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Achieve results using RCM

In the field, we know that there are no “quick fixes” or “silver bullet solutions” when it comes to improvements in maintenance management. Many separate conditions and events must come together properly to achieve “schedule success” – i.e.: the high level of compliance to a schedule of planned work as produced by your planners. That list of includes:

  • The scheduling itself must be realistic and achievable,
  • Planning of the work must be thorough enough to allow for good scheduling,
  • Work execution must be effective and more or less within the allotted time frame,
  • Supervision of the workforce must be effective but not overbearing,
  • Everyone involved in the processes must be motivated to achieve the same goals – effective work execution,
  • Materials, parts and consumables must all be available when and where needed,
  • Planning, scheduling and materials management must communicate to make the above happen,
  • Work priorities must be respected by operations / production as well as maintenance,
  • The right work must have been identified for planning, etc. or you’ll be doing the wrong maintenance,
  • After the work is done, take advantage of the opportunity to note what worked and didn’t work well – learn from the job just completed so that future plans can be improved, and
  • Your proactive maintenance program must be effective at eliminating surprise failures.

In this article we look at that last bullet point – having an effective proactive maintenance program.

Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM)

Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) is without doubt the most effective method for developing a “failure management program”. I use that term because it isn’t just about maintenance work. It could be called, “Asset Risk Management” given what it does. “Reliability Centered Asset Management” would have been a good name too, but the historical name does the job for most of us and a new acronym is likely to get lost. Naming aside, a good RCM implementation will result in maintenance actions, operator actions, training changes, procedural or process changes, engineering changes and conscious decisions to run some assets to failure.

Each of those options is intended to address a specific failure of the asset to perform one of its usually many functions. Those functions are your “expectations” from the asset, often with a specific target level of performance. Sometimes those functions are critical to your operations (like operating at a certain speed or flow) and sometimes they are not (like being fuel efficient). Every failure does not warrant extensive effort to prevent or predict it. E.g.: In an airplane a failed latch on an overhead luggage bin will not impact operational capability in a big way. A quick fix (lock or even tape it shut) can quickly eliminate the worse consequences – a loaded bin opening up and dropping items on passengers. Running to failure, even though it is a failure on an airplane is entirely acceptable. On the other hand, failure of an engine reduces the available redundancy and increases the risk of being unable to fly. Running to failure won’t be a tolerable option.

RCM is an excellent methodology for identifying the failures you are likely to encounter and determining how best to deal with them. The goal is to reduce consequences of the failures, not necessarily to eliminate the failures themselves. We want to maintain functionality, what they do for us, and if the asset is consumed in some way doing that, then it may be completely acceptable. It is the loss of what it does that we may or may not be willing to live with. Eliminating or minimizing the consequences is not always the same as eliminating the failures. A guard on rotating equipment protects people from contact with moving parts, but doesn’t stop them from reaching or falling into dangerous locations near those rotating parts.

Does RCM deliver an effective proactive maintenance program?

The answer is two-fold – both “yes” and “no”.

RCM itself only produces decisions. Acting on those produces the effective program.

If properly executed, RCM will indeed deliver an excellent program and results.

If you don’t take action to implement the decisions produced by RCM, then you haven’t achieve a thing. There is no point putting the effort into RCM if you are unwilling or unable to follow its output decisions and do exactly what it recommends. Yet sadly, this is precisely where many RCM programs fail. Good decisions are made as a result of thorough and extensive analysis work, but those decisions are not put into action. Why not?

RCM, despite a myriad of available information, is not always well understood. I’ve heard many technicians refer to their PM programs as “RCM programs”. That sort of absurd naming is what I might expect from a plant operator or business manager who knows nothing about RCM. They don’t know that it is really just an analytical method, it produces decisions and nothing more. It does not produce action. Those decisions are sound if the method was applied well, and its outputs must be followed. Turn those into action and you have a proactive maintenance program. Do nothing and you have expensive analyses collecting dust on a shelf.

RCM comprises seven steps – the answering of seven deceptively simple looking questions. On the surface it looks easy to follow and for anyone who has attended RCM training, there is often an impression that it is easy, so why all the fuss. Yet the instructors are always experienced practitioners who know it so well that they make it seem easy. I recall my first skiing lessons – the instructor had been a competitive ski racer and he made it look easy. Movement was fluid, the skis seemed to bend to his will effortlessly. I could barely get up when I fell over just putting them on! I had some theory but no practice.

Practice makes perfect. Not long ago I attended an advanced motorcycle skills course. The instructors made “hanging off” the bikes (like a racer) look easy – one of them was a former racer. He broke it down into 10 easy to follow steps. Then we practiced. Imagine how it feels on your big street bike (not a light weight racing machine) trying to remember 10 steps that you just learned about for the first time, while fast approaching a tight turn. What looked easy with an instructor doing it was suddenly much more difficult to put into practice. The first few attempts went wide – good thing we had space for errors. Once I could remember the steps, their sequence and execute them properly, hanging off the bike in a turn became much easier. More practice will be needed to make it look smooth and to increase speed.

RCM is similar – you need training and practice both. A lot of knowledge underlies your ability to answer its seven questions correctly and arrive at a good decision. Make a mistake in answering a question and you put your decisions at risk.

There are books on RCM – I’ve written two. Reading RCM and its steps is good, but it isn’t enough. Reading creates a degree of intellectual familiarity but it won’t create the deep understanding needed for execution. To get that you really do need training and practice. Training takes you deeper into each of the seven steps. You learn what the books don’t say. Good training also includes some practice time to give you a feel for it. It’s a bit like muscle memory – during the training you are just getting a feel for it. Once you do your first analyses with a skilled facilitator you will gain more of that muscle memory and it won’t fail you from then on-wards.

Skilled facilitation is another essential aspect of RCM. You shouldn’t do RCM alone – you simply won’t have all the answers. You work in small teams and the team is facilitated through the process. The facilitator knows how to get the team through the process quickly to achieve good answers. Facilitation is a skill set that is drawn largely from behavioral sciences and knowing how to manage a small group people to get a desired result. These are skills that most technical people DO NOT POSSESS without some training.

Becoming a good facilitator also requires training and then practice. There are various facilitation skills that need to be learned and practiced under different circumstances. Classroom practice can help, but it takes a lot of time. We prefer to do that practice with real analysis teams and real analyses. Those skills come together when a new facilitator puts it all into use in her / his first real analysis. Somehow, having a team of your own analysts in your own operational environment isn’t at all like the classroom. The new facilitator attains and achieves competence in a whole new skills set while delivering a valuable product for his company.

Imagine yourself in the position of leading your first RCM analysis. You’ve had the analyst training and some practice (one or two pilot project analyses). You’ve taken a facilitator course. Perhaps you’ve had a chance to use some of those new skills in other meetings. Now you are in your own plant and leading a team of your co-workers who have taken analysis training (quite possibly on the same course that you first took). Are you really ready for this first RCM facilitation on your own?

Chances are you are nervous and worried that you’ll mess it up. It’s the first time after all. We don’t remember all that we are taught. In fact without practice you will forget a lot of it. You are right to be worried – you will make mistakes. We all do. What could be embarrassing is that you’ll be watched by trained peers who could spot the mistakes, point them out, ask questions and recognize if you are correct in answering or not. Those mistakes can lead to analytical errors, longer analysis times and a general lack of confidence in the results you produce. Having a mentor or coach in the room with you is a big help.

Throughout my career I have had mentors. One was John Moubray – widely regarded as one of the “greats” in RCM. Another was John Campbell – also widely regarded for demystifying the world of maintenance management. Another was Fred Geitner, an Engineering Associate in Exxon, who taught me so much about rotating equipment and how to maintain it. There were others too at various points in my career. I hope you see a pattern. A mentor teaches us something new, enhances what we may already know about a topic and helps us develop competence. We mentor new RCM facilitators to enhance what they have learned and help them gain confidence as they become more competent.

Having a mentor, an experienced facilitator (likely instructor who taught you) in the room removes a lot of stress. If you make a mistake it will be observed and corrected (gently and subtly). Your risk of going far wrong is very much reduced, your stress level will be lower, and if you make a mistake the risk of producing a compromised analysis is all but eliminated. Not only will you feel more comfortable, but your analysis team will be more comfortable that they’ve got someone experienced in the room to make sure it all goes well. They will observe how quickly the facilitator moves from being unsure to being confident. They’ll notice that the mentors interventions become fewer as the analysis progresses. Before long they’ll realize that you’ve “got it” and that it is time for the mentor to move on. Mentoring doesn’t take long – usually no more than two (2) full analyses, depending on how well you learned the subject initially and how well suited you are to being a facilitator (yes, you must be fit for purpose too).

Completion of the analysis is really just the beginning. There is much work to be done and the analysis team has gone back to “their real jobs”. Maintenance tasks must be entered into your EAM/CMMS so that they trigger work orders at the right times. Procedural or training changes, process changes and engineering changes all need to be initiated and executed. Wherever you’ve identified a failure as being tolerable and made a “run to failure” decision you need to have a way of communicating that to operations. You don’t want them creating emergency work orders for every failure if its consequences can be tolerated. They need to know that a lower priority is appropriate (indeed preferred) in those cases. There’s a lot of follow up work that usually falls to the facilitator to complete or make sure gets done.

RCM isn’t a quick fix or silver bullet solution. It requires a great deal of preparation and care in execution then follow-up action. It produces amazing results if used properly, and it has a relatively small up front cost. Done properly it will enable you to achieve high levels of production in a sustained, safe and environmentally compliant manner.

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