The quest for continuous improvement
Minnkota hosted its first industry peer review in June, welcoming energy experts from across North America.
Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Prairie substation doesn’t see many visitors outside of the co-op’s employees in Grand Forks, N.D. Exceptions were made, however, during the week of June 19-22, when utility professionals from around the nation were treated to an up-close-and-personal look at the transmission hub while staff ensured all safety and security protocols were followed.
“We have a mix of breakers in this substation,” Minnkota Senior Manager of Power Delivery Engineering Kasey Borboa told the 16 people in his site visit group, listing some of the original and updated features of the equipment. “Everything in this sub shows how we’ve evolved.”
The visitors were participants in Minnkota’s first-ever North American Transmission Forum (NATF) Peer Review. The four-day session would bring together nearly 50 peer reviewers and NATF staff facilitators to take an in-depth look at Minnkota and its processes, spanning nine areas including cybersecurity, transmission substations and lines, system protection, supply chain risk management, vegetation management and beyond.
After the week of group breakouts with Minnkota’s subject matter experts (SMEs) and excursions to regional infrastructure, the reviewers would present their findings on where Minnkota could improve, where its strengths lie, and the noteworthy things that make the co-op an industry leader.
“This will help Minnkota improve our best practices across the board,” Minnkota Chief Information Security Officer Dan Inman said to a room of staff and visitors on the first morning of the review. “Have open and honest conversations with your peer reviewers. Lay it all out.”
“We want open dialogue here – back and forth between the peer teams and Minnkota,” NATF Program Manager John Loftis added moments later. “Minnkota will lead that discussion of course, to tell us what you’re doing, but the peer teams will hopefully share what you’re doing as well, and you’ll all learn from each other at the end of the week.”
Network of power peers
Minnkota became a member of the NATF in 2015, joining dozens of North American utilities who believed in the organization’s mission of promoting excellence and continuous improvement in the safe, reliable, secure and resilient operation of the electric transmission system. The NATF was spurred after the historic Northeast blackout of 2003, a large-scale power outage that impacted more than 50 million people across eight states and Canada. At that time, utility compliance standards from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) were still voluntary. That changed just two years later with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
“People stopped talking to each other because they were afraid that if they talked about things, about reliability, they would be found noncompliant,” Loftis explained. “So, they kind of clammed up and stopped talking.”
A group of large utilities knew that stopping industry discourse would stop industry improvement. They formed an organization to allow utilities to share problem points and best practices confidentially without fear – an organization now known as NATF. The Peer Review program quickly became its most popular offering, focusing on specific performance attributes called NATF Principles of Operating Excellence. Minnkota was approved in 2019 for an NATF Peer Review that would happen in 2023. Even though it was four years away, the planning team began preparing immediately.
NATF lead host coordinator Theresa Allard (who regularly serves as Minnkota’s Compliance Manager) joined with Minnkota’s NATF executive sponsors, Inman and Vice President of Power Delivery Brendan Kennelly, to make sure Minnkota was ready for some electric show-and-tell.
“We knew the more that people knew about the NATF, the more success we would have during this peer review,” Allard said. “We started to do some training for the Minnkota staff encouraging people to get involved in other peer reviews, trying to get people more involved in the Principles of Operating Excellence, all with the idea that we had this peer review coming up.”
Support for the peer review process came from the top down, including the Minnkota board of directors. Nearly 40 Minnkota SMEs and additional staff members prepared for months for the big visit, documenting processes and meeting virtually with the NATF review team. Their work paid off.
“The culture is so great,” said peer reviewer Jesus Flores-Olivas, a Substation and Lines Engineering Manager from PNM Resources in New Mexico. “The attention that you give to the ‘what’ you do and the ‘why’ you do it – I think it’s great. For example, you are all together and you are in line on what you do and what is your purpose.”
“The amount of thought power in those conference rooms was just amazing,” Inman said. “And they had fun. They enjoyed having that conversation, open collaboration, sharing thoughts and ideas, while we took away a whole lot of information and will benefit from it. I know quite a few commented, ‘Oh, you guys do that? That’s great! I’m going to take that back.’ It was a bidirectional exchange of information.”
By week’s end, the peer reviewers were prepared to present the results of their deep dive into Minnkota. They developed a thorough list of strengths and areas for improvement for each of the nine review categories, along with their recommendations for next steps. Minnkota also received seven “Noteworthy” observations of above-and-beyond practices, which are typically given sparingly.
“I am very thankful for all of the work that you guys have done in a week,” Minnkota President and CEO Mac McLennan told participants following the feedback presentations. “Clearly, there are a lot of things to be proud of. For the staff in this room, you guys do a lot of really good work. That’s what it said. It also said there’s a lot of opportunity for us. There are a whole host of recommendations on how we can improve.”
As the NATF staff and peer reviewers gathered their things to catch flights to their respective home states, many exhibited one of the techniques they had learned that week – the Midwest Goodbye. Conversations between new colleagues continued, speckled with compliments and last-minute advice.
“I hope that they feel now that Minnkota is somebody that is a friend of theirs as well. We feel as though we made friends, so I would also like them to think that Minnkota can be a resource,” Allard said. “It’s a humbling experience for us. We take the facility, we take the people, we take what we do for granted. So, to have all of these people come in and give you feedback with a fresh set of eyes … it definitely was nice to bring it back to this is who we are and this is why we should be proud to be a part of this organization.”
MAIN IMAGE: Minnkota's Kasey Borboa answers questions about the Prairie substation during the NATF Peer Review. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)