Uptime: Thoughts On Maintenance Leadership And Teamwork

bob williamson thumb thumbThoughts On Maintenance Leadership And Teamwork

“Our division director is deploying a self-managed team approach in maintenance much like a transition two years ago in the production department. Our maintenance workforce is mostly older, with nearly 20 to 30 years of service, and very traditionally craft-oriented. We’re also deploying a ‘maintenance best practice’ approach for job identification, planning, scheduling, execution, documentation and improvement. The new role of maintenance supervisors is unclear, but it will not be supervision. Are we heading down a slippery slope with these new self-managed teams?”

Wow! As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again!” The participative-management concept of “self-managed teams” dates back to the 1980s when a new generation of employees was being hired to mix with middle-aged workers. For fundamental reasons, it largely failed then—and could do so in the future for the same reasons (especially with an aging workforce in transition). Here are some factors to consider regarding maintenance leadership and teams…

#1: All teams need leadership.
Focused and decisive leadership will take people to places they would not normally go themselves (that’s another historical finding about teamwork and the requisite leadership). This is especially true in traditional “labor-management” work cultures, and where new approaches, such as “maintenance best practices,” are being introduced in in a traditional maintenance setting.

The role of maintenance leadership is to set new expectations for deploying specific maintenance best practices, explain their benefits to the workforce and provide resources and training to make the best practices work. 

In the 1980s, many plants developed self-managed work teams to eliminate or re-deploy front-line supervision, partly as a cost-reduction initiative. Sadly, many newly formed work teams floundered without the supervision (and leadership) to which they regularly had been accustomed.

The most successful self-managed work teams in the 1980s could be found in green-field facilities: new construction, new plant and new employees with new leadership. What made them successful were employee screening and selection processes designed to identify people who would be successful in a more empowered work environment. Formal training and qualification processes at the onset were essential to their success and their sustainability. (One large plant where I was personally involved in the establishment of such a concept is still operating today as a self-managed work team culture—after nearly 30 years and several different owners.)

#2: Self-managed teams are empowered. 
They make many routine decisions and take actions on their own without supervision of any kind. To be empowered literally means to “supply with an ability to accomplish something.” So, the degree of empowerment (or self-management) is directly proportional to skills and knowledge of the individuals making up the self-managed team. 

In other words, the more the people know about various “maintenance best practices,” the more they can be empowered to do something with them. To be effective, a self-managed team must be fully conversant in the purposes, methods, desired results and potential failure modes of the new maintenance best practices they will be responsible for deploying. 

Very purposeful, focused and directing leadership is essential when beginning to deploy “maintenance best practices,” especially with a traditional, craft-oriented workforce and traditional front-line supervision. Newly formed work groups with new job expectations require a “directive” leader. As they mature and begin learning their new roles, the leader can blend a directing style with more coaching. As the work group matures in their competence of maintenance best practices and their commitment to perform them as intended, the leader then delegates the responsibilities to the work group—a mostly hands-off leadership style. (For more details on situational leadership, refer to some of author Ken Blanchard’s writings.)

#3. Forming self-managed teams in production is much easier than in maintenance. 
Typically, these teams work in close proximity to one another, which makes communications, cross-training and assisting each other relatively easy. By their very nature, “production jobs” often will reflect a relatively narrow scope of work, defined with a “production schedule” and “production plans” and “production/standard operating procedures” that are to be followed by highly trained workers. Translation: “All work is highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing and outcomes” (c. 1999, Toyota Production System). Even in Toyota plants, however, they rely on “Team Leaders” and “Group Leaders” to guide and coach and to communicate with (to and from) the empowered production work groups.

#4. Forming self-managed teams in maintenance is akin to herding cats. 
Seriously! The scope of maintenance job roles is often the opposite of production job roles. Maintenance job roles typically span a very broad area (sometimes plant-wide), require a wide variety of skill sets, are deployed on an as-needed basis (reactive), with regular planned and scheduled work (PMs) punctuating the daily schedule and a huge variety of routinely occurring unknowns. 

That said, the best combination for starting self-managed teams in maintenance is to already have established a robust planned and scheduled maintenance work environment, highly reliable equipment and facilities and very specific maintenance accountabilities. In other words: Maintenance best practices are already deployed and the workforce is fully competent in their roles and responsibilities.

For specific accountabilities to work, there needs to be crystal-clear expectations, roles and responsibilities coupled with high levels of trained and qualified workers. Thus, SOMEONE must hold the maintenance workers accountable for accomplishing the planned and scheduled work, a.k.a. “Leadership.”

#5. Refer to the Toyota example in #3.
“All work is highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing and outcomes.” Not only does maintenance work need to be planned and scheduled (our terms), it must be “procedure-based” (highly specified). The goal is to drive out human variation in job task performance and standardize the work as the foundation for improvement—a fundamental requirement for improving equipment and process reliability. 

Start with equipment-specific maintenance procedures for both PM/PdM and standard maintenance job plans. These are step-by-step procedures written to the lowest skill level and experience of the person performing the job. Then add a complete listing of tools, supplies, parts, drawings, go/no-go specifications, reference documents and safety/environmental instructions, all supported by “job kitting.” 

Link all this to the final element: estimated time to complete the job. The estimated time and go/no-go specifications are needed for accountability and to assure that jobs are done right the first time, every time. This, by the way, is the very same scope of job instructions required by empowered production workers. (My Uptime columns on “The World’s Best Maintenance Tool” [June 2012], “Maintenance Work Instructions Part I: A Style Guide” [July 2012], and “Maintenance Work Instructions
Part II: A Style Guide” [August 2012] provide a wealth of information.)

#6. “Procedure-based” maintenance must become a way of life (the sooner, the better).
This is especially true for your most critical, at-risk equipment and facilities. Procedure-based maintenance is the very practice that will help all of our businesses survive the growing skills shortage in maintenance and reliability job roles. 

Driving out the human variation in critical job tasks will result in better-performing, more reliable equipment. Moreover, detailed maintenance procedures will provide the basis for: 

  • Training maintenance employees and qualifying new employees; 
  • Training and qualifying senior employees who may not have previously performed a procedure;
  • Holding these job performers accountable; 


  • Beginning a continuous improvement process/looking for a better way.

#7. Maintenance teams work.
Empowered through the wide range of skills and knowledge required to successfully manage today’s equipment and facilities, teams of maintenance workers (i.e., technicians, mechanics or whatever they’re called in your operations) can help boost performance and reliability. Maintenance teams are not necessarily “self-managed,” but rather work closely together in problem-solving and problem-elimination, continuous improvement of critical tasks and sharing of information for the good of the team. 

The successful maintenance team is not just committed to each other as peers with potentially diverse skill sets: its members are equally committed to the success of the business.MT

An Up-Close & Personal Observation

“Whenever I visit with a NASCAR race team, I see maintenance teams in action in every phase of the race schedule: in the fab shop, engine shop, chassis shop and race-ready shop; at the track; in the garage; during qualifying; and during the race itself. NASCAR’s racing teams are committed, high-performing maintenance teams in action! Leadership keeps them pointed in the right direction in a tightly scheduled season.”


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 .