The Power of Truthful Assessments in Jumpstarting a Reliability Transformation

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

One of the best examples of courage is the man who asks to hear what he doesn’t want to hear. While it’s human nature to fear or dread bad news, the wisest among us will frequently ask for it. Why? Because winners change what losers want to leave the same.

Change starts by asking or investigating what’s wrong. This quest begins the assessment stage of programmatic transformations in reliability. Assessments are also referred to as audits, surveys, benchmarking and gap analysis.

It can’t stop there. The next step is equally difficult and perhaps moves you out of your comfort zone. You must accept or acknowledge what is wrong. Many people instinctively want to play defense. You’ve seen how they respond during a substance-abuse intervention. Denial may even lead to lashing out at others to shift focus. Tunnel vision and denial impair real progress.

Figure 1. ADDS defines the four stages of a reliability transformation.

Acceptance initiates corrective action. The world rewards action, but any action is not good enough. Leverage the experience of others who have done what you’re trying to achieve. Ensure there is no commercial bias. While do-it-yourselfers may have confidence, history has shown that many are met with a succession of scrubbed missions. It’s better to learn from the mistakes of others. Swallow your pride and get a professional to coach you through the process.

Engineering and planning come before physical action or change. Make sure it’s careful and detailed, in other words “good engineering.” Consult standards that document the unified opinions of experts, such as ICML 55. Stack the deck by focusing first on quick kills and low-hanging fruit, especially opportunities where there is solid economic benefit.

Deployment is next. You will be met by challenges, resistance, obstacles and setbacks. Stay the course but accept the occasional necessity of moderate course corrections. Don’t stop executing.

Change frequently is followed by entropy, which refers to the natural transition from order to disorder (second law of thermodynamics). Just as rocks weather and crumble, iron rusts and people grow old, new systems and practices will age, degrade and lose effectiveness. The fight against entropy is the concept behind sustainability. The best strategy here is kaizen or continuous improvement. It can’t get worse if you’re constantly making it better.

The programmatic transformation approach described above is the concept behind ADDS (assess, design, deploy and sustain). See Figure 1. This column will focus on the assessment stage of ADDS. Future columns will address the other stages.

Begin the Transformation Journey

Truthful assessments require well-engineered and structured audits by a competent third party, so no oil companies, equipment suppliers, onsite old-timers or drinking buddies allowed. It’s important to get it truthful and to get it right. If the doctor asks you where it hurts, you must not hold anything back. This is equally true for assessments.

Noria has learned much in more than 20 years of performing assessments. The results that are reported are almost always a surprise to management and other stakeholders. Of course, no one likes being told their baby is ugly, but without the knowledge and then acceptance of what’s wrong, no beneficial progress can be made. Pain can be a great source of fuel to drive your transformation.

Most assessments produce an overall score scaled 0 to 100. Low scores should not make you feel depressed or angry but rather just the opposite. View this score as a low-hanging fruit meter. The lower the number, the more accessible and delicious the fruit. High scores require more work and the need to reach further into the tree or to start climbing.

Now, why is it that low-hanging fruit is usually invisible to those who work closest to it? Often it is willful blindness or simply being unable to see what’s on the tip of your nose. This also is known as unconscious selective attention. Your nose is always in view of your eyes, but yet your brain does not register its presence.

Likewise, you are exposed to many things in a plant environment that you seemingly do not see. These are things that your brain has cancelled out.

There is willful blindness, too (not wanting to see or remedy). Basically, you tell lies to yourself about what you don’t want to know or believe to exist. Eventually, this puts you in a state of oblivion and unconscious incompetency. This is like kaizen in reverse.

A professional assessor or auditor is not burdened by such mental filters or blindness. He or she is trained to see it all and report what is seen. At its best, assessing is investigative, penetrating and purposeful. It’s an assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly. It seeks opportunities for change and improvement.


38% of lubrication professionals use a third party to assess the state of their machines and reliability program, based on a recent poll at

ADDS Seeks the Controllable and the Exploitable

An assessor should search for meaningful and exploitable gaps between the current state and the optimum reference state (ORS). The ORS is similar to best practice but with a strong emphasis on the “optimized” state, which can vary between applications and the necessity of being measurable and/or verifiable. Refer to previous Machinery Lubrication articles for a more detailed explanation of the ORS.

When attained, an optimized state of reliability is achieved by practical choices that balance resource constraints, application conditions and potential benefits against the ideal. Depending on machine criticality and the potential cost of failure, you want to identify the optimized spend for reliability. You don’t want excessive, wasteful spending. At the same time, you don’t want to starve your machines or program of needed reliability resources.

The ORS seeks precision. For instance, which machines require 3-micron filtration, and which do not? Which machines call for premium synthetic lubricants, and which do not? Which machines need online and real-time condition monitoring, and which do not?

While an ADDS assessor searches for low-hanging fruit, several things must be kept in mind. These include the need to prioritize and focus on opportunities that are the easiest to control and change, the possible risks and potential disruption associated with change (remembering if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), the cost and complexity of change, and the magnitude and certainty of potential benefit.

Always consider changes that mitigate failure modes and maintenance costs. These should direct attention to opportunities based on mission-critical machines and applications.

The Most Bountiful Harvest

Assessors and condition monitoring analysts have one thing in common. They both are looking for correctable faults that produce saves before they advance to failures and costly misses. By addressing issues at the assessor level (from periodic assessments), you have far fewer faults hidden in your machines to find later at the condition monitoring level by analysts (vibration, oil analysis, acoustics, etc.). In other words, you don’t have to detect what doesn’t exist.

Assessments are designed to search for faults and issues of all types - specific, general and programmatic. Assessment types vary depending on the intended purpose or objective. At a more granular level, these might relate to skills, workforce, tools, methods, maintenance periodicity, lubricants, inspection, storage and handling, machine modifications, and condition monitoring.

Holistically, an assessment should examine communications, documentation and records, data management, work management, asset management, reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) elements, total productive maintenance (TPM) emphasis, organizational alignment, etc.

Assessments start the ADDS process. They are proactive maintenance at their core by reducing the root causes, frequency and severity of failures. They also seek or examine the fundamental elements of a planned, structured, and organized maintenance and reliability program.

One could say it’s like doing a root cause analysis (RCA) on your overall program as well as the general state of your machines. In other words, ADDS emphasizes the need to seek and deploy lasting improvements that spread benefits plant-wide, not just to specific machines. End-to-end transformations from ADDS can lead to immediate benefits, but the real purpose is more long term and systemic.

Can You Assess Culture?

I heard someone proclaim that the best reliability programs are about 80 percent culture and 20 percent everything else. At first, this may sound ridiculous or absurd. However, the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Reliability is a behavioral science. It’s driven by the actions of people - what they do and what they don’t do. Culture drives these actions, as does leadership, training and measurement. They are very much interrelated.

We’ve seen organizations that have a strong safety or quality culture. How do you assess and strengthen reliability culture? One of the best ways is to examine metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) to see how they are used and presented to staff.

These should include micro metrics (the trees) and macro metrics (the forest). Some should serve as lagging indicators (what just happened), while others should serve as leading indicators (what’s going to happen). Your metrics dashboard is also your culture dashboard.

There is a book by Ron Moore titled Making Common Sense Common Practice. The theme of this book is obvious. Reliability should not be viewed as high science but rather common sense applied and sustained. This also is the central theme of the ADDS process, and it is only achieved through the completion of all four steps.

The Lion and the Gazelle

I’ll leave you with one last thought. It is from an African proverb called “The Race of Life:”

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle awakens. He has only one thought on his mind: to be able to run faster than the fastest lion. If he cannot, he will be eaten.

“Every morning in Africa, a lion awakens. He has only one thought on his mind: to be able to run faster than the slowest gazelle. If he cannot, he will die of hunger.

“Whether you choose to be a gazelle or a lion is of no consequence. It is enough to know that with the rising of the sun, you must run. This is the race of life.”

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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...