Why Lubrication Programs Are Like Sudoku

Noria Corporation

Are you one of the millions of people across the country playing Sudoku to pass the time?

Sudoku is a logic-based puzzle with an objective of filling a nine-by-nine grid so every column, row and three-by-three box contains the digits one through nine. Each puzzle begins partially completed, so there is only one unique solution.

The History of Sudoku
The name "Su Doku" is the Japanese abbreviation of a longer phrase, "Suji wa dokushin ni kagiru", which means "numbers are limited to bachelors" or single numbers. Though not of Japanese origin, as the name would suggest, the concept was derived from Latin squares as far back as the 13th century. Therefore, any solution to a Sudoku puzzle is essentially a Latin square.

A Latin square is a puzzle containing cells in which each row and column have the same set of symbols as opposed to numbers as in Sudoku. In addition to the requirement that each row and column must contain numbers one through nine, Sudoku also requires each three-by-three box contain the numbers one through nine. This particular type of puzzle was first published in the late 1970s in Math Puzzles and Logic Problems magazine by Dell Magazines. The name for this puzzle was originally Number Place. Dell took the Latin square concept and applied it to a 9x9 grid with the addition of nine 3x3 subgrids, or boxes, each containing the numbers from one to nine.


The Comparison
So how is your lubrication program like a Sudoku puzzle?

Consider the lubrication practices in one area of your plant. Because it's known that some production areas apply lubrication best practices better than other areas, we need to identify the strengths and the reasons why. In most plants I audit, maintenance practices between production areas usually differ, and based on the lubrication intellect of those running the program, some components of best practice machinery lubrication, oil analysis and contamination control are working well while others may not even be addressed. Much like a region in a Sudoku puzzle, some spaces are filled while others are left empty. Perhaps, for example, a skilled lube tech in your plant has taken it upon himself to put together a world-class storage and handling facility by standardizing and consolidating the lubricants used.

Now look at the bigger picture. Compare all areas of your plant and you may find that some areas share strengths and weaknesses and other areas are rarely addressed. When laid out, they may resemble a typical Sudoku puzzle.


Lubrication Program Design
The goal of a lubrication program, as in Sudoku, is to fill in the gaps. The best way to do this is to identify what information belongs in the gaps. A gap analysis, S.W.O.T. analysis and a benchmark are the best ways to find the missing components. Considerations should include but are not limited to the following:

Lubricant standards, consolidation and procurement. This area requires careful consideration, demanding that engineering works closely with purchasing to ensure lubricants are properly selected based on the required properties and not just the cost. It is important that lubricants are not overconsolidated to satisfy material handling needs.

Lubricant storage and handling. This is perhaps the most important component of a lubrication program. Storage and handling play an integral role on the overall health and relative life of equipment. This area is overlooked as critical, and must be designed and engineered with best practices in mind.

Training, skill standards and certification. Today's lubricant technician is a well-informed individual who requires training and certification in a defined area to effectively perform his duties.

Program goals and metrics. This area should reflect the mission of the company. The key is to set goals for lubrication, contamination control and oil analysis and then apply metrics to gauge success. Goals and metrics can be as easy as reducing oil consumption or as complex as overall lubrication effectiveness.

Program management. At some level, every successful lubrication program will have some sort of management buy-in. A properly executed lubrication program design can dramatically affect the bottom line.

Relubrication practices. Lubrication and relubrication must be concise, accurate and easy to perform. Having the proper practices in place will ensure a smooth-running program.

Continuous improvement. Successful lubrication program designs allow for change and evolve as technology is adapted. New ideas are incorporated and the program matures along with the individuals responsible for it.

Procedures and guidelines. Every lubrication task must be written in a formalized document and include lubricant type, quantity, frequency of relubrication and the steps necessary to perform the task.

Contamination control. Contamination control and proactive maintenance can be a simple task once a plan is in place. Controlling contamination at all levels of a lubrication program will have significant affects on the overall success of the lubrication program design.

Once we understand what the gaps are, what is missing versus what is already implemented, we are ready to begin filling in the blanks. Just like Sudoku, the missing values need to fit together in a unique manner. The cookie-cutter approach does not work for lubrication programs. This lubrication program needs to be adopted in all areas of the plant, regardless of size. Once we begin to fill in the blanks, many pieces of the puzzle fall into place. You will find, that once your lubrication program design is off the ground, continuous improvement will become an addictive pastime, just like Sudoku.


Gil Gilanti. "The History of Sudoku." ConceptisPuzzles.com, 2005.

Subscribe to Machinery Lubrication