Remedies for a Bad Maintenance Culture

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

Remedies for a Bad Maintenance Culture

You may not be surprised to know that most companies need a culture intervention – something like a 12-step program. This column will discuss behavioral issues that are often at the core of a culture of neglect and mediocracy. It borrows much from management science and leadership principles.

Over the years, we have had hundreds of conversations on this topic with individuals working in the field of maintenance and reliability. Some come from organizations infected with culture problems, while others represent businesses that have emerged from a successful transformation. Then there are those organizations that achieved transformation but regressed to their bad habits and past addictive practices.

Of course, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Past behavior establishes reputation, which many people use to judge others. You can judge culture in a similar way to help predict future maintenance and reliability performance. Behavior, values and decisions are all components of employee engagement. Engagement sharply impacts individual and business performance.

A positive, nurturing maintenance culture is a critical plant asset. Consider that when people do good work, they feel good about themselves and their job. When people do bad work, they feel bad about themselves and their job. Feeling bad is a serious morale problem that multiplies and spreads. The simple solution is to enable people to do good work that is recognized and celebrated.

This is both problem and solution. Culture drives behavior. Behavior influences quality of work. Quality work is fundamental to plant reliability and the cost of reliability. Why do we care? Reliability fosters job security and builds shareholder value.

Bad culture is dysfunctional and sparks a chain of despair for all stakeholders. No amount of expertise in lubrication and machine reliability will overcome the destructive aftermath caused by rotten maintenance culture. It has inertia that over time becomes increasingly difficult to change.

Good culture has inertia, too. It fuels a chain of reinforcing successes. Small successes beget larger and more sustainable successes. Creating a good culture starts and ends at the top, at the leadership level. When good leaders are in charge, everyone wins. When bad leaders are in charge, the culture becomes negative/hostile/stagnant, and everyone loses.

Good culture also emerges from management’s aspiration for improvement and the inherent desire to do good work. It relates to skills, tools, work plans and machine readiness. So how do you create an environment that fosters good culture?

Signs of a Bad Maintenance Culture

Breakdown maintenance and bad maintenance culture go hand-in-hand. Constantly reacting to machine failure demotivates maintenance staff. In such cases the plant’s machines control the work schedule, not the other way around.

This reminds me of the phrase, “People don’t quit their jobs; they quit their bosses.” Employees quit because they aren’t properly managed or leadership hasn’t created an appropriate organizational culture. Regardless, good culture is the remedy for most things.

Machine reliability is a behavioral science, cascading down from management to the plant floor. Years of root cause analysis (RCA) has confirmed that bearings don’t just die; they’re murdered. They are killed by people who don’t know how or don’t care to prevent these failures. Good culture changes behavior and enables reliability.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the signs of bad maintenance culture, although the profile of this culture can vary considerably. The culture profile might be characterized by indifference, blame, tension between operations and maintenance, frustration/anger, distrust, pessimism, high staff turnover, waste of time/resources, excessive human errors, aging work-order backlog, frequent unscheduled maintenance events, crises and unprofitability.

8 Remedies for a Bad Culture

Management and leadership both define and catalyze the culture of an organization, good or bad. Even bad culture that is rooted in high institutional inertia can be changed. This change may be more difficult and even somewhat disruptive, but it is far from impossible. Still, nothing happens without an unwavering management commitment to create a sustainable foundation for change.

Do you think culture is something that keeps your plant manager awake at night? Maybe he doesn’t know how it’s impacting the company’s bottom line. Managers who understand and see plant reliability as a means to plant profitability have the desire to inspire and support culture initiatives that build charged-up and prosperous maintenance teams. Stopping the management revolving door is also important.

The role of management on group behavior and culture has been the subject of countless books and publications. It relates to team building, engaged team members, empowerment, communication, goal setting, defining mission/vision/values and so much more.

You can’t cheerlead your way into sustained cultural transformation, nor can you manage by memo. Two excellent books for managers are Good to Great by Jim Collins and Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It ... and Why the Rest Don’t (Mastering the Rockefeller Habits 2.0).

Another way to find wisdom is to study the success of others. What are the common threads of a successful maintenance culture? There are several, and most aren’t specific to maintenance but are foundational to any operating organization.

Because of this, you can leverage the experiences of numerous teams that have successfully tackled the culture transformation challenge. To get you started, I’ve done some research and have listed the pillars of good maintenance culture below.

1. The Right People

We’ve all heard that employees are a company’s most valuable asset. This is true, but only when the right people are in the right jobs. Incompetent or poorly matched people working in maintenance positions can present sizeable operational and cultural risks rather than being productive assets. Select, nurture and inspire the right people to build a prosperous maintenance culture.

2. Job Skills and Know-how

As previously mentioned, when people do good work, they feel good about themselves and their job. People want to do the right things right the first time and every time. However, many people suffer from unconscious incompetency. In other words, they are unaware or in denial of the level of their incompetency. Others are fully aware that their skills are desperately lacking.

A prosperous plant culture is a learning culture. Education, when effective, takes people out of their comfort zone. It not only builds intellectual capital but over time fosters a behavioral desire to do the right things right every time.

It also builds team loyalty and dedication to achieving business goals. People learn differently, so don’t assume knowledge is only acquired in a classroom. Certification instills pride and should be the capstone to each learning stage by providing visible recognition of skill competency.

Next, create an environment of standardized work, also known as procedure-based maintenance. This takes the guesswork out of the thousands of maintenance tasks that must be routinely and periodically performed.

These shouldn’t be just any old procedures and often are not even those found in machine service manuals. Instead, they should be refreshed with modern concepts in lubrication and maintenance. Seek the help you need to get these procedures right.

3. The Tools

Much new technology has entered the world of lubrication and machine maintenance in recent years. As the old-timers are retiring, so must many of their tools. Today’s maintenance toolbox should not just be used for repair and corrective measures.

It should also contain tools and devices that inspect and control conditions that might lead to failure or are incipient symptoms of failure. These include inspection tools, condition monitoring instruments, contamination control devices and much more.

As mentioned, an extremely good starting point would be education and creating a culture of strategic training instead of just-in-time (reactive) learning. Training programs that present modern and technology-based concepts in lubrication and maintenance will also detail the tools that enable them. With education and tools comes pride in one’s work and profession. This is a precursor to good maintenance culture, so don’t skimp.

4. Machine Readiness

In addition to a change in your skills and toolbox, you will need to change your machinery. You must ready your equipment for wellness and maintainability. Even today’s new machines won’t be equipped with the ancillary hardware to enable quality lubrication and maintenance.

Many machine modifications are often required. These include hardware and accessories related to inspection, safety, oil sampling, oil analysis, contamination control, oil handling, instrumentation and lubricant application. Effective training programs will describe what changes are needed and why.

5. Planning, Scheduling and General Organization

In maintenance, there is a need for good workweek control. The whack-a-mole approach to maintenance workday scheduling is destructive and costly. Activities need rhythm with few surprises. While this requires proper planning and scheduling, it also demands a built-in early warning system.

You can’t plan and schedule corrective action if you can’t proactively see the need. As mentioned, an organization plagued by chronic unscheduled maintenance is an organization that is suffering from bad maintenance culture.

Condition monitoring includes both proactive maintenance and predictive maintenance. Proactive maintenance sees and responds to failure root causes long before a repair is needed. A good maintenance culture is a proactive maintenance culture. Make breakdown events a rare exception.

Predictive maintenance is a companion to proactive maintenance. It sees and responds to failure symptoms, the earlier the better. Just as it is best to catch disease early, so too is it important to catch faults and impending machine failure early.

Thankfully, technology is available to allow machine condition monitoring at a very high level. When it is well-executed, reactive maintenance is transformed to planned maintenance. This will help get work orders into compliance and reduce or eliminate the backlog of aging work orders. See the sidebar on the consequences of periodic PM forgetfulness.

Consequences of Periodic PM Forgetfulness

Lubrication requires constant attention. Vigilance is perhaps a better word. It’s easy to forget the things you are not motivated to do, yet rarely do you forget those activities you are passionate about and desire to do. We are all driven by instinct to seek out the things we enjoy or that give us a gratifying reward.

Because it’s hard to find happiness in performing most routine maintenance tasks, it is not uncommon for many of them to become periodically forgotten or perpetually postponed. Much of this is actually “conscious forgetfulness,” similar to procrastinating. Why does this happen? It is most likely due to a lack of rigor, which is the result of a lack of structure, measurement and incentive.

Delinquent preventive maintenance (PM) can become habit-forming, leading to even more delinquency and a general cavalier attitude among maintenance workers toward punctuality and work quality. This “mañana mentality” or constant procrastination can lead to a destructive downward spiral.

Common symptoms relating to lubrication include widely fluctuating oil levels, inspections that don’t get performed or reported, filters and breathers that don’t get changed on time, oil samples that never get taken or are collected improperly, oil that is not changed on time, and bearings that don’t receive a timely shot of fresh grease.

Periodically forgetting to perform lubrication and other maintenance tasks is equivalent to periodically accepting preventable failures. You can and should do better. Take a look at The Consequences of Forgetting to Perform Preventive Maintenance for more detail on this.


Figure 1. Micro vs. macro indicators


6. Measurement

When you measure, you are communicating what is important. Likewise, those things that are not measured are assumed to be unimportant. Beware of what you don’t measure. People subconsciously work the metric. They know how they are being evaluated and respond in their work behavior accordingly. Constant performance measurement, reporting and course corrections are signs of a good maintenance culture.

Measurement should come in many forms and at many different levels, including lagging indicators, leading indicators, macro indicators and micro indicators. Macro indicators are more holistic (the forest), providing a big picture view of plant reliability. General asset utilization numbers, such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), are good examples of macro metrics.

Micro indicators see the trees and the weeds. They look at failure causes and symptoms. Machine vibration overalls and lubricant cleanliness levels would be examples of micro metrics. Many of these performance indicators will report what just happened (lagging indicators), while others report what is going to happen (leading indicators). Read How to Measure Lubrication Program Success for more.

7. Motivation and Desire

Maintenance workers are more than just arms and legs performing a mindless task. They are productive, knowledgeable workers who not only can carry out the job plan but also can create, innovate and improve the quality and efficiency of the work performed.

Empowerment amplifies a company’s intellectual capital by stimulating the minds of its employees. When employees can act on their thoughts and opinions, they instill pride in their work and are the most productive. This is the definition of engagement.

Fixing Overtime Pay as a Counter-incentive to Machine Reliability

Overtime pay is often viewed as a counter-incentive to reliability. That is, the more reliability, the less overtime pay (needed to repair machines). However, you can flip this around to achieve a novel proactive overtime strategy.

For example, at the beginning of the work year, maintenance workers are given 500 hours of proactive overtime pay. The workers get paid for the overtime regardless, but there’s an interesting catch. They have to work the 500 extra hours only if needed to keep machines operating.

They now are stakeholders (like stockholders) in reliability and are motivated to do everything possible to keep machines running so they don’t have to work the overtime. The company benefits from high asset utilization and lower repair bills. The maintenance workers benefit from overtime pay for hours they don’t actually have to work. Take a look at Is Your Plant Rewarding Failure or Proactive Efforts?.

There are likely other ways to achieve similar shared benefit when machines are vigilantly maintained. You cannot force people to be motivated, but you can give them many positive incentives. Remember, we generally do only those things we enjoy or that reward us.

Recognition and reward are also important to culture. Many companies fail to properly recognize and reward employees who have excelled at creating value. Time and again, we see lube techs at the low end of the pay scale. Some companies enter the cycle of despair by hiring low-skilled workers and paying them accordingly.

Too often companies use demeaning job titles such as calling a lubrication technician an “oiler.” An oil can is an oiler. It is an object that performs a mechanical and repetitive task. A lube tech is a thinking human being who has mastered the skills needed to perform his job and whose impact on a machine/team/organization is conveyed as important.

There are also many nonmonetary types of rewards. Companies that fail to celebrate when they don’t have broken machines to fix lose out on this culture-strengthening opportunity. See the sidebar on how to stop overtime pay as a counter-incentive to machine reliability.

8. Investment

Organizations that are lean to the extreme harm their maintenance culture. Many who work in the lubrication and maintenance field have the mindset that there is always enough time and money to fix a problem but never enough time or money to prevent it. At the core of the problem is procuring cheap oil, cheap filters and cheap people instead of buying the proper tools, lubrication accessories, software and instruments.

Too often companies, especially publicly traded ones, are driven by the desire to see how much money they can earn between now and next Tuesday. Investment is a long-term strategy that cultivates a productive culture.

The Denial Syndrome

The root of maintenance culture problems is often a culprit called denial. When confronted with maintenance and lubrication issues, organizations tend to move away from the denial problem in stages. Following are common management thoughts that characterize these four stages:

Denial – Ignore it. Pretend you don’t have a problem. Hope it will go away.

Rationalization – It’s for others. We’re doing fine. We have a good program.

Lip Service – Let’s create a study group to see what we might do. Who else is doing it? Let’s do a survey.

Panic – Urgent, we’re behind! We’ve got to catch up! We’ve got to change everything now!

Maintenance culture transformation is no easy task. Take ownership of your program by beginning the process of dismantling bad maintenance culture and replacing it with the pillars described above.

Create a shared vision of what you are trying to achieve. What will it look like? How will the company benefit? How will team members benefit? Until you fix the culture issue, you cannot rise to the lofty state of excellence in maintenance and reliability.

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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...