Zen and the Art of Alarm Management

Author Robert M. Pirsig

Author Robert M. Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig, who influenced generations with his autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, passed away last Monday at the age of 88 after a period of failing health.

Published in 1974, his novel sparked deep thought into human philosophy and inspired a generation to adventure across America. By the time I reached college the book was required reading for high-school students across the country; not something that most kids supported at the time, but nonetheless it had a positive influence.

Learning of Pirsig's passing last week reminded me of the book and the positive impact it had on myself and a large segment of my generation. With a feeling of nostalgia I was compelled to reflect on what I learned back then and compare it to what I do today.

The first thing that came to mind was one of the key takeaways from the novel, which is Pirsig's unique focus on quality. Quality is an inherent focus in Japanese philosophy as well, and an innate characteristic of Yokogawa corporate culture, which of course plays a large part in my life.

I asked myself, "how can I communicate this philosophy on quality to a broader audience through Advanced Solutions?" and the answer was Alarm Management.

In this article I will explore alarm philosophy, alarm management and their overall purpose as they relate to Pirsig's philosophy on 'quality' and 'beauty.' This will be the first article in a three-part series discussing the Art of Alarm Management over the next several weeks.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

Author Robert Pirsig and his son Chris in 1968

Author Robert Pirsig and his son Chris in 1968

Pirsig discovered the Asian philosophies that would influence his later work while stationed in South Korea from 1946-1948. After serving in the military Pirsig went on to study Hindu philosophy in India and for a short time was enrolled in a philosophy Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. After studying he returned to Minneapolis and began writing his first book.

Pirsig wrote just two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into MoralsThe first book was inspired by a 1968 motorcycle trip across the Western United States with his son, which quickly became a best-seller marked as a work of modern philosophy.

The main character in his first book struggles to resolve the conflict between "classic" values that create machinery like the motorcycle, and "romantic" values like the beauty of a mountainous landscape. The novel ranges widely contemplating the relationship between humans and machines, madness and the roots of culture. Through these concerns and contemplation he discovers all values find their root in what Pirsig called, Quality:

"Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist."

He makes a good point. What is 'quality' in alarm management?

Zen and Alarm Philosophy

Alarm philosophy is very important, and like most philosophies, it varies far and wide. The nature of alarms is going to be very different on an oil rig than it will in an pharmaceutical plant (i.e. critical alarms, warning alarms, etc). Generally, alarms related to product quality will be more important in a pharmaceutical plant that in a drilling rig operation, where safety alarms would be predominate. And for this reason, according to all major standards, developing alarm philosophy is the first step to developing a successful alarm management program, especially on a clean slate operations that is being designed.

An Alarm Management Philosophy Document sets the vision for what a company believes are the best practices in alarm management.  It describes the methodology for a more consistent and effective approach as it relates to the quality and safety of the operation.  It contains guidelines on how to classify and prioritize alarms, how alarms are displayed on the HMIs, and how changes to the alarm configuration will be managed.  It also establishes key performance benchmarks, like the acceptable alarm load for the operator. The alarm lifecycle work processes as presented by the ISA18.2 should be described as well.

The purpose of this Alarm Philosophy Document is to provide consistent and optimum guidelines to:

Alarm management Life-cycle stages

  • Define and configure new and existing alarms
  • Provide
  • Determine priorities for alarms
  • Assist with alarm rationalization
  • Define alarm handling methods
  • Operator interface
  • Alarm monitoring key performance indicators KPI
  • Alarm management of change

Zen and the Vision for Alarm Management

An effective Alarm Management System is one where nuisance alarms are identified and eliminated, standing alarms are managed, and the impact of alarm flooding is minimized through alarm prioritization and application of tools such as masking and suppression. Alarm Management should also consider the full alarm management life-cycle stages of philosophy, identification, rationalization, detailed design, implementation, operation, maintenance, management of change, monitoring and assessment, and audit.

An effective Alarm Management System will provide the following:

  • Relevant, unique, clear, and easy to understand alarms
  • Alarms presented to the operator at a rate that can be effectively handled
  • Organization of the alarms for easy locating and assessment during abnormal conditions
  • Alarms in accordance with industry best practices and standards
  • Consistent prioritization of alarms based on the severity of consequence and available time to remedy
  • Guidance to the operator on effective handling of each alarm
  • History of alarms and events to be analyzed for troubleshooting and continuous alarm management.

The Benefits of an effectively managed alarm system can be summarized as:

  • Increased Personal and Environmental Safety
  • Improved Equipment Integrity
  • Increased useful life of major mechanical equipment, valves and actuators
  • Improved Production rate and Product Quality control (Financial KPIs met)
  • Increased Operating Efficiency
  • Improved decision support for the operator

The Purpose of Alarm Philosophy

    The main goal of any alarm management system is to help the operator to rapidly assess abnormal situations, and help operators to handle, and take corrective actions to prevent, reduce or mitigate any plant problems. To accomplish this, it is very important to have an effective and reliable system where alarms are:

    • Properly chosen and implemented
    • Relevant, clear, and easy to understand
    • Configured consistently in accordance with industry best practice guidelines
    • Presented to the operator at a rate that he can effectively handle
    • Organized so the operator can easily locate and assess the situation during high frequency alarm events
    • Prioritized so the operator can determine the relative importance of all process alarms, especially during alarm floods
    • Operators can process alarm information during high frequency alarm actuation events

    Since the adoption of the IEC 162682 in 2014, more and more companies have recognized the importance and have put attention on alarm management, which is critical to safe and effective operational performance. The strength of a reliable DCS is rooted in quality, and it can be said that the value of an effective operating environment is also rooted in quality. The conduit that mitigates conflict between the two is philosophy.

    A well-researched and thought-through alarm philosophy leads to a quality alarm management system and helps to resolve the conflict between classic and beautiful, man and machine, DCS and operators.

    The conflict between "classic" values that create machinery like a DCS, and the "romantic" values that create beauty like a harmonious operating environment, can indeed be mitigated. Alarm philosophy is the zen that mitigates the conflict and also serves as the glue that bonds it all together. What do you think?

    This is the first blog in a series that will be published over the next several weeks. Please share your comments with us below.

    Read other articles from Marcus here.