Centralize or Decentralize Lubrication

Drew Troyer
Tags: industrial lubricants

“…there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”
- Robert M. Pirsig,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

During teaching engagements, consulting projects, or simply in discussion at conferences and other industry meetings, I am frequently asked who should perform lubrication tasks - dedicated lubrication technicians (centralized lubrication) or general mechanics and/or operators (decentralized)? Because there is no single answer to this question, it is worthwhile for us to discuss the variables that influence the decision, starting with the skills and knowledge required to effectively carry out machinery lubrication.

James Brian Quinn, an emeritus Dartmouth professor and respected business strategy guru, defines four basic types of knowledge: know-what, know-how, know-why and care-why, the last being more a state of mind than a definitive body of knowledge.Know-what is a basic mastery of the terms and concepts of a field such as lubricants, various lubricating devices, contamination control fundamentals, oil analysis, etc. Know-how is the skills to perform tasks related to a field, such as greasing a bearing, properly drawing a sample, evaluating an oil analysis report, performing periodic decontamination, etc. Know-why is an abstract level of understanding about the inter-relationships between systems and disciplines, such as how the lubricant interfaces with the machine, the role the machine plays in the process, the role of equipment reliability in profitability, etc. Care-why refers to the passion one has about the job. As Robert M. Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” suggests, this may be the most important characteristic of all.

Know-What
The decision to centralize or decentralize lubrication activities must be driven by our ability to create and maintain all four types of knowledge. If we choose to centralize the activity, we can focus education and training activities on a few people and achieve mastery of know-what and know-how. Decentralizing lubrication means that numerous people must be trained and educated upfront and ongoing. This is because of turnover, which significantly increases the costs for training programs and decreases their effectiveness.

Know-How
Clearly defined lubrication procedures and work-planning processes that define know-how are important to ensuring consistency and continuity in both centralized and decentralized programs. However in decentralized programs, their absence can be a disaster. For instance, a common scenario in decentralized lubrication programs is where multiple people grease the same motor because they are unaware of what tasks are or have been completed - so the operators on the first, second and third shifts all grease the motor and the mechanic greases it too, just in case the operators didn’t get to it. Of course, when the motor is rebuilt (which won’t take long), we find the windings full of excess grease.

Know-Why
With collateral training, experience and coaching, we can facilitate know-why over time where lubrication is centralized. It is unlikely that generalists in a decentralized lubrication program will ever achieve a clear sense of know-why. They simply don’t spend enough time with lubrication to gain a true understanding about the role lubrication plays in machinery operation and failure. Know-why is required to innovate new approaches to old problems. Only through innovation can we break the cycle of despair - doing the same things while expecting different results.

Care-Why
Care-why is achieved when an individual truly believes that his or her efforts contribute to the greater good of the organization or to society at large. Care-why is taking pride in one’s job. These individuals can find problems because they possess know-what and know-how, innovate solutions because they know-why lubrication is important to reliability, and push through changes because they care and have the confidence to drive an agenda. One cannot drive change without confidence in his own technical discipline.


In some organizations, size and scale prohibit assigning dedicated lube techs without outsourcing or assigning the activity to regional techs. In midsize to larger facilities, it is usually feasible to dedicate lubrication activities to lubrication professionals. A lube tech must understand how machines run, how they fail, the physics and chemistry behind lubrication engineering, lubrication engineering technology, reliability engineering principles and technology, and the important role of lubrication and reliability in the firm’s economics. A good lube tech is a specialized professional who, when properly enabled, can deliver a great deal of value to the firm.

Decentralizing an important activity such as machinery lubrication often results in poor performance and little innovation. Consider where your largest opportunities to improve mechanical reliability reside. Then try to imagine stepwise improvement without an excellent machinery lubrication program. You should see the value and wisdom in putting the job in the hands of dedicated lubrication professionals. This is my Viewpoint. As always, I’m interested in yours.