yelling_manOpinion by profile manager at Maintenance Engineering Society of NZ (MESNZ), Craig Carlyle

The fact that you have read past the title suggests that a nerve is already twitching when maintenance and chaos is used in the same sentence.

Let’s just leave it out there that perhaps the non-performance (in actual, management or political terms) of your maintenance department has irked you at some time.

So, why is it that so many maintenance departments in industry become embroiled in stress, finger pointing and sweaty KPI’s? What makes plant reliability so difficult to manage? Simple, humans.

Even more than that, maintenance engineering humans. We will come back to that thought later.

I have spent many years guiding sites and companies towards maintenance excellence and have been fortunate to be involved in success stories measured in reliability, profits and satisfaction. But I have also seen efforts doomed to failure from the outset or railroaded by changes in management. So, what makes the difference? Systems and processes.

I have seen attempts, (some of them lauded internationally) that start out with the highest academic processes and the sexiest three letter acronyms. High priests and converts spout dramatic factors from on high whilst gathering their medals. The acid test is when you scratch the surface of the site 1-2 years later; are the maintenance plans really being actioned? Is life continuously learning and improving? Far too often the answer is a resounding ‘No’.

It is one thing to create fabulous maintenance plans and even better if you install a flash computerised maintenance management system to run them, but it is the systems and processes of running your maintenance management that true success will live and die by.

Back to the humans. After meticulous study of mislaid perfect plans, I have made an earth shattering psychological discovery. I will call it ‘The Carlyle Effect’ (all modesty intended).

Here it is… maintenance engineers do not like being systemised.

It’s true. If you work in a manufacturing process you get it; the need to have systems and processes to prevent chaos. Even tradesmen working in engineering manufacturing get it; there is a plan – I need to work to it.

But your average run of the mill maintenance department tradesman is hard coded to lean towards chaos. Leave him to graze naturally and he will devolve to firefighting and squeaky door priorities as quick as look at you. Give him a maintenance schedule and he will quickly shovel the hard jobs to the backlog and wonder off to do the favoured jobs.

And when something does break, watch him squeal onto the job, sirens and lights blazing, to save the day with his mission critical skills.

Smaller sites will display the ‘irreplaceable engineer’ syndrome; Mr Fixit who may appear to have the site running perfectly, but has all the info locked in his head. What value does he really offer you?

By the same genetic path that drew him to like fixing broken things, he is averse to being told what to do and when to do it. He wants to make his own choices.

Sound familiar?

Let me elucidate further by couching maintenance management in manufacturing (widget) terms:

• You manage a team of blue (maintenance) widget makers.

Your customers don’t really understand blue widgets but they do like red (non-maintenance) so they flood you with    red widget orders.

No one seems to care that you make more red widgets than blue.

You have a backlog of widgets that you will never achieve.

Your customers don’t have a lot of faith in your widget making ability and would go elsewhere if they could.

There is no formal widget making schedule. It pretty much works on who’s yelling at you the loudest.

You spend most of your time explaining to customers why the promised widgets were not made or why they broke straight away.

Your widget makers spend most of their time waiting for widget parts or access to the widget making machines.

You need a massive store of widget parts because you never know which widget you might need to work on next.

If you did give your widget makers a list of widgets to make they would pick out the nice-to-do widgets and leave the rest for the ‘back log’.

Some widget makers ignore the widget schedule and just make what they think is best.

Some widget makers have learnt lots about making widgets over the years but they keep it all in their heads as their own little insurance scheme.

Your budget is grossly overspent and you are unable to make all the blue widgets you need.

You seem to be forever repeating the same widget making mistakes.

The chief widget maker can never retire as the place won’t run without him.

This is the Chaos Theory of Maintenance Management and, unfortunately, I bet you recognise it. You certainly wouldn’t last long in business running processes like this. So why do we accept it in maintenance management? If you are happy with chaos theory in your process, stop reading now, I am happy for you. Maybe not happy for your shareholders, but you go for it! While it lasts. My apologies to our maintenance engineering humans. There is nothing wrong with them, not in the slightest. It’s just that the very skill set that makes them good reactive maintenance engineers almost precludes them from accepting proactive systems and processes.

There is however absolutely no reason in the modern environment that the maintenance function cannot be run with the same accuracy, predictability and transparency as a manufacturing process. The good news is that it also does not require expensive resources and is simple to achieve.

The reason why even the holiest systems will devolve to this level is the lack of formalised systems and processes. All it takes is negative culture and weak management to quickly undo years of positive work.

In order to improve maintenance management performance for the long term, the site must develop the maintenance scheduling systems and processes as a primary step before attempting to introduce maintenance planning disciplines. Put another way, why have a plan if you are not going to action it?

Put in the simplest terms, a truly successful maintenance management system will aim to put the right man on the right job at the right time with the right resources. This is the essential difference between Maintenance Planning and Maintenance Scheduling.

Let me describe a healthy maintenance management system:

It has well developed maintenance plans utilising just-in-time resourcing instead of high inventory stores.

Maintenance plans are fully optimised and bankable, based on evolved condition prediction and trades-confirmed resource requirements.

Maintenance is the priority because our maintenance plans have evolved away from feel good periodic checks to optimised invasion points.

The maintenance scheduling function adds approved non-maintenance and corrective maintenance tasks to the existing planned maintenance schedule.

The schedule is a reality driven rolling document that reflects the real site capability (reality schedule), (normally on a week by week basis). The reality schedule does not have nice-to-do tasks but only tasks expected to be auctioned.

The tradesmen understand and work to a 100% schedule achievement. Non-achievement is the exception, not the rule.

There is no backlog. How can you do a job last week? Unachieved tasks are put back into the forward schedule.

The operation understands the professionalism of the maintenance plans and processes and considers the schedule as bankable. They strive to make the plant available as the consequences of deferral are understood.

Sound wacky? Think about it in terms of running a manufacturing process. Strangely, the hardest thing to achieve above is the man management, which is where your systems and processes meet culture and management. It looks hard so it must be. Damn right. Moving site cultures away from comfort points is always going to stand on some toes. This may sound like total fantasy on your site but the challenge to you is to stand up and make it happen.

If making the journey to maintenance excellence appeals to you, here are my top five foundation steps to success:

• Publicly state that you are going to create a professional and proactive maintenance function.

• Define the difference between maintenance and non-maintenance tasks (what are you here to do?)

• Engage support for your processes from the highest level of your operation.

• Make sure you are rewarding your staff for success, not failure.

• Engage the entire operation in your systems and processes. Formalise it, live it, breathe it, back it.

The journey from ‘OK’ to ‘excellence’ is not that difficult and does not take a lot of expense, training, resources or tools. It takes the cheapest, most effective resource out there, attitude. There are some distinct steps along the way and embedded cultures that you might have to stomp on, but the rewards are enormous, in dollar and self-esteem terms. If I haven’t touched a nerve, then good on you. You either have your act together and are already a white knight of engineering, or are blissfully unaware of a world outside of the trench.

If you work in isolation, a great starting point is by talking to your peers and mentors at the Maintenance Engineering Society (MESNZ).MESNZ strives to support and lift the game of maintenance engineers in New Zealand. That is why MESNZ receives my full support. MESNZ seeks to encourage engineers to share their experience and achievements. The society achieves this by recounting its collective experiences and inspirations to maintenance engineers throughout the country, via print, mentoring, the National Maintenance Engineering Conference or connecting companies with practitioners.