed and third, there was a lack of an adequate in-service inspection regime that might have identified degradation of the pipe prior to failure.

Some of the salient points from the conclusion of the failure report are:

  1. The pipe coating system appeared to be compliant with specifications; there was no evidence to suggest that an inadequacy of the coating contributed to failure.
  2. The lagging system appeared to be fit for purpose; there was no evidence that inadequacy of the intended system contributed to failure.
  3. Failure of the pipe had occurred as a result of corrosion under insulation (CUI), the rate of corrosion was entirely consistent with published data. The wall thickness of the pipe had been reduced to a level that would not support the internal pressure; the remaining ligament had then failed as a result of a ductile overload.
  4. The proximity of the pipe to the walkway bracket was not in compliance with published guidance.
  5. Water had entered the lagging system through a breach in the jacketing/lagging made to accommodate a walkway support bracket. It is probable that no adequate precautions were taken to weatherproof the penetration into the lagging system.

In this particular instance, the organization’s system data did not correlate with the culture of the organization. Why? Because, unfortunately, the dashboard of top management’s MIS system does not capture culture.

How to Solve the Culture Problem

First, it starts with defining culture. There are many definitions for the word culture, but for purposes of this article, the following definition is proposed:

A culture is a way of life for a group of people—the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

So, let’s say people are trained or ordained to follow certain rules, but somewhere a breach occurs. Since the issue where the breach occurred is so minor, people do not take notice of it and over time, it becomes the culture and then disaster occurs.

So, how do you overcome the problem? You have to build, or perhaps rebuild, a culture where people resist rather than accept these apparently minor deviations. Are today’s megacorporations equipped to do it? Yes, since they can do anything on the earth. But, are they willing? Here one finds the problem everyone is looking for: Fast, faster, fastest progress does not distinguish a small variation or aberration until many years later – and after everyone has forgotten about it – causes a disaster.

The solution to the problem lies not in getting past such deviations, but in encouraging frank discussions at all levels and listening carefully. This is not something that is available from the dashboard, so those who are immediately next to top management have to take it upon themselves to find such incidences or deviations. Then, the chain of command continues until reverse communication (i.e., bottom to top) gets completed to give the light of day to such a critical issue.

Developing a reliability culture requires extremely high courage and determination from the organization to discuss such issues. Often times, the trivial issues are discussed at the lowest levels, where workers are bound by their own culture and would never want to break it. Those who do are considered traitors, even if they are working in the best interest of the organization. This is the dilemma organizations have to solve. They will only find the right solution if the issue is treated as a breach and tackled without hurting anyone. Only then can the organization get back on the right track, ensuring that the path to a reliability culture will not lead to a disastrous end.

There is no doubt that organizations will have enough mature people to tackle such deviations and uphold the culture leading to reliability.


Geary, W. Case Study: Analysis of a corrosion under insulation failure in a carbon steel refinery hydrocarbon line. London: Elsevier Ltd., October 2013.