Reducing Maintenance Variability to Lift Reliability

Noria Corporation

Even in today’s economically bleak time, Toyota is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading manufacturing organizations, and with good reason. Compared with their industry peers, Toyota and, for that matter, other Japanese car makers such as Honda have seemingly mastered the art of delivering quality products at low cost.

So, how do they do it? Like many Japanese companies, much of the credit is attributed to the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, a U.S.-born statistician who helped transform the Japanese manufacturing sector in the years following World War II. Deming’s teaching can be summarized in the following message which he consistently delivered to Japan’s chief executives: Improving quality will reduce expenses while increasing productivity and market share.

Key to this concept is the development of business processes that are properly engineered, with enforcement of those business rules to insure that each task is performed the same (preferred) way each and every time. In essence, by reducing variation in process, we insure that consistency and continuity prevail. Everything is done the same way – the right way – every time.

A Structured Game Plan
A simple example of improving reliability through reduced variability is the plays drawn up by a sports coach. These plays are documented in the playbook and religiously practiced beforehand, so that when the game is on the line, everyone knows his role and (hopefully) executes to his full potential. Sports coaches don’t just rely on the natural talent of the players on their team, but rather adhere to a structured game plan for success. As Deming taught us, removing variability adds precision in execution.

While this may seem intuitive when it comes to sports, in the field of maintenance, the story is often very different. Unlike the sports coach, many maintenance leaders hope that having well-trained employees (great players) will get the job done without any structure or game plan. But while having quality employees is, of course, important, it cannot replace a good game plan. (Dallas Cowboys fans, take note!)

One of the key problems is that most maintenance organizations rely too much on tacit knowledge – knowledge that is held in the heads of people and transferred through dialogue with peers, on-the-job-training, formal or informal mentoring, or “socialization”, but is never actually captured. Tacit knowledge does not build a consistent, sustainable business process or game plan. While one individual may know how to do a task really well, with a tacit knowledge system, we are one retirement, serious illness or job resignation away from forgetting the best way to perform that task, a problem others have referred to as “Corporate Amnesia”.

Getting Explicit
The key to building a sustainable business process is to transition from a tacit system of knowledge to an explicit-based system. This is where the preferred way to perform a task has been decided (process optimization), captured in a form that’s readily accessible (knowledge administration) and made available to those that need it in a form that’s easy to obtain, use and understand (knowledge logistics). Failures to execute in any one of these three areas can ultimate cause failure in the business process itself.

In order to optimize any process, oftentimes we need not look any further than our own employee base. Whether through experience, luck or the school of hard knocks, there’s often one operator, mechanic or technician (Joe) that can perform a task in a far superior way than his peers. Under these circumstances, what we need is a mechanism to capture the tacit knowledge held in Joe’s head and make it available to those that perhaps don’t have the same degree of experience. This is the process of knowledge administration.

SOPs Spell It Out
The most fundamental form of knowledge administration is through standard operating procedures (SOPs). In this case, each step that Joe takes to perform a certain task needs to be captured in written form and in sufficient detail so that someone with less knowledge can execute to the same level as Joe. In doing so, it’s important that key deterministic information (volume, length, angle, temperature, time, pressure, etc.) be defined explicitly in the SOP so that not only do we have a generic “how-to” guide, but explicit data on how each task should be performed. Take, for example, a task step such as “grease bearing”. Such a step in an SOP adds little value or precision to the task. Instead, the SOP should read “add 10 shots of grease slowly to the bearing”.

But while SOPs are a great start, they sometimes are not sufficient on their own. For example, if the task is particularly complicated or requires some form of visual validation (align the two arrows, place the transducer in the axial direction, etc.), it’s often much better to provide pictorial support through photographs, schematics or even short video clips showing how each step should be performed. It’s often stated that a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s a true statement when it comes to SOPs.

Knowledge Logistics
The final step is knowledge logistics – getting the information in the hands of those that need it in a usable form. This may be as simple as a printed copy of the procedure, a laminated task description or annotated photograph attached to the machine, or an electronic task description, photograph or video displayed at the point of use via a tablet PC or other hand-held device. Whichever method or combination of methods that you choose, it should be consistent, readily available and widespread.

So as you attempt to engineer out poor reliability, remember the fundamentals taught to us by Dr. Deming. Through controlling variability (good business processes), we can eliminate poor workmanship and improve overall reliability.

As always, this is my opinion. I’m interested in yours.

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