The Richness of Machine Failure

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

"Before you are old and wise you have to be young and stupid." This clever T-shirt aphorism caught my attention recently because it says directly what we all know to be true. However, viewed a little differently, it seems possible to be wise and stupid at the same time. Stupid is another name for ignorant, which we all are to different degrees. Being wise includes knowing what you don't know, seeking knowledge and learning quickly from mistakes.

It makes sense that in the beginning we hope to be both stupid and wise so that we won't eventually end up being old, stupid and foolish. In reliability, foolishness is turning a blind eye to the richness of knowledge and the teachings of our experiences. It's much like a self-inflicted sentence that condemns us to repeat the blunders of the past.

Switching Failure from a Liability to an Asset
The definition of an asset is something that delivers future value (such as a machine that produces your widgets year after year). Conversely, a liability is something that can consume your assets in the future (such as negligent or faulty reliability practices). Like an endless string of mortgage payments, the long-term cost of such liabilities can be enormous as they chisel away at a company's assets and profits.

Knowledge is often referred to as intellectual capital. It is an asset that is usually acquired at some expense (college tuition, for example). Like a wise old teacher, machine failure is a bountiful source of knowledge. It comes at an expense (downtime and repair bills), but when we learn from it, then it offers the opportunity to produce sizable returns. This is why it is often said that intrinsic machine reliability is 99 percent failure. Phrased another way, we need failure in order to attain and deploy the knowledge that insures reliability and greater future profitability.

Failure as a Teacher
Maintenance organizations that do little more than continuous parts-changing work orders are making those failure mortgage payments caused by ignorance, waste and neglect. This is something like reliability by brute force (repair-driven maintenance). The underpinnings of failure remain in place, which insures chronic reoccurrences. They keep spending money buying what they already own (parts that need replacements). Such expenses do not build future value but instead squander valuable resources.

Now, most of what I've said so far must seem trivial to you. I can understand. However, before you dismiss my theme and turn the page, take a few minutes to assess what you are learning from failure. For instance, do any of the following statements relate to you or your organization? Be honest:

  • What are your rebuild shops teaching you about the causes of failed electric motors, cylinders, gearboxes, pumps, etc. Do you get inspection reports from these rebuild shops on what they find when they open up your failed machines? Do they give you guidance on prevention? If so, how is this new knowledge (feedback) used to improve your maintenance practices today?

  • Do you procrastinate when it comes to performing needed breakdown autopsies? Once operation is restored to your process or machine, do you fail to get around to investigating the cause of the failure? Does it often take three or even four similar failures before action is taken to seek the cause?

  • Are you too quick to assign blame to vendors, OEMs and service providers after failure of a critical machine? Do you assume that all failures are due to defective parts or workmanship by others? Do you believe that your maintenance practices are above reproach?

  • Do you shrug off the importance of tapping into outside expertise for performing failure investigations and root cause analysis (RCAs)? Do you give complex failure investigations to unqualified in-house personnel?

  • Does your organization have no assigned responsibilities for FRACAS activities (Failure Reporting, Analysis and Corrective Action System). How about RCAs?

One of the problems with failure investigations is that the people assigned with the task are often the same people who are directly or indirectly a target for blame. Asking a maintenance organization to find fault in itself is inherently flawed as a strategy. For instance, even if you discovered that your top mechanic bungled a repair job, it is likely that his or her faulty work still may not be the true root cause of failure. You may have to look deeper at such things as cheap parts, training and maintenance culture.

It stands to reason that we shouldn't view failure investigations as a way to finger a guilty party. Instead, become a passionate learning organization and turn the knowledge gained from failures into rich assets. And finally, accept the reality that wisdom begins with stupidity. Investigate and learn from your mistakes.

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About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...