Sustaining Lubrication Excellence

Drew Troyer
Tags: industrial lubricants

Why do programs designed to improve plant lubrication come and go? The story’s plot often resembles a sinusoidal wave - on again, off again. Excellence in lubrication, like other quality efforts, dies for a number of reasons. But the phenomenon can be essentially reduced to a failure to institutionalize excellence in machinery lubrication - meaning the values of the organization were never changed at the core. The program begins to dwindle as soon as the manager or engineer who spearheaded it gets transferred or promoted; or when the technician who possessed all the skills in his head reaches retirement; or a host of other reasons why new initiatives fail to provide a lasting impact on the organization. Without preemptive effort, a program is just a program. A new program is not institutionalized until it replaces the old business-as-usual with a new business-as-usual that works.

“Patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more
than twice their weight in cleverness."

-Thomas Henry Huxley

A big part of the reason why a program fails to sustain itself lies in the motivation for the program’s creation . . . it is often destined to fail from the start. So what prompts an organization to implement lubrication excellence? Let’s discuss the most common reasons and why they fail.

I’ve Seen the Light
Often, lubrication improvement programs can trace their origins to a well-intentioned technician, engineer, manager or group who sees the light of opportunity, and truly wants to make a difference at the plant, and/or build a name for himself or themselves. The leader of the pack is usually smart, enthusiastic and charismatic. He or she has all the qualities of a change agent and is usually a leader. Our hero usually has the ear of management, gets the funding required to make change happen and doesn’t allow minor setbacks to slow him or her down. This person is really going somewhere. Unfortunately, a departure often comes before the program has been institutionalized. Management moves him or her on to bigger and better projects and responsibilities, which the corporate climber gladly accepts.

What is left is a group of people who desperately want to see things through, but lack access to management, or perhaps aren’t quite as talented at selling the concepts as the “golden child” who started the program. Without leadership and salesmanship, the program slowly atrophies, drifting back to its previous state. Some aspects of the change may persist for a while, but much is lost, and little or no further gain is made until the next “golden child” comes along - someone with a focused, albeit fleeting eye on lubrication.

Catastrophe Strikes
If a machine fails catastrophically and adversely affects production, safety or environmental goals, money gets sent in its direction. Just the notion that lubrication might be to blame sets in motion a flurry of activity. Many synthetic lubricants and top-quality filters are sold just after a costly catastrophic machine failure. In some cases, this is the right thing to do. In other cases, unfortunately, it is a knee-jerk reaction of throwing money at a problem instead of investing real thought and effort - sometimes just to pacify furious upper managers. Unfortunately, unless there is a string of these failures, as time goes by the attentions of plant management drift on to other firefighting activities, unless the core culture of the corporation rewards them for continuing to attend to the daily rudiments of effective lubrication, which it usually does not. The less glamorous, but often very costly routine failures continue to be ignored, despite the fact that they were often controllable. It is not until the next catastrophic event where lubrication is suspected that the process begins again.

A colleague in the mining industry once told me that poor deposits make good miners, and rich deposits make poor miners. What a tremendous amount of wisdom there is in that statement. Aren’t we all mining for profit or fulfillment of the mission in other ways? Implementing new asset management strategies, including updated lubrication programs, often occurs when profits are slim and a company has its back against the wall. Looking for ways to reduce expenses and to enable the plant to run leaner and meaner makes perfect sense, and can be a springboard into sustained excellence in lubrication. But too often, the organization is looking for cash in all the wrong places, with its sights set on this quarter, not this quarter of a century. As a result, we start counting grease shots along with paperclips. When the market returns, so does the old business-as-usual. The organization has nothing to show for its trouble. If any improvements are made, they are often fleeting, until of course, another down cycle starts the process again.

Making Lubrication Excellence Last
Achieving lasting excellence in machinery lubrication is neither difficult nor complex. It simply requires a clear sense of purpose and the tenacity to replace the old business-as-usual with a new one. Interestingly, one typically finds that it costs less money to properly lubricate machines than to do it poorly, not to mention the value created through reduced repair costs and increased machine uptime. Overlubrication, poorly routed work plans, lack of procedures, overuse of premium lubricants, unnecessary lubricant changes, ignoring modern timesaving technologies, buying equipment with the same lubrication system deficiencies again and again, etc., all create inefficiencies that cost money in the short-term and the long-term. With some engineering, management and especially focus, these inefficiencies can be eradicated or greatly reduced.

So what is the secret to success? Commit - don’t react. The organization must decide to lubricate its machines properly, do it and continue to improve. The common thread running through all the failure scenarios previously described is a lack of commitment - plain and simple. None of the scenarios above describe a company committed to lubrication excellence.

Creating procedures, buying software, training staff, upgrading lubricants and filters, and implementing oil analysis are tactics. Collectively or alone they have merit, but they can’t deliver maximum benefit to the organization unless they are implemented within the context of a focused equipment lubrication strategy. The strategy must be driven from the top, and it must be focused on achieving lasting change by replacing the old, inferior business-as-usual with a new one. If you expect results, the effort cannot be tied to the efforts of one individual, it cannot be implemented to demonstrate effort after a failure and it cannot merely come and go with the company’s business cycles. We have to be good miners when the deposits are good, not just when they are poor.

Achieving lubrication excellence requires a cultural transformation. Is your organization ready to commit? Can it muster up the patience and tenacity of purpose to make it last? If so, you are ready to achieve lubrication excellence. Your machines will reward you for it. You may also find yourself spending less money than you do to lubricate the machines poorly and haphazardly. That is my viewpoint. As always, I am interested in yours.

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