Before discussing how to change the perception of the value of the lube tech, we must understand the perception that lubrication activities themselves are at the bottom of the maintenance totem pole. The question is how and why? Think for a moment about the traditional perception of the purpose of a maintenance department. The idea remains, even in more enlightened maintenance organizations, that the maintenance department is there to "maintain" the machine in operation. In fact, "maintain" is traditionally viewed more as "restoring" the machine to operational ability, to maintain it in operation as much as possible, not by avoiding failure but by restoring the machine from failure to operation, as efficiently and effectively as possible. Parts ordering, stockroom, just-in-time (JIT) inventory, supply chain, job orders and CMMS systems - all have great importance and recognition in the process of restoring the machine. Now consider the role lubrication and lube analysis play in this restoration mode of maintenance - none! Realistically, to "maintenance" in its traditional perception, lubrication is at the bottom of the totem pole. Lubrication does not aid in restoring a machine to its operational ability.
Think instead of reliability (and proactive maintenance as an element of it) and its purpose of avoiding failures in order to increase uptime. The focus is now on failure cause identification and condition monitoring to ultimately avoid the failure. Lubrication then becomes an important key to reliability, with a higher criticality role than maintenance.
The Lube Tech
To readers of this magazine, the impact of improper lubrication in machine failure should be of no surprise. Yet the lubrication department is not always the one most highly regarded within maintenance. Why? Generally, personnel within an organization do not understand the risks associated with the different jobs. People still do not realize that a lube tech, when compared with others working with the machine, is most likely to cause equipment failure. Certain mistakes may cause failure - incorrect lubrication will cause failure, sooner or later.
Going back to the discussion of changing perception, three steps need to be taken for the value of the lubrication technician to be recognized:
Cost of failure - It is important to understand the cost of failure, because cost is the ultimate voice for buy-in. From operators to managers, everyone understands and speaks "dollars and cents". Unless there is broad-spectrum buy-in, change can never be successful.
Cause of failure - After analyzing the cause of each failure, it is possible to segregate the failures into groups, and therefore identify criticality of each activity.
Human role in the failure - One must understand the impact of human role in each failure group before determining the cost and worth of the human elements of reliability.
Cost of Poor Lubrication
For example, a plant in New Zealand recently estimated its cost of failures to be five million dollars. Eighty percent of the failing assets had lubricant-related issues, meaning poor lubrication was a contributing factor to potentially four million dollars of the estimate. Realizing the direct and significant impact of human failure in improper lubrication, virtually 100 percent of this potential four million dollars could be attributed to mistakes made by lube techs - such as incorrect lubes, leaks, empty lubricators, blocked filters and contamination.
It is important for everyone in the organization to understand the role each technician plays in causing failures. It is also important to consider that more than likely, the human cause for failure was due to a lack of proper processes, procedures, systems and most of all, technical knowledge.
Back to the example, after proving that lube techs can contribute to costs of four million dollars in a year, how much do you think the maintenance engineer cost the plant in failures? Close to zero is a good estimate! Now think in terms of investing in these two individuals. Would you think that the lube tech is being trained and educated on a ratio of four million to zero when compared to the maintenance engineer? No. Training is normally viewed as a cost to the organization, therefore perceived "role criticality" determines who gets trained. If considering the dollars in most organizations, it is likely that analysis of cost of failure versus job title will point to the technicians having a more direct impact (criticality) in total cost of failures than other (better-regarded) positions.
Importance of Training
When you don't know how much the lack of knowledge costs your company, training will be viewed as a cost. Once you realize that it was likely the lube tech's lack of knowledge that caused the improper lubrication (which was potentially responsible for 80 percent of costs related to failures), training improves from cost to an investment, and who should receive the training becomes clear. Without any harm intended toward the maintenance engineers or managers, if reliability relates to avoiding failure and failure has been proven to be caused by the technician, wouldn't it make more sense (in terms of return on investment) to allocate more dollars to training and qualifying the people who actually cause the failures?
Of course, the road to improvement doesn't stop there. After training and qualifying lube techs, the company still has many changes to make before it can happily say the lube techs are no longer taken for granted nor "walking liabilities" to the equipment, but this is for another chat.