The Hot Stove Effect in Precision Lubrication

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation

The hot stove effect was first given to learning and management science by Mark Twain. He observed that if a cat happens to jump on a hot stove, he will never jump on a hot stove again. This of course is a good thing. However, not so good is the fact that he will not jump on a cold stove either, or perhaps anything the bears the slightest resemblance to a stove.1

Many of us still harbor frightful childhood memories of attempts to ride a bicycle or learning to swim. Yet despite our scrapes, bruises and fear, most of us prevailed in mastering these simple skills. It is sometimes stated that perfection begins with imperfection and we've all heard that practice makes perfect. Imagine the number of dropped baseballs needed for the average child to learn how to play catch. But suppose, if after just one missed swing of a bat a young little leaguer tells his coach, "I'm not very good at baseball so I'm not going to play it any more."

From my experience, the quality and value of one's experience is directly proportional to the risks taken in gaining that experience. Just as in baseball, lubrication is a "practice sport". It requires a certain amount of trial and error, a process known in management science as experiential learning. There will still be those traumatizing moments resulting from "sudden death" machine failures. But each one should be viewed as a learning experience, especially if we make the added effort to explore the root causes and then transform the new knowledge to enhance reliability.

For many in the lubrication field, unexpected failure makes them progressively more adverse to risk, just like the cat and the stove. A maintenance manager recently told me that they no longer relubricate their electric motor bearings, regardless of size. When I asked him why, he explained "The last time we tried, some of the motors failed within a couple hours." If you attend any of the Noria lubrication seminars, we talk about the several ways this can occur. Experiential learning has taught us that it is not the lubricant that causes these failures but rather "lubrication". How you do something is sometimes more important than what you do.

Other examples of lubrication hot stove effects including:

  • The refinery that outlawed the use of synthetic lubricants because it claimed synthetics always cause leaks.

  • Or the company that switched to six-micron filtration for critical machines but switched back to 25-micron filters after it noticed the new filters lasted only a couple of hours.

Many organizations are too quick to abandon a novel fix or the deployment of promising new maintenance technology. I once heard a budding entrepreneur say, "we can make three mistakes and fix them before our competition has the courage to make one."

The Blindfold Syndrome
The blindfold syndrome is the blood brother to the hot stove effect. Learning requires feedback, lots of feedback. For instance, consider if you were asked to practice pitching by throwing a baseball at a strike-zone target, but were then forced to wear a blindfold. You could practice without end but probably not get any closer to hitting the target. However, by removing the blindfold you get visual feedback that enables incremental adjustments in your throw. Soon you will have refined your aim and can throw regular strikes.

Precision lubrication (maintenance) requires continuous feedback too. Sadly, many organizations choose to keep wearing the maintenance blindfold. It's as if removing the blindfold would be disruptive and they prefer the dark because they don't encounter that horrible word called "change". Or perhaps they fear what they might see … an example of "out of sight out of mind".

How does this strange syndrome occur? It occurs whenever feedback is available but ignored or discarded. Some well-known examples include:

  • Not performing quality oil analysis at frequent intervals despite machine criticality

  • Not asking for electric motor rebuilders to document the cause of motor failures

  • Not training maintenance professionals and operators on how to perform routine equipment inspections

  • Not acquiring quality PdM tools for onsite use by the maintenance staff

  • Not instrumenting machines with sensors and transducers for the alarming of noncomplying conditions

  • Not routinely inspecting used filters, bottom sediment or magnetic plugs

  • Not deploying grease-gun feedback tools such as pressure gauges and sonic pickups

A while back I wrote a column on how machines don't just die, they're murdered.2 The failure to seek and respond to feedback is equivalent to murder, in my opinion.


1. James March and Diane Coutu. "Ideas as Art: a Conversation with James G. March." Harvard Business Review, October 2006.

2. Jim Fitch. "Aren't Machines Supposed to Wear Out?" Machinery Lubrication magazine, September 2002.

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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...