Uptime: Sometimes It’s The Little Things

Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor
Many businesses, facilities and plants today are involved with (sometimes obsessed with) “improvement programs.” Plenty of these “programs” seem to have come and gone over the decades, only to return with morphed identities or new buzzwords.

Each time a “new program” emerges, organizations put considerable time and resources into addressing performance problems with tools and terminology that the program’s proponents promise will revolutionize business. All the while, many causes of poor equipment performance and equipment downtime continue to be overlooked— they’re not glamorous enough to make the radar screens of most hot “new” improvement initiatives. (No, I am not beating up on a Six Sigma or Lean this or Lean that. Typically, these popular improvement methods involve “higher level” problem solving.)

What I am concerned about is the fact that many of today’s equipment-related losses are quite preventable using a mix of common sense, time, minimal resources and some experienced coaching. Let’s call these the “fundamentals,” the basics for addressing equipment performance losses.

The difference
Facilities maintenance resources often are spent addressing chronic problems in a reactive manner that leads to higher and higher maintenance costs. Manufacturing flow interruptions are most often caused by equipment-related losses (downtime, speed and yield) in an equipment-intensive operation. Improvement programs coupled with reactive equipment repairs can put an added burden on already limited maintenance resources. Sustainable gains can be extremely difficult to achieve. Here are a few real-world examples from different companies on how the little things can make a big difference.

Case example #1…
Despite continuing heroics to meet production quotas, plant leadership and floor personnel were frustrated by equipment performance. The target of their frustration was an integrated process of about 10 machine sections, a constraint in the manufacturing process closest to the customer and the most troublesome processing line in the department. Some of the products that ran on the line would jam or not feed correctly. At times, the case packer would jam and destroy packing boxes. Products would fall out of the machine and jam up the chains and sprockets. Not all of the PLC control screens used in the operation of the line had a STOP button displayed. The need to return to other screens to shut off the machine, in turn, caused time-consuming delays. Because of this PLC difficulty, the emergency button frequently was used to stop the machine during jam-ups, which resulted in additional out-of-cycle delays and other problems.

The net result of all of these little things was lost production, damaged product, lower production yield, high maintenance trouble calls and lots and lots of fixing and tweaking just to make things run right for a short time. All of the major problems observed, recorded in the production downtime tracking and entered into the maintenance logs targeted only two of the 10 sections of the processing line. The solutions were straightforward.

Case example #2…
A relatively new automated cutting and assembly process would not cut properly. This led to quality defects or destroyed product. At times, these improper cuts would cause damage to the shear section by exerting too much pressure in the wrong direction. Shear blade screws were found to be loose and worn out, unable to hold torque. An oil film trapped behind the blade created a hydraulic pressure zone, preventing the blade from properly seating metal to metal. Long runs of consistent cuts were rarely possible. These seemingly little things contributed to extensive production delays, lost yield and increased cost per unit produced.

In both of these case examples, BASIC CONDITIONS for proper operation were not being met. Furthermore, until the BASIC CONDITIONS were met, the equipment and the processing lines would NOT be reliable…no matter the title of the “improvement program”…no matter how good the “5S” workplace organization and orderliness program…no matter how good the Six Sigma process…no matter how good the operatorperformed maintenance. Until these BASIC CONDITIONS were established and sustained, the equipment would be labeled problematic. Moreover, problematic machines, equipment and processes generate lower output at higher costs resulting in lower revenue and more plant floor personnel frustration.

Case example #3…
Product jam-ups were common on the discharge side of a high-speed manufacturing line. These events caused line shutdowns, lost product yield, costly quality problems that had to be sorted out and delivery delays. There were no less than 20 individual adjustments on the discharge mechanism to get everything aligned for proper highspeed delivery. To avoid jam-ups, the operators often would run the high-speed line slower. (What good is a slow-running high-speed line?) Another seldom-used high-speed line within 50 feet of the problematic line had half as many adjustable elements—it was simpler and, based on the operators’ testimony, less troublesome. When asked why the trouble-free line had a simpler discharge mechanism than the problematic one, the answer was: “I don’t know. It’s always been that way.”

After minimal discussion, a mechanic with a few wrenches and a couple of C-clamps moved the simpler unit to the problematic line for a trial. Production records were set! Now, the simpler delivery element is common to several high-speed lines instead of just the seldom-used one.

0907_uptime1Case example #4…
The highest repeat maintenance trouble calls in the facility were on five equipment items. Upon analysis, we discovered that these five items were identical, just installed in different locations. The major problems among the five were the same. A root cause analysis pointed out simple solutions related to proper lubrication, correct bearings for the application and drive belt tension adjustments. By addressing the root causes of the chronic problems the maintenance trouble calls ceased, freeing up maintenance resources for more preventive maintenance tasks.

The fix
Sometimes it’s the little things that CAUSE big problems. Sometimes it’s the little things we do that will ELIMINATE big problems.

In each of the case examples cited here there were NO comprehensive preventive maintenance (PM) tasks that addressed the problematic sections of the equipment. Nor was sufficient time allotted to identify the causes of the little problems. For instance, shift production output was much more important than taking time to properly address problem causes, and fixing things fast became the goal. In these cases the maintenance planner became the maintenance dispatcher—with no time for planning or scheduling.

The good news is that management in our four case examples eventually bit the bullet and allowed sufficient planned shutdown time to solve their respective problems. In the production operations in each case, a cross-functional team comprised of mechanics, electricians, operators, supervisors, technicians and others was formed. Over several days, they learned the basics of equipment care and upkeep, dug into their equipment data and searched for the root causes of the chronic problems. They developed, tried and refined solutions to the problems in several hours or less. Since then, they have been setting production records and achieving sustainable, consistent production goals. More importantly, they all have learned that problems can be eliminated by taking the time to address the causes—building, in the process, the foundations for a new work culture. These teams truly became pockets of excellence in action.

After more than 15 years studying NASCAR race shops, talking with their leaders and crews, and studying race team pit crew methods, I see over and over again the basic principles that make them competitive in the pursuit of 100% reliability: Go slow to go fast…Do it right the first time…Speed is a result of doing things right.

The thought here is that it takes longer to do it over again than it would take to DO IT RIGHT to begin with. Thus, if going slow to make sure that the task is done correctly is necessary, so be it: Sadly, the consequences of not doing things right can be costly—and often dangerous. Once you figure out HOW to do it right consistently, figure out how to make it better and faster. Never, ever, though, compromise what is right for the sake of speeding things up.

Another principle I have learned from NASCAR teams: The more complicated the mechanism the more chance for problems and the more variables you have to control, whether equipment-related or shop productivity management-related. These race teams know that “simpler is better” when trying to solve problems and improve performance. I call that “world-class simplicity.” They also make extensive use of detailed checklists in all stages of building and setting up a racecar to communicate and to ensure everything is done right and on time; it’s a standard practice in all competitive race shops.

The focus
Sometimes it’s the little things we should focus on in our operations to eliminate problems, free up maintenance resources and reduce costs. What’s wrong with taking time to look at pesky little things that keep cropping up over and over again and working with those closest to the situation to help figure out what causes them? What’s wrong with providing some higher-level equipment troubleshooting expertise in the form of an engineer, a process technician, a mechanic or a consultant to work with those closest to the problems? What’s wrong with looking for the “simple solutions” to seemingly complex problems? Finally, what’s wrong with learning along the way to solving the problems—proper operation, proper maintenance, proper setup, proper adjustment—to sustain the gains?

Sometimes it’s the little things that get overlooked because we are focused so intently on new programs or major activities to improve plant performance. As a result, we forget the little things that affect the necessary “basic conditions” for equipment performance and reliability improvement… the little things that, if addressed, can yield huge gains, not only in output and lower costs but also in developing a new work culture of teamwork focused on common goals. It all combines into a prescription for BIG success in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace—whether your organization is competing for sales or competing for top-notch talent in an era of skills shortages.