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Why Geoscientists Need To Care About Process Efficiency

Loblolly Beach, Anegada, BVI

While on vacation in the Virgin Islands, our little group took the opportunity to spend a day on Anegada. This little isle is a part of the UK, the northeasternmost of all of the Virgin Islands and “unique in that it is composed exclusively of carbonate rock … and that its relief is only 25 feet compared to the 1100 to 1700 foot relief exhibited by the other [volcanic] islands.” (from Reconnaissance geology of Anegada Island)

Getting to Anegada from St. John requires purchasing a ticket for an approximately 2-hour ferry ride with a stop in the West End of Tortola to clear British customs. You’d think getting on the ferry is a simple thing seeing as how it happens every month and our tickets were purchased in advance, but alas. Observe:

  • Lady 1 took our confirmation slips, carefully ripped off and handed us each two paper tickets for the ferry ride to Anegada and back. She then sent us over to Lady 2 located at a very cramped station behind us in line, which required displacing passengers standing there asking Lady 2 what to do,
  • Lady 2 swiped our passports, manually entered the ticket numbers next to our names on an Excel spreadsheet, attached the tickets to the back of our passports with scotch tape and sent us back to Lady 1, and
  • Lady 1 took our passports again, slowly checked our names against the passenger manifest and then handed us a British customs form to fill out.

FACEPALM. The whole process took twenty minutes when it could have taken five, and minus at least three subroutines. If you don’t know me, inefficiency bothers me, especially the kind that is contrived, poorly-thought-out and has to do with paper or unnecessary paperwork. If you really don’t know me, my irritation first shows up as super-arched eyebrows, but this time I simply turned to my friend Mo and said, “You know, I could stay behind here on St. John and get a job as a process efficiency consultant.” To which Mo giggled and replied, “They’ll fire you for firing them.” Sigh.

We often joke that this is a soon-come-mon attitude typical of the Caribbean, Third World, local DMV, jury duty or any given government agency, but don’t laugh too hard because it is happening at your workplace, too, and costs time, money and sweet sweet sanity.

The oil industry is portrayed as high-tech and it is in many contexts. We have literally achieved deepwater drilling depths unimaginable only a few years ago, while the computing and software required to quickly analyze terabytes of earth and engineering data become cheaper and more commonplace. The new, crazy depositional environments, the borehole tools, the pressures, the temperatures, the chemicals, the economics, the everything. It is truly mind-bending.

But, being brilliant scientists and engineers who work with giant volumes of data and decisions on supercomputers to accurately place wellbores 5 miles below the surface of the earth and capture deep hydrocarbons alone doesn’t make us high-tech. Process efficiency does. By this, I mean the underlying framework as well as the technological and human support required to work well everyday, get work done in a timely fashion, clearly and easily communicate thoughts and results to colleagues and clients, store material for archival and future access and navigate myriad corporate administrative tasks with minimal waste of time and energy. In other words, it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it that ultimately constitutes success (and zen cool).

Sadly, many of us, i.e. technical professionals who work the earth’s subsurface and our management, are good at what we do but not at much else beyond that, so don’t know what (level of) infrastructure and support to ask for and how. Most of us work with the tools we are given, assume what now have is all that is possible and plod along from there. Such a situation can be avoided by even a basic value for and proficiency at other fields – information technology, electronics, project management, effective communication methods, logistics and organization – and seamlessly integrating them into the way we work everyday. This is where most energy companies fall down, all while better-integrated competition and other truly high-tech industries make great strides. I place this squarely at our own feet. If we the “technologists” know what better tools and processes we require, we will be equipped to actively work at and ensure the right kind and quality of support is available to us. A passive, off-the-shelf, it-will-be-fixed-some-day approach, along with the attitude that computing and other support functions are separate from or not as important as the daily technical workflow, will result in being forced to take what is offered and to like it.

Inefficiency drains in so many ways, and it is directly because of under-prioritizing or writing off what are essential requirements. As a university professor who used to work in the oil industry tells his students, “Be awesome at EVERYTHING … you won’t survive in a niche like the ol’ days.” Learn what will make you more efficient and demand the tools and quality of service that get you there.

2 comments… add one
  • Toastar (@toastar) April 24, 2013, 3:16 PM

    I think the corollary to this is Linus’s law:

    “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” -Raymond, Eric S.. “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”.

    • Maitri April 24, 2013, 3:24 PM

      I wholeheartedly agree with this for intra/multi-disciplinary integration – with a large number of geologists, geophysicists, engineers and other scientists and thinkers looking at a problem, the answer will be arrived at quicker. Here I am talking about getting from your IT, apps, HR, etc. what you invest in it. They are an integral part of the efficiency of our process.

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