Map Your Lubrication Program’s Workflow

Wes Cash, Noria Corporation
Map Your Lubrication Program’s Workflow

Throughout my career in lubrication something has become apparent as it relates to many lubrication programs out there; there is a lack of an actual workflow that is expected to be completed in the program. For most operational or production-related events, there are dedicated processes, systems, and checklists to ensure that they are completed uniformly and consistently. However, when we look at lubrication, nothing exists. Oftentimes there is a maintenance workflow that is overseen by planners and schedulers to make sure things aren’t getting missed, but once again, lubrication is left on an island and there are assumptions made that it is likely getting done but we don’t know for sure. While there can be workflows for many tasks around the lubrication program, let’s hone in on just those that are related to the application of a lubricant to the machine.


The process of lubricating equipment is one of the most important tasks we perform in maintenance. It has more impact on the overall reliability of the equipment than many other maintenance activities. Lubrication is also performed more frequently, in many cases, than other maintenance work so we need to ensure that it is being performed correctly and that we have some level of visibility in that work.


This is where we encounter one of the first problems plaguing many lubrication programs, often the lubrication work is assigned in a scheduled PM that includes many other tasks. While it is a common practice, we begin to lose the insight on the lubrication work itself as it becomes diluted with the other random tasks that exist on the same PM. We need to break lubrication into its own activity that becomes more trackable and with more detail. When lubrication exists in a PM with other work, the instructions are often vague, and we miss many of the details required for proper lubrication.


If we were to plot out the major steps in performing lubrication work there would be at least seven overarching steps, with many sub-steps below them. Keep in mind this is only related to performing the actual lubrication work and doesn’t include anything related to maintaining the lube room, interpreting oil analysis reports, receiving incoming lubricants, or the countless other sub-tasks that consume a significant amount of time through the course of a year.

Request/Identify Lubrication Tasks


The first step in the process is requesting or identifying the need for lubrication on a particular machine or group of machines. While this may appear very straightforward, it is more complex than you might think. To do this correctly we need to understand many different aspects of our equipment, the environment they operate in, and the types of lubricants we have in use. A significant portion of lubrication work is performed on a time-based approach which can lead to overextended intervals, or changing out lubricants that are still good. But before we can even broach the subject on “when” the lubrication needs to be performed, we should first identify “what” is lubricated in the first place.


Your asset hierarchy has a lot to do with this activity. When performing lubrication tasks, we are not lubricating machines, but rather maintenance points (lube points) of specific components. Take the example of a conveyor, the PM may say something generic like “lubricate conveyor.” In reality we can have head, tail, snub, idler, and take up bearings all requiring different volumes of lubricant. We would also have a motor, gearbox, coupling, and hundreds of rollers that would all have their own unique requirements of lubrication as well. We need to get specific in the lubrication work that is being requested to understand exactly how long it will take to assign it properly.


Aside from determining what is lubricated and when it should be lubricated, we need to also know what type of lubrication tasks is required for the work. Greasing activities are greatly different than oiling activities and then there are several different aspects of each that must be further defined. Does this lube point get greased by a manual grease gun or is it on an automatic system? Are we changing the oil in the component or is it total-loss and just needs to be topped up? Perhaps the task is more inspection-based or requires taking samples. In all cases we need to move away from the general description of “lubricate machine” to the specific level of task that will help in later steps of the process.

Plan Lubrication Tasks


Once all the tasks and lube points have been identified and requested to be tackled, the work now shifts to planning the proper way to accomplish these tasks. Planning and scheduling are common in most maintenance organizations and may even go as far as gathering all the necessary items to perform the work and placing them in an assigned area prior to the work being performed. This activity is known as kitting. To get to the point where this is possible, you must understand all the aspects of what will be required to perform the task as it pertains to the work. In lubrication this should include several details such as the volume of lubricant, what type of lubricant, the application devices needed, and consumables to be expected to be used. Each of these details will require a level of understanding of proper lubrication and will likely go beyond simply copying the lubrication instructions from an equipment manual.


Determining the proper amount of lubricant can be difficult at times and may require a condition-based approach to gather feedback from the component in real-time to know that the ideal volume of lubricant has been applied. This is done frequently with greasing and the use of ultrasonic equipment to provide that feedback. Other greased components may need to be analyzed and the appropriate grease volume calculated for each regreasing event. For oil levels proper sight glasses and other level gauges will be required, especially for splash-lubricated equipment where oil level is more critical to proper lubrication regimes. When planning the work, it is good to know the volume of lubricant to be applied so that the technician can gather the appropriate amounts of lubricant. Knowing this in advance helps minimize multiple trips to and from the lube room and lets the technician know how large of a waste oil container to bring if the task involves a full drain and fill of the component.


Beyond knowing the volume of lubricant to use, the technician also needs to know what type of lubricant to be applied. In a typical lubrication program, there will be multiple oils and greases to choose from and each will have marked differences in properties that make it ideal for one application but detrimental to another. The task should spell out exactly what lubricant is to be applied so that the risk of accidental cross contamination is minimized. The lube point should be reviewed to ensure that the proper lubricant is matched to the application. During this process, it is also good practice to review the full stock of lubricants to determine if there are chances to consolidate which will further help avoid misapplication of lubricants to the equipment.


The final activity in this step includes understanding what the operational status the equipment needs to be in to perform the work and any additional PPE or safety requirements that should be spelled out prior to performing the work. If the machine needs to be off to perform the work, then a full lock out, tag out procedure may need to be performed as well. In some cases, lubrication tasks can be performed while the equipment is running but may require the modification of the lube points or guarding to make this happen. Understanding the state of the equipment for the task to be completed aids greatly in the next step of assigning the work.


Assign Lubrication Tasks


The work needing to be performed has now been identified and planned, now it needs to be assigned to the proper staff to get accomplished. There are several criteria that should be analyzed to determine the proper assignment of this work. Among the top of those should be the competency of the technician performing the work. Not all tasks in lubrication require significant knowledge of the equipment or lubrication, and in some cases the more common tasks such as inspections may be assigned to groups outside of the maintenance/lube team. Ensuring that the technician is capable of performing the work to an acceptable level of quality is paramount to the health of the equipment and success of the lubrication program. Work audits as well as skill standards for the tasks should be implemented to help with the assignment of work.


Once the appropriate skill level has been identified for the task, we need to determine the volume of work that can be assigned. There are many different scheduling strategies that can be used but they all require an understanding of the amount of time the list of work is expected to take and how much available time the staff has available to accomplish them. Assigning work to staff that is already fully subscribed is a recipe for frustration and will likely lead to “pencil whipping” that is marking the work as completed without having even performed the task. Often the lubrication tasks can be combined into a lubrication route that can be assigned to be completed throughout a week or several days, but care should be given to not over-assign these tasks.


Assigning the routes or tasks can be done by splitting the facility into areas where specific technicians can be assigned to become experts on their pieces of equipment. Beyond separating the work based on physical location, the tasks can be further separated based on type of lubricant to be used, accessibility of equipment, and many other factors. If there is a known outage on the horizon it is common to group all the “down day” tasks to coincide with these events. With proper planning and understanding of what needs to be done, the assigning of tasks does not have to be a Herculean task and once set up, it can oftentimes be repeated on a set periodicity.

Perform Lubrication Tasks


This is where the actual work of lubricating equipment occurs. Once the work has been assigned to a technician the process of gathering the appropriate equipment to perform the tasks begins. This is where the lube room comes into play for the program. The technician goes to the lube room and grabs the lubricants that are needed, in the volumes that are expected, as well as the tools and consumables that would typically be used in these activities. Some tools may be simple hand tools to remove drain plugs or to gain access to equipment, oil catch pans, and lighting to make the areas more visible. Consumables could include lint-free rags, replacement breathers, replacement grease canisters, and spill containment/clean up materials. All of this might then be loaded on a cart or transported to the area that the technician is going to focus on.


Once the technician arrives at the assigned area, the work begins of applying the lubricant following the procedures that have been assigned. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the application process is done correctly as damage can occur to the machine. For instance, when greasing it is a good practice to add grease slowly and allow a couple of seconds between pumps of grease to allow it to distribute. Greasing quickly can increase pressure in the system and damage seals. Small nuances like these must be understood and followed rigorously to help prolong the life of the equipment and to ensure proper lubrication. This is why having a detailed, step-by-step procedure is important to the overall sustainability of the lubrication program.


Procedures should be written in a manner that provides all the details necessary to perform the work in a consistent manner. These procedures should be viewed as a way to prevent the knowledge of your lubrication technicians from leaving the facility. If someone with less experience must fill in for the regular staff, the work is performed to the same level of thoroughness. In addition to the procedures, having diagrams outlining the location of lube points can help minimize missed lube points or misapplication of the product.

Document Lubrication Tasks


Now that the lubrication task has been completed, we must document what was performed as well as the periphery information that is important to management and the overall success of the lubrication program. Since the technician is physically at the equipment to perform the work, it allows for an overall inspection of the machinery to occur. Corrective maintenance coming from preventive maintenance is a common metric that is tracked in many programs today. The thought is that the technician should be finding some abnormalities or things that need to be fixed while they are performing other work. While this is true, deep inspections on equipment are seldom performed and when they are, they are mostly just oil level checks and looking for leaks. Taking the opportunity to inspect the machine holistically can be a valuable exercise and one that shouldn’t be overlooked.


When the work is assigned and being completed, ideally there will be a mechanism that provides an outline of all the tasks that need to be completed. This may be in a checklist form, paper-based, or a hand-held electronic system. In any event it should provide a consolidated list of tasks to be completed and then checked off by the technician. An important aspect of the form is to provide an area for notes to be attached based on the work that was being done. Abnormal inspections results, amount of lubricant applied, or any accessories needing changed are all valuable data that should be collected and actioned. This allows us to track consumption of the lubricant, identify machines that may require more attention (increased inspection frequency), and schedule any corrective work that needs to be done. It is during this documentation stage that any corrections needed to the detailed procedure or lubrication frequency should be noted and returned to management to update in the lubrication management system.

Close Out Lubrication Tasks


The work has been completed, notes have been added to our work order, and now we need to close out the work. This in essence is the formal stage of saying that it has been completed and accounted for. Some of the more closely watched metrics come from this step of the process as we want to ensure that what was scheduled was done. This is commonly referred to as route compliance or PM compliance and we want to aim for a very high percentage of this work to be completed when assigned.


The act of closing out this work may be a simple process of turning in a piece of paper that we have checked off or signed indicating it is completed, or using an electronic system to indicate that it is done. In any case, the follow up to this is reviewing the notes and performing the follow-up actions that are required based on the input from the technician. This may be initiating a new work order, or even updating the procedure to make it closer to what is performed in the field. The feedback loop at this stage needs to be formalized to keep the lubrication program relevant and to show that tasks are being accomplished in a timely manner.

Clean Up Tasks


The final step in routine lubrication performed by the technician is the clean up or disposal of the lubricants and consumables used during the lubrication work. If the work being performed included oil changes, there will be a volume of used oil that must be disposed of in accordance with company policies. This will also be true of any spill absorbent material or rags that were used to wipe down the surfaces when performing the tasks. Used liquid lubricants are typically handled differently than lubricant contaminated solids. Both need to be contained and stored in well-labeled containers and should not be thrown into the general waste of the facility. Liquids are typically held until a volume is adequate to have an outside company take ownership of them.


Outside of disposal of waste, there is also the returning of the lubricants that are still fit for service to the lube room. This is overlooked and usually results in lubricants that are in top-up containers and grease guns being left in the field and stored in a less than ideal environment. Bringing the tools and lubricants back to the lube room helps maintain their integrity so that when they are needed again, they are still in good working order. It also allows us to control contaminants by providing a place to decontaminate application devices and refill with filtered lubricant. The cleanup stage is important to start the process over again following the clean, cool, and dry mantra of your lubrication program.


While there are many other steps that can included in a lubrication program’s workflow, this should provide some guidance for those that are just starting out. We need to break the status quo of just assuming lubrication is getting done and really focus on improving the program. By formalizing the lubrication process and workflow, it allows you to understand exactly what is happening and provides the visibility to know where the process needs to change to better match your unique plant environment.

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About the Author

Wes Cash is the director of technical services for Noria Corporation. He serves as a senior technical consultant for Lubrication Program Development projects and as a senior instructor for ...