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Maintenance Excellence – no quick fixes

We all love instant gratification. Some of us can’t resist temptations, some give in some of the time, others prefer to defer for greater reward later. Never-the-less, regardless of our age, we have grown used to getting what we want, generally quickly and limited only by our ability and willingness to pay for it.

If you were born after 1979, you grew up in an era of computers and internet. But it wasn’t until later that it really got going. By the late 90’s you could see consultants connected by wires to payphones in airports to get their email. Now-a-days that same email and so much more is on our phones, and payphones are difficult to find. If you are older than 30 you’ve learned about technology, accepted it, many have embraced it and you probably see it as a great tool to make life more convenient. You can get along without it, but you really prefer to keep it. If you are 30 or younger, you are what some might call, digital natives – completely used to and comfortable with technology and you would struggle to get along without it, but you could. If you are 20 or younger, you probably can’t imagine life without it.

E-business and much of our online experience today produces near immediate results. And the younger we are, the more we tend to trust technology and believe that what is online is entirely valid. That sets up expectations that carry over into the work environment. Yet there is a crucial difference for which technology is not yet completely suited. At work we conceive, build, test, operate and maintain the infrastructure and systems, produce real and virtual products, carry on complex transactions, perform complex analyses, make decisions, manage our careers, pay bills and taxes, and more. New ideas create opportunities and the ideas happen quickly. But the follow on work and activity can take a lot of time.

In most industries we have operational activities to make and deliver something of value to customers (good or services). For physical goods (our virtual world still has a lot of physical stuff in it), we have a large and often complex delivery infrastructure that must be kept operating. Whether it is a wired or wireless network, a piping system, a factory full of robotic production stations, a mine with trucks and ore processing, or… many operations are not possible without some sort of equipment. That equipment can and will break at some point. When that happens, operational personnel are under intense pressure to restore service or production – management expects it to come back almost instantly (that’s not new with the digital era either). Operators in most (if not all) industries have similar expectations of maintainers. – fix it, and give it back to us so we can do our jobs. Yet many maintainers quite often have a different set of expectations that has developed due to our intimate knowledge of how things break and why.

The Responsible Maintenance Perspective

I use the term “responsible” because not all maintainers and their managers are great stewards of the assets entrusted to them. They wait until breakdowns occur, then rush out to fix them. Occasionally they truly know no better, but often times they do, but they are hooked on the Adrenalin rush that comes with all the panicked activity and the “atta-boy” that comes when the job is done. Sometimes their corporate culture drives this reactive behavior. A manager who reacts to events will have a reactive work force. These folks are often stuck in their ways and struggle with the concepts of being proactive.

Responsible maintainers know that once something is not working, it can take a long time to restore to service, depending on what is wrong, availability of parts, people, etc. Machinery and production systems are often complex, even identifying the problem through troubleshooting can take time. Most failures occur randomly so we don’t always know what’s about to hit us. Once the fault has been identified it may require special skills, knowledge, parts, tools, support equipment, and so on, in order to be corrected. We know that getting all of this in place at the right time and in the right quantities to do the job quickly takes preparation – and that takes time. We can take steps to speed that up (good planning done in advance, good forecasting of parts requirements, etc.). However, very little of our preparation can happen instantly. To shorten lead times, we need to anticipate what can happen, then plan what we will do when it occurs, then put all the needed support (parts, tools, skills, etc.)in place. We can also put in place proactive maintenance actions to prevent or predict those failures so that we can avoid them, or at least minimize the consequences. We know that this takes fore-sight and time.

Maintenance planners can plan work that will happen in future so there is no wait for a plan, but the work itself must be identified – that’s what RCM does for us. RCM requires collaboration among maintenance and operations to carry out analysis work – work that takes them away from their “run it” and “fix it” roles. That’s part of the investment in your future. With plans, then spare parts inventories can be built up on the basis of forecast future demands. There is much we can do to shorten response and resolution times. All that activity is like an  investment – it’s done up front with hope of an almost sure-fired payback. That investment isn’t just money – it is also time to do those things.

There Are No Quick Fixes

We cannot get around it – in maintenance, we live and work in a field of endeavor that enjoys little in the way of instant gratification and we struggle to understand why others don’t “get it” when we say we need time. We need time on the equipment that is working to “prevent” failures. We need time to carry out our condition monitoring. We need time to fix things that are breaking but not yet broken so badly they will stop. And we need time to forecast all those requirements.

Just as there are no quick fixes to satisfy the immediate needs of operations, there are no quick fixes to our own maintenance services delivery capability when it needs to be improved or corrected. Maintenance management itself is not something we can “fix” quickly if it is broken or failing to perform. Shifting from that “break then fix” mindset and focus to becoming proactive is a gradual process.

A good measure of maintenance performance delivery capability is “schedule success” (or “schedule compliance” if you prefer). In order to accomplish what you want to get done to a schedule that forecasts when you will do it, you need to have a number of processes working well. If you are not scoring well, then one or more of the following may be in need of attention:

• Scheduling of work,
• Planning of the work,
• Work execution effectiveness,
• Availability of materials, parts and consumables,
• Communication between planning, scheduling and materials management,
• Adherence to work priorities,
• Work identification,
• Follow-up learning and feedback from work that is completed,
• Supervision of workforce,
• Motivation of employees and / or
• Proactive maintenance program effectiveness.

Note that none of this is particularly “technical”. It’s all about processes, process adherence (discipline) and willingness to do it. It’s all about people. If those are not happening smoothly, then work is needed to fix them. And they can take a lot of effort to correct – training, understanding, process design, systems support and even motivation of those involved. Recognize too that all of these work together – you can’t just focus on one of them and expect results to show up as “schedule success”. If one or more are not working well, it will have an impact on the others – they’re highly inter-dependent.

None Of This Can Be Corrected In An Instant

There are a variety of programs, systems, methods and tools you can choose to help in addressing failings in any and all of these areas. Yet, even if weak in only one area, the inter-dependent nature of all of these will inevitably mean that a failing in one area has created weaknesses or work-around processes in other areas.

Consider the failure of planning to communicate well with materials management about what spares are needed at what demand rate and in what quantities will result in a store room that can’t supply parts in a timely manner. That will lead to maintainers buying parts with rush orders (and high costs) and keeping “an extra – just in case” somewhere convenient (but easily forgotten). You’ll end up with a huge stock of parts that is uncontrolled, expensive and often difficult to find when really needed (after all it was hidden initially). The trust between maintenance and stores drops and the “shadow inventory” and its procurement channels (p-cards, rush orders, handshake deals with suppliers) grows. My colleagues and I have seen millions of dollars stashed away, off the books and not well managed, while costs are high and service levels are low. It comes from a single flaw in the process design and the lack of discipline to resolve it properly.

Likewise, ineffective proactive maintenance programs can suffer from poor work identification, no consideration of reliability in making decisions, poor scheduling and compliance, etc. You may even have problems with operators who are operating equipment outside of the envelope in which it is intended to operate, leading to premature failures. There are many potential causes to be explored and possibly corrected.

Recognize that if you’ve got a maintenance regime that is failing to deliver reliability, has high maintenance costs, poor compliance to its own schedules or a lack of schedules, then you’ve got more than quick fix on your hands. Keep in mind too that whatever mindset got you into that mess, will not get you out of it.

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