How to Sell a Lube Program to Plant Management: In a Word - Creditability

Joe Kuhn

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. You just received a windfall inheritance of $1 million, and you have decided to invest the total sum in the stock market under the guidance of a financial advisor. You have just three advisors to select from (above):

How did you decide? The obvious choice is Jane. While she doesn’t have the most experience, she does have a track record of success and has earned externally-verified credentials. In a word, she has “Creditability.”

A bank determines your interest rate based on your credit score. This is an attempt at measuring your creditability. Similarly, if you buy earbuds on Amazon, you will likely choose based on the number of reviews and the total review score by others who purchased the device. Consciously or unconsciously, we use creditability in our daily lives to make decisions. Creditability goes beyond what people say to sell us on ideas by adding past performance to predict future performance. Creditability is therefore earned.

Selling the Program

How do you sell a plant manager on a new lube program? To craft a business case, many maintenance managers or reliability engineers benchmark others who are best in class, reference articles, go to a seminar and quote rules of thumb. For example, they may conclude, “We should be able to cut our maintenance budget by 20%, increase our equipment uptime by 10 percentage points and improve our product yield by five percent. These total a business impact of $2 million per year. All I need upfront is $50,000 for training, $200,000 per year to hire two lubrication technicians, train them to level II technicians for $20,000, spend $100,000 upgrading our lube room and $130,000 to improve our assets with sampling ports, labeling, breathers, fixing leaks and small equipment modifications. With this $500,000 initial investment and $200,000 reoccurring each year, we expect to get $2 million in return, beginning in year three.”

This is all packaged together in an impressive 10-slide PowerPoint presentation with pictures and animation for the leadership team. Impressive right? How could the plant manager say no? You are offering a return of $2 million for an investment of $500,000 in just three years. Nevertheless, they say no. Worse yet, they ask for more information; you return with that information, and you get asked for more information. Sound familiar? What is going on?

Let’s get into the plant manager’s head for a moment and expose some truths. Plant managers are expected to show improved results quarter over quarter (if they are lucky) or month over month (which is more typical). Plant managers want great ideas and are willing to take bold actions. However, you must recognize that you are competing for time and resources.

As a plant manager, I selected three to five game-changing initiatives to drive hard at my plants. Driving 50 initiatives leads to failure; maintaining 47 and driving three to a new level of performance changes the business. Every week, I would get asked to sponsor 10 new programs. Reliability and maintenance is just one of these - powerful, but just one. Production wants a new piece of equipment to replace a 60-year-old one; quality wants to purchase new inspection equipment to improve our defect rate and open up new markets; safety wants new machine guarding; environmental wants a new waste oil treatment facility, citing high maintenance cost and lost reclamation; and commercial wants to add a new product line. Each of these has a strong business case, and all want resources. Hidden in each opportunity are department and individual creditability ratings.

Does this organization use its current resources efficiently and effectively? Said another way, does this organization have creditability? No and No. How is creditability earned?

Forewarning, this may sting a little bit: did the plant manager and/or leadership team reject your analysis of the business impact of a strong lubrication program, or did they really evaluate the creditability of the leadership team within maintenance and reliability? Creditability is most often the deciding factor. Rarely do you have a sales problem getting your lube program sponsored. Consider the current state of the maintenance department as a backdrop to the initiative request:

The best organizations earn creditability by using existing resources and funding to deliver great results. They seek external funding and support to accelerate future results. Great leaders seek out “zero-cost solutions” to problems. Zero-cost solutions present themselves and become obvious if you know the current state intimately. The only way I have found to understand the current state is through a process known as chalk circle observation, a technique pioneered by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System.

Chalk Circle involves spending at least four hours (more is better) on the shop floor observing a lone failure mode, in the case of lube. For example: observing the installation of a bearing, observing numerous PMs being executed and evaluating precision, watching the machine being operated, observing other applications of the same machine type, discussing failures with mechanics and operators, observing failures in the field and conducting failed part autopsies. These facts are combined with expertise and key performance indicators (example: MTBF) to get a full picture of the current state.

Next, seek zero-cost solutions. By zero-cost, I mean you need no approval from top management to execute these changes. Examples of zero-cost lubrication solutions:

How much did these ten actions cost the maintenance manager? Effectively zero. If you are convinced that you don’t have enough resources to devote to lube proactively because you are too involved reactively, perhaps you should consider a career change. You must passionately believe the only way to dig out of a reactive maintenance death spiral is to practice proactive maintenance, predictive maintenance and problem-solving. Tomorrow will not be better without these. You must use the leverage you get from these best practices. Your job is to get the “flywheel” of reliability turning before seeking outside sponsorship. The speed of this rotation is your creditability.

With creditability, investment will come seeking you. This happened to me. The plant manager was so impressed with our results that he asked me what it would take to go faster. We asked for $100,000 to improve our lubrication storage, transfer containers and autopsy area. We had funding that week.

You must understand that every reliability tool, including lubrication, is designed to eliminate waste. A mantra of “we attack waste” is what I recommend to every reliability and maintenance organization. Not only is this accurate for what each best practice is designed to do, but it also aligns top management to the shop floor, conveying what you are trying to do in simple, everyday repeatable terms. Let’s face it: we have made reliability too complicated. Further, a waste mantra is always in vogue regardless of the business cycle you are in. This enables reliability change efforts to accelerate in both good times and bad.

I promise you; your existing lube program has waste in it. Know it through observation. Fix it. Communicate results, linking them to your actions. Improve. Lube can be an excellent first step in your reliability journey; it was for my team. However, you must earn creditability by doing the basics well before selling any idea or change to top management. Prove you are a great steward of precious resources and watch the time, money and resources flow. As Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

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About the Author

Joe Kuhn worked at Alcoa Corporation for 32 years. Joe was an operations leader for 29 years, a plant manager three times, and the global director for reliability and maintenance serving 31 loca...