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Myth Busting 2: We can do it ourselves

I am convinced that our egos often get the better of us. We suffer as a result and so too do those around us. Believing that we have the answers to all of our problems reflects just how much we fool ourselves. Maintenance managers burn out because of it.

Let’s say you are a plant general manager in a facility that is under-performing or not quite achieving the performance improvements you want. Often that can occur because of machinery and system failures that half output, sometimes for long periods before they can be repaired. Once those are corrected you breathe a sigh of relief, thank your maintenance manager for the repair achievement, and ride your production or operations manager to “catch up” on whatever output was lost.

As maintenance manager you go back to business as usual keeping up with the unrelenting stream of failures and panics that is all too often our lot in life. As operations manager you push your crews to sweat the asset – run harder and faster to catch up. As general manager you expect all will return to normal. Then something else goes down.

What’s happened? And if you are really thinking about it – why is this happening over and over?

The GM believes that his managers are doing their jobs. They believe it too, but they don’t know what they don’t know. The maintenance manager returns to fight the proverbial fires and may even complain of a lack of resources (euphemism for people, parts, tools, and anything else that can be used as an excuse for anything less than immediate correcting of the fault). The operations manager joins the GM in riding the maintenance manager – after all asset reliability is his job isn’t it? The maintenance manager is frustrated and even if he knows it’s not all his fault, no one listens. After enough cycles he gives up and just keeps going like a gerbil on an exercise wheel. Many years of sleepless nights, frustration with failures, contractors, overtime, inability to meet budget, health problems due to stress take their toll and he retires, goes somewhere else or gets sick.

New maintenance manager comes in to clean up the mess. He has a relatively short window of time to sort it all out and figure out just why the mess occurred. He may have some answers and he may be stabbing in the dark at others. He may get through to the operations and general managers about overstressing the assets, but he gets no help in terms of their action to eliminate the practice. It’s too embedded in operational culture and the maintenance culture is now “fix then break”. Overtime and more pay for it is the reward for poor performance. Where’s the incentive to correct the problems?

Chances are that the cycle will continue. Few are prepared for the sort of effort it takes to break the cycle and few understand just how complex and involved it will be. GMs don’t usually think too deeply – they’ve risen beyond that and have other managers to do it for them. But those managers don’t get the time to do it either. Someone needs to come in with a fresh perspective – something they had not thought about before.

That can come from the corporate level. I’ve worked with a few of these visionaries that do get the opportunity to step back from the fire fighting and see a bigger picture.  Sadly they are not always listened to either. They may be senior level people but because they are from corporate, they are not always welcome at the sites – they are meddlers. The GM, Operations Managers and Maintenance Managers resist the help, even if it is both well intentioned and truly insightful. They need the answers to come from within – just as we all do.

We are good a change, but we are terrible at being changed.

The first step in fixing all this is to realize that you need new ideas. You can get those from books, magazines, blogs (like this one) or from someone who you invite to come in with ideas. You probably don’t have a lot of time for reading so you listen in small, almost SMS sized chunks. You won’t get a lot from those. Your best bet is probably to bring in someone who isn’t vested in the current culture who has a fresh perspective and a lot of ideas. The invitee must be there to help you as his primary mission. In doing so, he will help your site, your company and everyone up the chain from maintenance and operations manager all the way to the board who will look great to the shareholders, owners or other stakeholders if you happen to be in the public service.

Assessments are a bad idea in my opinion. The assessor really only tells you what you already know – you are not doing well. They put a score on it and list a bunch of ideas to improve. Those ideas may well have originated with you and your people, but they appear to come from the assessor because they are in the assessment report. Avoid those.

Training in successful practices, sometimes hard to arrange when you are up to your arm pits in an alligator infested swamp of breakdowns, is far more beneficial if done the right way. Generalized training without discussions of your issues won’t help. Initially you aren’t ready to jump to solutions like planning and scheduling, fixing supply chain, RCM, etc. You need to determine which of those you really need and the most obvious solution isn’t always the right one. You need to learn how they all work together and you’ll then see how the approach must be structured. The training we offer concludes in a brief self-assessment and then we facilitate a structured brainstorming to gather improvement ideas and prioritize them.

That process is proving very successful for us in a variety of industrial settings. The assessment is done by the customer’s own people – there’s no arguing with it. It almost always shows plenty of room to improve based on the successful practices that have just been discussed. Ideas of what to do arise quite naturally during the training and are captured. Those are then discussed among the group and prioritized. Upwards of a hundred ideas will typically produce 10 or so improvement initiatives with priorities for action. These always go well beyond the thinking of those who were managing the function before the session. These are eye opening and enthusiasm building sessions. They start the ball rolling in a positive direction to break that dysfunctional cycle.

Advice – don’t let your ego get the best of you. None of us has all the answers, but together in a team you can certainly come up with more than if you did it alone. If you are stuck in a cycle with no obvious way out, first admit it to yourself, then admit it to your management team and get help.