When Alright Is Not All Right Give Your Lubrication Program a Critical Exam

John Ross, Maintenance Innovators

Charles Darwin once stated that for a species to advance and survive, they (the species) had to adapt to compensate for the changing environment. The change, he advised, had to occur incrementally, organically and with purpose. Consider the magnifying results of small change over time, demonstrated by the math equation in Figure 1. We need this kind of change in our workplace in order to compensate for the changing environment in our global workplaces. We need our processes and practices to change to remain relevant in a shrinking world if we want to survive and thrive.

Allow me a few words to put the need into the context of having a lubrication program that is good enough. In fact, you might say that it’s ‘alright.’

There is a very famous man in the world of maintenance and reliability by the name of Earl Porter. Earl was an early pioneer of what is now known as the Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS). Earl said one of his most well-known idioms to me years ago, and I wrote it down.

We were assigned to work together to conduct a preventive maintenance assessment at a cheese factory in Wisconsin. Upon arriving at the plant, Earl asked, “John, do you know why we do assessments?” Now, I know why we do assessments - I’ve assessed every aspect of maintenance and reliability in almost every industry on almost every continent.

“We do assessments, John, because even if you know where you’re going, you’re still lost if you don’t know where you are.”

That message had a tremendous effect on me. My assessments going forward had purpose now, and I had a renewed obligation to lift the scales from my clients’ eyes to help them see - no, to make them see - where they were and which way to go from there. You see, if we don’t know where we are, we are lost. That doesn’t mean just pointing at a map (figuratively) and saying, “I’m here.” Rather it means “owning” where you are. If we don’t accept that we are lost, don’t accept where we are currently, it is highly unlikely that we’ll have the motivation or the driving force to improve.

When I conduct a maintenance or storeroom audit or assessment, the lubrication program (specifically, the lube storage area) is on my checklist. I believe that I can surmise the quality of the maintenance (or storeroom) service I’m likely to measure by the condition and orderliness of the lubrication storage room. A well-kept lube storage area denotes an organized, well-documented and disciplined maintenance and storeroom operation. The opposite of that tells me that I might need to consider buying a house near that plant - I’m going to be there awhile.

Metaphorically, get on the bathroom scale. What do you weigh? Where are you? “Own” that weight and do something about it. Even if you know where you’re going, you’re still lost if you don’t know where you are. If you don’t accept where you are, you, my new friends, are lost.

Lube storage is not my message - my message is as follows: it is time to “own” where we are relative to our lubrication documentation and application and to move (incrementally) from 1.00 to 1.01.

Consider this humble graphic. Simply a bolt with eight nuts. Each nut is individually labeled to infer that they should run down the bolt in order and sequence. I have not checked the math on this, but I’d stake my good name that it is correct (or really, really close). Accordingly, there is exactly one way to take this assembly apart. But, as the math goes, there are approximately 40,000+ ways to reassemble it. Ostensibly, someone could assemble it wrong with the nuts in the wrong order.

Keep in mind - the “right” way refers to the process that produces the optimum result. This will look different for every machine and all its individual parts.

If you were given the task of assembling the system as intended without an instructor, or worse, bad instructions, what are the chances that the result would be optimal? Or the result would be acceptable, or the time to complete the task acceptable, or the quality of the work well within tolerance, all with a favorable review from the customer? Not good, I’d venture.

I want to interject a little literary license here and mention that I might use “chances,” “probability,” “likelihood” and “odds” as synonyms.

A little projection is necessary for this next bit: imagine you are responsible for all aspects of machine lubrication, starting (as it always does) with lubrication selection and storage. In your new role, you are pleased to find that you actually have a dedicated oiler. We’ll call him Leroy (note to the reader, Leroy was my very first dedicated oiler in my career). Although he’s hard-working and well-intended, he’s also poorly trained.

You ask Leroy to take over full ownership of the lubrication program - from selection to storage to application. If he needs you, tell him you’ll likely be in a meeting (high probability), but you’ll get back with him when you can.

You just gave Leroy a bolt and eight nuts and told him, “Good luck.”

In his best-selling work “Maintenance and Reliability Best Practices,” Ramesh Gulati introduces us to the concept of Reliability Block Diagrams, or RBD. Ramesh offers some graduate-level insight on how to calculate an asset’s reliability, but for shop-floor practitioners such as us, it’s really the RBD idea that we need to know for this discussion.

Here is a simple, series arrangement of assets, with each machine’s reliability value shown in the blocks of figure 1.

Figure 1

Mr. Gulati tells us that the overall system reliability for a series configuration can be calculated as:

R1 X R2 X R3

The result for our example is: 0.612 or 61.2%

In Figure 2 is a slightly more complex example, taking into account the redundant nature of parallel systems:

Figure 2

Figure 3

The overall system reliability for this parallel arrangement is calculated as:

1-[(1-R1) X (1-R2) X (1-R3)]

The result for our example is: 0.997 or 99.7%

Upping our education just a few notches more, and we can calculate the overall system reliability for a very complex (series and parallel) arrangement. See figure 3.

Hint: solve the parallel system first and then put the result in series with the other blocks.

The result for this example is an overall system reliability of 0.61 or 61%

It would be very fair for you to ask at this point, “What in the world has this got to do with lubrication? Or anything for that matter?” Fair enough. I believe that the same reliability block diagram can be used to calculate the overall reliability for all systems, not just for machines connected together.

Take this modest motor-coupling-pump skid assembly:

As a system, it can be re-shown as a block diagram, such as this RBD (values shown as an example only):


With an overall system reliability of 0.864 or 86.4%

Do you recall our oiler, Leroy? And do you recall I took some literary license and made reliability, probability, chances and odds synonymous? Here is the payoff.

What I’m reprinting here is the exact text from an actual PM work order - this is from a multi-billion-dollar company:

“Apply 4 grams of grease to the bearing.”

For Leroy, the system he just entered reads in his mind like this, “Leroy, get a grease gun, go to the press, locate the bearing grease fitting, shoot in 4 grams of grease, document that activity (optional - as usual), put the grease gun away.”


R1 X R2 X R3 X R4 X R5 X R6

For us to ponder:

  • R1 = Which grease gun? Which grease? How clean is it? Does it have the right additives?
  • R2 = Which press?
  • R3 = Which grease fitting? Is there a grease line, or is it direct application?
  • R4 = How much really is 4 grams? Is the grease gun calibrated? How do we know how much one pump puts out?
  • R5 = Document what, the number of grams, the number of strokes, the type of grease and the condition of the bearing?
  • R6 = Where do I put the grease gun, on the back of my cart, in my tool box or back in the crib?

To easily make the calculation of Leroy’s work, which is a system of related activities, let’s agree to use the U.S. Department of Education’s commonly known standard that you only need a 70% to pass a class. That results in the following overall system calculation for Leroy’s effort, if all of his activities are at least at a passing level:

70% X 70% X 70% X 70% X 70% X 70% = 11.7%

Leroy can perform every single individual task we have assigned him with remarkably steady reliability of 70%. There is a probability that he will perform every function to a satisfactory and, therefore passing, score. Yet, our system has failed. If you make an 11.7% on your test, there is a good chance that you’ll be repeating that subject.

Now, let’s approach this as a system and recognize that, with honest ownership of where we are now, a strategically laid out path, skill-based and objective training, a better PM description and discipline to the task, we can net a significantly different result with modest, incremental improvements.

Here is the new PM task that Leroy himself helped to write:

While machine is running, with a clean rag, wipe grease Zerk fitting clean, apply 4 grams of Mobile XHP222 grease using calibrated grease gun, with a clean rag, wipe grease Zerk fitting clean (bearing part #ZO00002407).

Leroy is our point person for all aspects of the lubrication program. He adds to the improvement efforts by not only detailing the work order tasks, but also by organizing the lubrication storage area. He consolidates the lubricants to what is absolutely required in the facility. Those lubricants are stored in a manner that guards the inherent reliability of the oils and greases. A solid lube route is developed and covers all the lubrication points in the plant. His overall performance contributes to the system advancement. Leroy makes small yet incremental improvements in a relatively short time. His numbers today:

95% X 95% X 95% X 90% X 85% X 95% = 62.3%

And there is still so much more to do. Leroy didn’t settle for a lubrication system that was just alright; he rose to the occasion to ensure that it was all (done) right.

Once you and I begin to look at maintenance tasks as individual components that make up a bigger system, we can make the small, organic changes that are force multipliers.

As leaders, we are challenged to find these opportunities to make real change. In the latest calculation for Leroy’s work above, I increased the first value (R1) from 70% to 95%. This can be achieved through the process of lubricant consolidation, lube storage organization and a little training. It had a major impact on this one application. Imagine that single improvement being multiplied by the number of machines that would benefit from organized and properly stored lubricants.

It’s my hope that this short article gives you the motivations to determine where you are on the road to having an exceptional lubrication program. If you don’t “own” where you are, you are still lost. It is okay to be at the beginning of the road to world-class. You have lots of company and lots of help. It is a journey we’ve all taken at some point.

Having a lubrication program that is just alright is far from one that is all right.

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