Uptime: Getting The Most From Your Reliability Consultants

bob williamson thumb thumbGetting The Most From Your Reliability Consultants

This month’s column is dedicated both to consultants and their clients (with a bit more emphasis on the clients getting the most out of mutually beneficial client-consultant relationships).

Consultants abound. There are plenty of them (us) offering a range of just about any type of assistance and services your business might ever need. I’ve served as a consultant to hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals for much longer than I care to add up. I have also rubbed shoulders with countless consultants in related and unrelated fields. You can trust me on this: All consultants are not created equal. Celebrate the differences!

The other component of the consulting relationship is the client—that means businesses, corporations, departments, senior managers, plant engineers, educators, you name it. As you might imagine given this diversity, all clients are not created equal. Again, let’s celebrate the differences! 

What is a ‘consultant’ anyway?
According to author (and consultant) Peter Brock, a consultant is “someone who has influence over an individual, group or organization, but who has no direct authority to implement changes.” Others define a consultant as “an experienced individual who is trained to analyze conditions and advise others to make the best balanced choices.”

Exploring synonyms for “consultant” we see terms like “adviser, advisor, counsel, counselor, consigliere, a trusted advisor.” Each of these roles requires mastery of a specialized field of knowledge that comes from significant experience coupled with the ability and willingness to share knowledge. In other words, a consultant is someone who has traveled the path that the client is considering (many times before.) The Japanese often refer to this well-traveled person as a “Sensei” (“born before” in Japanese)—meaning one who has achieved a respected level of mastery, a teacher, a professor.

Clearly, a consultant can be a teacher, showing the way; a guide, illuminating the path to take; a coach, offering suggestions for improvement; a mentor, tutoring the learner.

Key factors in consulting relationships

Client-consultant synergy. . . 
The first factor in a successful consulting relationship is matching the client’s specific needs and/or interests with the consultant’s expertise and methods. When the consultant’s areas of expertise are aligned with the client needs, a highly beneficial synergy occurs—the outcomes of which total more than what the client or consultant could accomplish separately when focused on the same task.

Defining the box. . . 
The second factor in a successful consulting relationship falls squarely in the client’s lap: Setting very clear expectations in terms of desired reliability improvement outcomes, rather than program implementations in hopes of making improvements.

Determining the path to take. . . 
Defining the current situation is the critically important third factor in a successful consulting relationship. Steven Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) put it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In consultant-speak, this is the assessment or analysis phase of an assignment, the purpose of which is to define possibilities INSIDE the box and likely effects OUTSIDE the box—the scope of work.

The client must facilitate the consultant’s exposure to all relevant strengths and weaknesses—not holding anything back. Connecting the consultant to the right people in the right places and pulling back the curtain to the known and unknown leads to the best balanced approach to the desired improvements.  

Consultants teach, clients learn. . . 
The fourth factor is based on education and training principles. Having taught tooling and machine design to young adults for 12 years, I firmly believe that the learning journey begins with the student, not with the teacher. The student must first want to learn, or at least not resist the learning opportunity. The teacher must then understand what the student already knows and build on that foundation, shoring it up along the way as needed. Then and only then can the teaching process be effective.

Likewise, having been a consultant for nearly 30 years in well over 450 plants, mines, utilities, etc., I believe the improvement journey begins with the client. As with the student, the client must first want to improve, or at least not put up roadblocks to the consulting process. Likewise, the consultant must understand what the client already knows and has deployed and then build on that foundation, helping fill in the gaps along the way. Then and only then can the consulting process be effective and result in learning different ways, better ways, and improving.

 “They don’t know what they don’t know.” It’s a common complaint, one that I’ve heard from consultants about their clients and from clients about their consultants. Frequently, clients don’t know they are uninformed and that they lack certain knowledge. That’s why they retain expert consultants!  

Consultants for their part, however, should beware: Remember the old saw that “if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?” It suggests that if you look at every opportunity only from your own perspective and seek solutions only from your perspective you might just miss the mark and really do more harm than good. Consultants must be able to see potential solutions from the client’s perspective as well as their own.

“They did not do what we told them to do.” This statement cuts both ways as well. Consultants who are knowledgeable in their professions hope that clients will follow their recommendations. One of the most rewarding feelings is when teachers teach and students learn. Likewise, as consultants, the most rewarding feeling is when the client learns. Herein lies the dilemma: Clients can pursue the recommended actions leading to improvements—sometimes generating a huge return on the investment. On the other hand, clients sometimes choose NOT to pursue their consultants’ recommendations. Why would a client do this after investing in consulting assistance? Reasons could include the following:

  • Business priorities and constrained available resources might get in the way.
  • New upper-level management might launch an entirely new leadership agenda.
  • The client might not fully understand whatit was asking for.
  • The consultant missed the mark.


What is ‘reliability’ anyway? 
The fifth factor in a successful consulting relationship is establishing a common terminology. Chasing “reliability” improvement can easily miss the mark. By its very nature reliability is systemic, made up of interdependent factors—it is rarely achieved by a single action. Reliability is all about facilities, equipment, and processes doing what they are supposed to do first time, every time in defined conditions for a pre-determined period of time.

All too often in the world of maintenance, reliability and capacity assurance we have so closely coupled these two terms—maintenance & reliability—that they have become synonymous. While proper maintenance can enhance equipment and process reliability, maintenance alone can rarely improve reliability in a sustainable manner. Why? Because, 80 to 95% of the causes of unreliability of industrial processes are typically outside the direct control of the plant or facility maintenance functions.

A ‘reliability’ story worth sharing…
A manufacturing site manager invited me in to do “a quick reliability improvement assessment” (his words). His expectations seemed quite clear: Identify what needs to be done to improve process performance and reliability to improve flow and reduce cost per unit produced. Further preliminary discussions led to a focus on improving reliability of the critical and constraint processes in the plant.

After meeting with the operations manager and the maintenance manager, I felt we were getting somewhere—the goals were clear and much of what was needed was already in place. It was a meeting with production supervisors that proved to be a real eye-opener when they asked me to define “reliability.”

The supervisors knew that while “reliability” often focuses on equipment maintenance, the real opportunity in their plant was much bigger than that. Setups, changeovers, improper operation, raw material variability, untrained operators and maintainers, and the lack of meaningful downtime data were among the real opportunities to improve process performance, not merely maintenance-based reliability. So, what started out as a “reliability-improvement” assessment also had to address operations “availability” and “utilization” improvement—terminology understood by the client’s leadership team—improving overall equipment effectiveness.

Getting the most from your reliability consultants depends on establishing clear expectations up front, appreciating the fact that reliability is systemic, embracing a true teaching-learning relationship and respecting professional advice from those who have been through these situations before. Reliability improvement is often much more than implementing new “reliability programs.” Much like the equipment-facility design phase (the earliest stages of a project wherein most reliability ingredients are determined), a client-consultant relationship can be one of your most worthwhile investments in sustainable reliability improvements. 

A parable worth remembering
If your organization now uses or plans to use outside consulting assistance in your reliability efforts, the following thoughts are worth keeping in mind: 

“When there is no clear path ahead, get a map. Follow the roads. Where there are no roads and the terrain is unknown, seek guidance from someone who has been there before. Follow their lead. Learn the new path. Then, blaze a new road for the future.” MT

Robert Williamson, CMRP, CPMM, and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .