Uptime: The World's Best Maintenance Tool

bob williamson thumb thumbWe’ve looked for the “world’s best maintenance tool” for decades. Just about the time we grab on to what might be the best of the best, another tool comes along and steals the limelight. That’s the downside of the technology revolution: It’s a moving target. But that’s another story.

This month, I will reveal the world’s very best maintenance tool. Before I do, let’s think about some possible candidates. 

If you could designate and deploy the world’s best maintenance tool of all time—one that would ensure the most efficient and most effective maintenance for your most critical equipment—what would it be?

Here’s a list of those in the running for the best-of-the-best honor (in no specific order):

  • LED flashlight with a magnetic base
  • Multi-bit screwdriver
  • Combination open-end-ratchet wrench set
  • Locking pliers
  • Self-regulating grease gun
  • Infrared inspection cameras
  • Pocket-sized vibration analyzer
  • Multi-purpose ultrasound listening device
  • Digital equipment diagrams
  • Digital OEM equipment manual
  • Detailed work instructions
  • Computerized Maintenance Management System
  • Duct tape & zip-ties
  • Oil-absorbing mats
  • Hand-held electronic data assistants
  • Name your own favorite(s)

I expect your feedback would tend to be along the lines of “It depends on the equipment,” or that “it depends on the type of maintenance being performed (i.e., PM, overhauls, routine repairs, etc.).” Some of you would probably insist that “there’s NO single best-of-the-best maintenance tool out there…yet,” or that “it takes a whole tool box full of tools.” I respectfully disagree with all of these observations. 

Based on many years of experience in industry, in my personal, professional opinion, there really IS one “world’s best maintenance tool.”

And the winner is
While it may seem an unlikely choice to many readers, I put this tool at the top of my list. The world’s best maintenance tool for all forms of critical maintenance—on critical equipment in any type of industry—is (TA-DA!) “detailed work instructions.” Really.

Detailed work instructions are fully documented, equipment- and task-specific, step-by-step procedures. They are truly hard to beat. In fact, there’s no substitute for them. Well-written, detailed work instructions provide users with a comprehensive, thoughtful description of proper, efficient and effective performance that assures consistent results—when followed. They answer all basic questions:  the who, what, where, why, when and how of a maintenance best practice.

The counterpart to operations standard work
Detailed maintenance work instructions are our equivalent of “operations standard work practices” (or “standardized work”). We know, without a doubt, that standardized work in production operations has driven variation out of quality, boosted productivity, reduced operating costs, improved workplace safety and more. Why then, should detailed maintenance work instructions not have a same effect in equipment and facility maintenance and repair? With standardized maintenance work instructions, individual maintainer variation is driven out, reliability is improved, productivity is boosted, maintenance costs are decreased and maintenance-related injuries and accidents are reduced.

I consider the following to be the top 10 characteristics of well-prepared maintenance work instructions:

  • They are EASY to find, understand and use.
  • They are FACTUAL and CREDIBLE (they make sense).
  • They COMMUNICATE a “best-practice standard” the right way.
  • They provide detailed INSTRUCTIONS to drive out human errors and variations.
  • They set AUDITABLE expectations (i.e., a frame-work for accountability and results).
  • They are used to FORMALLY train and qualify end users.
  • They use VISUALS to communicate effectively (and as few words as necessary).
  • They follow a CONSISTENT format and style across the facility.
  • They are CONTROLLED documents and subject to formal change management.
  • They are SUPPORTED by job-aids, equipment visuals and detailed checklists.

The contents of a well-prepared maintenance work-instruction document should include:

  • Equipment/asset name and identification number
  • Equipment/asset location
  • Procedure title
  • Frequency
  • Estimated duration
  • Skill-sets or qualifications required
  • Number of people required
  • Safety considerations (regulations): MSDS, LO-TO, PSM, PPE, permits, etc.
  • Environmental considerations (regulations)
  • Tools and equipment needed
  • Supplies needed
  • Fluids and lubricant requirements
  • Replacement parts and part numbers
  • Reference to relevant documents & drawings
  • Documentation and permit requirements
  • Operational conditions: powered up, shut down, cleared 
  • Detailed, step-by-step sequential instructions
  • “As-found” and “should-be” specifications
  • Document control I.D., revision number and date

Old school is old school
How many times have you read a PM task that says “Check for loose nuts and bolts?” (Do what? Where? What torque?) Or, how about “Lubricate all grease fittings?” (Where? How many? What lubricant? How much?) Surely you’ve come across “Check all fluid levels and top up as needed?” (Where? How many? What fluids?

Each of these “instructions” leaves much to the imagination (and discretion) of the person performing the task. While a decade’s use of this type of work instruction may have worked, they are no longer effective: The work environment has changed. The equipment has changed. The skill-sets have changed. The regulatory requirements have changed. And “doing things right the first time, every time” is the epitome of flawless human performance.

Why are detailed work instructions stressed to prevent defects and assure safe work practices in plant operations? Why are detailed procedures for maintaining military aircraft and submarines an uncompromisable requirement? Why are pilots required to use standardized procedures and checklists for every phase of aircraft movement? 

If such procedures aren’t followed, something that should not happen will happen. The consequences of errors and omissions are costly, penalizing, deadly—or just plain inefficient. So, why does it NOT make sense for us to use formal work instructions for important maintenance tasks on our critical assets?

Many maintenance and repair job roles are in the final stages of shifting from craft-based to specialty-skill-set-based job-performance requirements. That’s not to say that “craftsmanship” is unimportant. It is very important. 

We simply can no longer allow the personal-preference variables of craft skills and knowledge to determine our equipment maintenance and reliability practices. Human variation must be driven out of maintenance IF we are to achieve the levels of equipment performance and reliability that is demanded by an ever-increasing number of equipment-intensive businesses.

Developing the world’s best maintenance tool
Key considerations of the developmental process include where, when, how and who should develop the detailed maintenance work instructions, as well as how they are to be revised. Here are a few suggestions:

WHERE: Ideally, maintenance work instructions should be provided by the equipment and component manufacturers as starting points. In the plant or facility setting, these draft instructions should be verified and enhanced to reflect the operating context of the equipment in the plant. This is the step that makes the work instructions specific not only to the equipment but to the specific application and operating environment.

WHEN: Maintenance work instructions should begin being developed after the equipment is designed and while it is being built. They should be refined and verified during startup and commissioning activities.

HOW: OEM-drafted maintenance work instructions should be reviewed by key individuals—and in small group settings. Documenting the consensus of a “best practice” will be of great importance at this point. An RCM (Reliability Centered Maintenance) Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA) can be used to further refine the instructions.

WHO: Maintenance work instructions should be developed and made site-specific by experienced and qualified maintainers (i.e., electrical, mechanical, instrument/electronics, etc.), equipment engineer, reliability engineer, maintenance management, maintenance planner, plus the OEM technical representative as needed.

REVISIONS: Once the work instructions are developed, they should enter a continuous improvement cycle. For this “beta-test” phase to be successful, EVERYONE who performs the subject tasks MUST use the procedure as written. Any modification during this phase MUST be documented, make sense to the original development group and be reflected in revised instructions. Again, the expectation is that the written instructions will be followed by EVERYONE who performs the tasks and, thus, be held ACCOUNTABLE for following the instructions.

Remember: “If you can’t standardize it, you can’t improve it.” We can measure the efficiency and effectiveness of standardized work instructions when they’re used on our equipment. Non-standard work will always have degrees of variation and produce different measurable results. Let’s go ahead and lever-age our best maintenance tool: It’s time to set the expectation of “standardized” work instructions for the most important activities on our most critical assets. MT

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