Tribology is a Behavioral Science

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation
Tags: industrial lubricants

It ain't just about the oil. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear to me that applied tribology is more about training and behavioral science than about engineering and material science. I would guess that for every bearing that failed due to a problem lubricant (wrong selection, poor quality, etc.) there are ten others that fail due to problem lubrication (neglect, procedural, timing, etc.). No amount of expertise in lubrication and machine reliability will overcome the destructive aftermath caused by rotten maintenance culture.

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In fact. most companies seem to have a maintenance culture that is in urgent need of an intervention strategy. I recently wrote a column on a 12-step program for recovering addicts of lubrication neglect.1 Although similar, this column discusses culture and behavioral foundation issues that seem to be at the core of lubrication neglect and other maintenance performance malfunctions. It borrows much from management science and leadership principles.

Over the years, I've engaged in hundreds of conversations on this topic with individuals from many companies and countries. Some come from organizations infected with culture problems, while others represent businesses that have emerged from a successful transformation. Then there are those organizations which achieved transformation but transgressed to their bad habits and past addictive practices.

Drawing upon my years of learning on the subject, I have compiled "Eight Pillars to a Prosperous Maintenance Culture." Because of the central theme of this magazine, I've put these pillars into a lubrication context:

  1. Unwavering Management Commitment - Have you ever wondered why lubrication neglect isn't keeping your company's CEO awake at night? Maybe he doesn't know how it's impacting the company's bottom line and his bonus. You have to be interested in lubrication for managers to lead, incite needed change and succeed at it. Managers who are purposeful and choose to both inspire and support lubrication initiatives have the unique opportunity to build charged-up and prosperous maintenance teams.

  2. The Right People - We've heard the saying that employees are a company's most important asset. This is true, but only when it is the right people in the right jobs. Incompetent or poorly matched people working in maintenance positions can present sizeable operational risks rather than be productive assets. Select, nurture and inspire the right people to build a prosperous maintenance culture.

  3. Proactive and Planning - The Whack-A-Mole approach to maintenance employee's workday is destructive and costly. Conversely, companies which proactively stabilize machine health and deploy a regiment of planning and scheduling activities will strengthen positive maintenance culture. Planning and scheduling includes utilizing well-organized work plans with modernized and documented procedures.

  4. Continuous Learning - A prosperous business culture is a learning culture. Learning not only builds intellectual capital but also fosters a behavioral desire to do the right things right every time. It also builds team loyalty and dedication to achieving business goals. Certification instills pride and is the capstone to each learning stage by providing visible recognition of skill competency.

  5. Measurement - When you measure, you are communicating what is important. So too, those things that are not measured are assumed to be unimportant. Beware of what you don't measure. People subconsciously work the metric. They know how they are being evaluated and respond in their work behavior accordingly. Measurement should come in many forms and at many different levels, including lagging indicators (what just happened), leading indicators (what's going to happen), macro indicators (the forest) and micro indicators (the trees).

  6. Investment - Companies who are lean to the extreme harm their maintenance culture. The sense that "there is always enough time and money to fix a problem but never enough time or money to prevent it" is on the minds of many who work in the lubrication and maintenance field. Buying cheap oil, cheap filters and cheap people instead of buying proper tools, lubrication accessories, software and instruments is at the core of the problem. Too often companies, especially publicly traded companies, are driven by the desire to see how much money they can make between now and next Tuesday. Investment is a long-term strategy that cultivates a productive maintenance culture.

  7. Rewarding - Many companies are inflicted with problem entitlement cultures. This occurs when employees collectively think they are entitled to be paid a premium regardless of the fruitfulness of their labor (building shareholder value). There needs to be a connection, or balance, between value given and value received. After all, you can't eat what you don't kill. To the other extreme, many companies fail to properly reward and recognize employees who have excelled in creating value. Time and again we see lube techs at the low end of the pay scale. Sadly, these companies enter the cycle of despair by hiring low-skilled workers (remember investment, No. 6 above) and pay them accordingly. And remember, there are many nonmonetary types of rewards. Companies which fail to celebrate "when they don't have broken machines to fix" lose out on this culture-strengthening opportunity.

  8. Empowerment - Maintenance workers are more than just arms and legs performing a mindless task. They are productive knowledge-workers who not only can carry out the job plan but also can create, innovate and improve the quality and efficiency of the work performed. Remember, empowerment amplifies a company's intellectual capital by stimulating the minds of its employees. When employees can act on their thoughts and opinions, they are the most productive. Unfortunately, for many companies there is a fine line that separates a change agent from an insubordinate worker.

At the root of maintenance culture problems is often a culprit called "denial". When confronted with lubrication issues, companies tend to move away from the denial problem in stages. Following are some words and thoughts from management that characterize these stages:

Maintenance culture transformation is no easy task. Take ownership of your lubrication program by beginning the process of dismantling bad maintenance culture and replacing it with the pillars described above. Until you fix the culture issue, you cannot rise to the lofty state of lubrication excellence.

Recommended Reading

1. Jim Fitch. "12-Step Program - For Recovering Addicts of Lubrication Neglect." Machinery Lubrication magazine, November 2005. This column, as well as all of Jim's editorial columns, can be read online at www.machinerylubrication.com.