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Voice From The Field: Following the North Star

Michelle Segrest | July 12, 2017

Working in various locations around the globe, KRATON’s Ron Bitely keeps all focus pointed at a target that never moves.

Ron Bitely believes that everyone needs to have a North Star.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 1.38.16 PM“We should all have direction in whatever we are doing,” he said. “I don’t like to use the word ‘vision’ because many people consider this just another buzz word that has little meaning. But people can relate to following a North Star that remains constant. Targets move. People need direction so they can make decisions that will create value for their company.”

For Bitely, the global electrical and instrumentation reliability manager for Houston-based KRATON (formerly Arizona Chemical), having common direction is especially important. He is responsible for reliability at the company’s global sites, which includes five sites in the U.S., and international facilities in Brazil, France, Germany, Taiwan, Sweden, Japan, and Finland. He generally stays at one site for about a week (unless working on a project). Then he changes his focus on the next opportunity to create value for the company.

“Reliability encompasses a lot of things,” he said. “It’s not just one thing. There is a distinct difference between maintenance and reliability. A lot of people combine the two, but these are very different disciplines. The biggest difference is that reliability is just as much about people and culture as it is about technology. A good reliability program combines these elements. It’s about the people and the capabilities that you develop in that culture of understanding what ‘good’ looks like.”

Keeping reliability a priority across the company’s many facilities involves careful consideration of various cultures, languages, different geography, and individual company protocol.

“It’s a challenging role because I’m always working through others in order to be successful,” he said. “People don’t like to change, but this becomes easier when you understand why change is necessary. I believe in communicating why we do what we do so that people can align to it. Of course, they can also challenge it. This is okay, too.”

Like the actual North Star, Bitely’s figurative North Star never moves. The target remains constant with the ultimate goal of aligning all best practices across sites, even though at this point, each site is at different points in the journey.

Remembering that every individual is unique and each culture represents some variation of the path that is taken, the father of two teen-agers approaches management like raising children. “You need to be fair, but everyone may not be motivated by the same things,” he explained. “Different people react to different motivation and discipline. It’s important to understand different people’s hot buttons—the good ones and the bad ones.”

Regularly visiting multiple sites creates many challenges. “It can be difficult, because some people view global resources like seagulls—they swoop in and then leave you a big to do list,” Bitely explained. “You just can’t do that. I’ve learned to roll up my sleeves and lead by example. I first show them how to do it, then explain why we do it, and try to show the value that it creates for us. We are the global resources that are leveraged to the sites assisting their growth and value creation. We are breaking through that barrier; our mission is to provide technology and be collaborative.”

Early experience

Bitely’s approach to implementing change is the result of a long and diverse career that includes experience in the pharmaceutical, biotech, chemical, mining, and pulp and paper industries.

After graduating from the State Univ. of New York-Canton, Bitely worked at a small paper mill in upstate New York as a process- and quality-control engineer. “It was a good-ole-boy operation where we just did whatever it took—and sometimes that meant fixing things a million times,” he said. “This experience got me started down the path of doing things right the first time. I wasn’t officially in the field of maintenance and reliability yet, but I was indirectly.”

It didn’t take long for him to understand how this method of doing things over and over could quickly increase costs and consume resources.

He later spent time in electrical construction, and then spent 16 years working for major pharmaceutical companies. “This is where I really began to understand what it looked like to have good engineering practices and the importance of getting things right,” he said. “Working in pharmaceuticals can really create a fear in everyone’s mind about FDA recalls, so you learn to double- and triple-check things. This is where I really got a good education in using engineering best practices. It was an overall discipline. The longer I was there, the more I learned. I began to understand the importance of having a process. There is a rhyme and a reason for why you do things. I also learned a lot about risk mitigation.”

He then gained more diverse experience working as a reliability leader at Georgia Pacific, Atlanta. “Working in a variety of industries has helped me learn how to approach things, and has helped in my ability to coach and mentor people because the experience is so broad,” he continued.

For KRATON, Bitely influences the local teams to maintain all of the manufacturing equipment and also promote reliability within the operations, safety, and quality units for the global facilities. “Reliability touches everything,” he said.

Best practices

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 1.38.24 PMFor consistency across all sites, KRATON uses SAP for its CMMS. The company also incorporates the use of many maintenance and reliability tools within every site, for example, vibration analysis and monitoring, infrared, ultrasound, and other technologies for best predictive practices.

Strong leadership and incentive programs are also used. In every practice, Bitely encourages his early lessons of doing things right the first time. With various cultures and languages, there are many sensitivities that come into play when incorporating these best-practice processes across sites.

“How you address someone could be fine in one place and completely offensive somewhere else,” he said.

While, ultimately, the target is the same, actually defining the “North Star” at each site becomes critical. For centuries, explorers have used the North Star as a beacon of travel throughout the world. Therefore, the universal analogy translates well globally.

Special programs

KRATON creates, develops, and manufactures renewable chemicals and specialty polymers for a variety of products in a variety of industries. Bitely is working on a program to increase availability at one of its refineries, with a target of 99%. He uses a clear analogy to define what this means. “If you go to your driveway and turn the key to your car, you want the car to start for you—so it’s available to use every time you turn that key,” he explained. “Some people confuse availability with uptime. These are different terms with different meanings. Our target of 99% availability will ensure that our customers have what they need, when they need it, because we would be available to produce product 99% of the time.”

In the effort to identify opportunities to make this happen, Bitely and his teams have discovered value from electrical distribution from the power companies. “Due to failing infrastructure in the United States, availability of power can be poor at times,” he said. “If you lose power at one of your sites, you shut down. We must make sure our utilities, equipment, and systems are all reliable and with the highest availability possible.”

Work-life balance

Along with his considerable and diverse experience, Bitely uses his gift of relating to people at all levels to help achieve the team goals.

“One of my first jobs was as a custodian, pushing a broom,” he said. “So I understand that there are different levels of expertise and how important it is to explain things in a way that each individual can understand. If I’m talking to a VP of Engineering, I may be very technical. If I’m talking to a brand new planner right out of college with little experience, I try to explain things in a way that he can learn and get a clear visual of why we do things this way. It’s important to know your audience and to ask the right questions.”

While he has other interests—outdoors, horses, ice hockey, family—the theme of reliability translates from work to home.

“I’m very passionate about reliability,” he said. “Even my wife says my work rolls over into my personal life because. in everything I do, it’s always about doing things right the first time and keeping your eye on that North Star.”

Ron’s Top 5 Tips for Effective Reliability

1. Acquire good troubleshooting skills.

2. The smallest details make the biggest differences. The big stuff will hit us upside the head. It’s the little stuff we may miss.

3. Seek others. Don’t work in a vacuum.

4. Continuously educate yourself. Read blogs. Subscribe to LinkedIn. Read forums. Attend conferences. It should be an evolution of learning everyday.

5. Use emotional intelligence.


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Michelle Segrest

Michelle Segrest

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