One of the most popular buzzwords in business today is “lean.” This term conveys the idea of fat reduction. In industry, fat reduction includes the elimination of enterprise waste, the streamlining of processes to increase productivity and the more efficient use of capital assets and valued personnel in the pursuit of continuously improving the bottom line. There is, of course, nothing new in this concept.
Most of the literature available on lean, however, woefully neglects the importance of the maintenance processes that are relied upon to keep enterprises running consistently, reliably and profitably. The typical lean expert groups maintenance in a bundle with “other processes.” Rarely does he/she offer tools that address lean methodologies specific to maintenance efforts.
This attitude mirrors the view of maintenance held by corporate management in general. Although asset downtime disrupts production and drives up both process and per-unit operating costs, executives often lose sight of this because they focus on output—not on the assets used to create it. As one CFO put it, “Companies care about how many widgets they make, not the widget-making machine.” The irony is that companies can use lean maintenance techniques not only to make more widgets, but to make each widget more profitably.
When discussing ways to improve maintenance practices, inevitably the discussion splits into compartmentalized topics. The dominant topics typically focus on parts inventory, preventive maintenance scheduling, trade and skill management, tool costs and breakdown management. Yet, the heart and soul of contemporary lean management—be it maintenance or any other endeavor—is the totality of the coverage. Top-down, bottom-up, sideways, the maintenance process requires more than a single approach.
An effective enterprise recognizes the interdependent issues that impact maintenance efficiency and ultimate success. These are addressed by a broad spectrum of solutions. Additionally, effective lean maintenance—like all other areas of the enterprise—requires continuous review, improvement and evaluation.
The first step a company must take to accomplish the goal of “getting lean” is to gather all stakeholders together in an open dialogue and evaluation process that covers all aspects of maintenance. This includes bringing in the “customers” of the maintenance process—assemblers, parts storeroom managers, shipping foremen, even product designers and engineers. Each of these individuals sees a different aspect of the maintenance picture and can provide pertinent input.
The overriding aim is to identify problems and suggest solutions. Management participation is essential. Without that buy-in, the effort of organizing for leanness is doomed to failure.
A recent Aberdeen Group study found that more than 70% of survey respondents report that their Maintenance departments function on a stand-alone basis. At the same time, 87% of respondents agree that asset maintenance is very or extremely important to their organization’s overall financial performance, but only 7% are completely satisfied with their maintenance performance. [Ref. 1] Without energetic management participation in the “leaning” of maintenance processes, improvement becomes an uphill battle.
Successful meetings will reveal weaknesses in processes, as well as viable remedies and other required improvements. The results of these meetings can be developed into an overarching improvement plan and published to all stakeholders. In addition to setting direction for the team, such publication serves to recognize and reinforce team members’ valuable contributions to the improvement process.
Areas most affected
There is no concrete list of typical improvements to revamp a business, since there is no such thing as a “typical” business. Specific areas within the maintenance arena do, though, lend themselves to generally similar examinations.
According to Defense Acquisition University, “The lean model stresses an evolutionary process of change and adaptation, not an idealized technology- driven end state.” [Ref. 2]
Keep in mind that lean maintenance is not the same thing as the acquisition of more technology. This is a conceptual error committed by many businesses that make large investments in new equipment, software and hard ware—all in the belief that these purchases will solve their problems. Such a path is counterproductive to the lean model.
Technology does play an important role in the progress toward greater leanness in the maintenance process. It is critical in lean activities such as tracking parts usage and cost trends; automated/tailored parts purchasing; evaluating effectiveness of preventive maintenance and the associated trends in breakdown occurrence; recording of personnel cross-training results; and, especially, the ongoing tracking of lean efforts to document progress, identify areas for improvement and monitor past efforts.
Nearly all successful business enterprises employ enterprise asset management (EAM) software applications. Primarily, these applications manage work assignment through various methods.
Quality EAM offerings provide integration between the maintenance effort and spare parts inventory management. Excellent offerings include a variety of data requirements associated with maintenance activities so that each activity provides building-block information leading to trend and event analysis. The best EAM products integrate storeroom, repair, preventive maintenance planning and purchasing functions with additional lean-oriented technologies, including mobile connectivity, bar codes, radio frequency identification (RFID) and automated communications features such as e-mail, pager and operating screen notifications to key personnel.
The inclusion of key performance measurements within the EAM offering is a must to ensure that leanness goals are met. Businesses also should look for a separate analytical capability that is incorporated within the EAM umbrella. These capabilities clearly contribute both to the streamlining of the maintenance work process and to the gathering of critical performance, cost and productivity information.
With enhanced, business-specific technology and software applications, companies are able to reap the significant benefits of making lean maintenance an integral part of their overall lean business practices. As a result, they aren’t just turning out more widgets, they’re doing it profitably.
In the end, lean maintenance is really about people, their functions and their contributions to the business processes that make up the associated enterprise. Everyone in the business is a stakeholder. Strong, insightful business leaders will see the benefit of ensuring that every stakeholder is empowered to accomplish lean maintenance goals.