The True Meaning of Maintenance

Noria Corporation
Tags: maintenance and reliability

In previous Viewpoint columns, I have defined and explained words that are significant in our business. And how much more significant can they get than the word maintenance? The Oxford English Dictionary defines maintenance as:

The action or process of preserving (an object, activity etc.).

Unfortunately, to many in industry, maintenance has become synonymous with "fixing things" when they break rather than preserving them in a functional state. For example, a process operator notes that something is amiss with a particular machine and calls maintenance to fix the problem.

Consider a similar scenario in which a predictive technology such as vibration analysis or wear debris analysis identifies a problem, and the operator calls in a maintenance mechanic to further diagnose and resolve the problem.

While an organization may have publicly evolved to a "defect elimination" company through the application of tools such as reliability centered maintenance (RCM), failure mode effect analysis (FMEA) or root-cause failure analysis (RCFA), at a grass-roots level, companies may still be at a reactive "fix-it-when-it breaks" stage, even for those assets where RCM or other tools have dictated a more rigorous approach to maintaining the asset.

To make matters worse, our rewards systems are often set up to promote a fix-it mentality, whether it be tangible rewards in the form of overtime, or what Drew Troyer refers to as psychic income: the attaboys heaped on Fred for coming in at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning to fix a critical machine in record time, thus minimizing the impact on production. (Why is it that every machine chooses to fail at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning?) Perhaps it is time to call for a revolutionary approach to compensation.

A couple of years ago, I heard of one plant that did exactly that. It has been a while, and I'm not sure if this is a true story or urban legend, but the message is worth considering:

Faced with spiraling profits due to a downtime in market conditions coupled with high and ever-increasing maintenance costs, company X was attempting to implement a reliability-driven improvement program, with the belief that lubrication is one of the key pillars of success.

While process improvements had already been designed, plant management was having a tough time getting buy-in from the union labor force, who were used to getting additional wages from overtime worked to fix emergent problems. Those being asked to embrace the new "business as usual" believed the program would make the plant more reliable.

However in doing so, they were anticipating a reduction in overtime hours, and like all of us, were not happy about taking an effective pay cut. To secure buy-in, senior management called a meeting with the union to hear their grievances. At the end of the meeting, the plant manager proposed the following.

"For the past five years, each person has earned on average 15 percent of his take-home pay in the form of overtime. For the next three years, I will guarantee the same level of overtime pay, but if the plant is more reliable and there are fewer expected problems, you do not have to work the overtime hours to earn your pay; but this comes with a caveat.

If poor reliability continues, resulting in even more hours of maintenance, you will be required to work the hours necessary to fix these problems, no matter how long it takes." So the legend goes - armed with the incentive of being paid to sleep through 3 a.m. on Sunday morning - the new reliability-centered maintenance strategy was embraced and maintenance costs dropped.

Whether this story is true, or merely wishful thinking, one thing is clear: it takes a concerted, team approach from plant management to technicians to evolve from a "fix-it-when-it-breaks" maintenance organization, to a "stop-it-from-breaking-in-the-first-place" organization.

By definition, "maintenance" concerns maintaining an asset in its desired state, not returning that asset to that state once it has deviated (failed). When it comes to machinery lubrication, far greater value can be obtained by lubrication technicians, mechanics and operators checking the five "rights" of lubrication:

This beats having an army of skilled oil analysts or millwrights diagnosing and fixing problems that have already occurred. In my experience, when referring to tradespeople ("fixers"), too much emphasis is placed on precision skills and not enough on teaching, training and empowering these highly skilled assets to become "problem preventers".