Uptime: Reliability Is More About People Than Machines

bob williamson thumb thumbReliability Is More About People Than Machines

“OK. We’ve tried all the maintenance and reliability technologies out there, and we’re still struggling with too many breakdowns and emergency repairs. After studying all the benefits of predictive maintenance, RCM and maintenance-management software, I thought we’d made the right decisions. What did we miss?”

Many maintenance and reliability-improvement leaders and participants have learned that the reality of reliability involves more than deploying proven technologies and programs and watching things improve. Reliability improvement is not as much about technologies and programs as we once thought: New technologies can make maintenance and reliability easier, but actual reliability improvement has more to do with people than machines. Changing the behaviors of machines requires changing the behaviors of people. Setting new expectations and accountabilities while breaking old habits of ALL stakeholders in the organization is often overlooked or oversimplified. 

Maintenance-organization and project-team leadership both play a crucial behavior-changing role when it comes to improving machine and process reliability. Still, nothing sets the stage for reliability success like top-level management support.

The people-side of reliability goes far beyond culture-change events or workshops. Much of the confusion begins when we hard-wire the two different concepts together: maintenance AND reliability. “Maintenance” is about taking actions to preserve the desired levels of equipment and facility performance. “Reliability” is a state of dependability of the equipment and facility— doing what they are supposed to do. 

Despite the critical role that maintenance plays in reliability improvement, reliability (as it is often perceived) is NOT a maintenance program. Unfortunately, experience has shown us that when we say “reliability,” many top-level managers hear “maintenance.” And when we say “maintenance,” they hear “repair.” So what happens when a “Reliability Improvement Program” is deployed without the clear understanding of what it means and is able to accomplish?  

Critical success factors 
In last month’s column, “Putting All the Pieces Together” (pgs. 12-14, MT, May 2013), I discussed the overlooked complexity of improving manufacturing-process reliability and the reliability-inhibiting variables. The column ended with the following list of critical success factors, starting with the easiest and progressing to the most challenging.

1. Data collection, analysis and trending must be accurate (and reliable, too).

2. Focus on the major causes, the most penalizing and chronic problems first.

3. Think beyond “equipment reliability” and consider the process as a whole.

4. The “Theory of Constraints” applies:  Points of unreliability are a continually moving target.

5. “Maintenance” is NOT the only solution for all causes of unreliability.

6. Creating a “reliability mindset” among the entire workgroup is essential (operations, maintenance, engineering, supervision/management, quality, purchasing, all shifts and all crews).

While these six critical success factors may appear to be independent of each other, they’re really interdependent. In a high-reliability culture, these factors work together. They depend on each other for sustainable reliability improvement. Still, it’s the “reliability mindset,” often the most challenging factor, that sets the foundation for the efficiency and effectiveness of the remaining five critical success factors. Let’s review…

DATA — The data success factor enables all the rest. Trustworthy and reliable data points to the opportunities for improvement, and data measures the progress of the reliability-improvement actions.

FOCUS — A focused improvement approach provides rapid paybacks as well as opportunities for improving the reliability improvement methods every step of the way. 

PROCESS — An equipment item is most often part of a process that delivers a product or enables a service. Think beyond equipment reliability and consider the process reliability as a whole. 

CONSTRAINTS — Achieving peak reliability of a penalizing machine in the process may not be necessary. Small improvements of a weak link in the process can quickly shift the most penalizing problem to another “weakest link” in the process. The focus of reliability improvement is a moving target.

CAUSES — Often, the true causes of unreliability are out of the direct control of the maintenance organization. Decisions made and actions taken during the design, procurement, installation, operation, scheduling and, yes, even maintenance of the equipment all contribute to the causes of unreliability. 

MINDSET — Top-level management often models the behaviors and the mindsets of other leaders, managers, supervisors and their crews. An organization’s reliability mindset begins with top-level management because the true causes of unreliability often extend beyond the maintenance organization to other stakeholders. 

A reliability-mindset failure fable
Arie Thereyet, the VP of Operations at ABC Company, was a long-time employee. Starting as an hourly worker, he had gone to night school and obtained a business degree. In other words, he was a highly respected product of the plant floor.

As he walked through the plant each day, Arie often passed the maintenance shop. There, he typically would see five or six maintenance guys sitting around, drinking coffee and reading the paper—might be 6:30 in the morning; might be 2:30 in the afternoon. Consequently, Arie often tended to characterize maintenance as lazy and over-staffed in meetings. Word got back to maintenance that Mr. Thereyet had it in for them. Planning and scheduling personnel were subsequently cut. “After all, why would you need to plan and schedule repairs? Just fix things,” Arie exhorted. 

Arie’s zeal for cost reductions seemed almost boundless. For example, training associated with the maintenance-management-system software upgrade installed by the Information Technology (IT) group was sent to the chopping block. Arie believed that the IT folks could train the maintenance people IF they really needed it. (Alas, training never happened.)

Over time, the plant found itself struggling to compete with offshore competition. The site’s older, unreliable production systems just couldn’t keep pace. Arie pressed his leadership team to upgrade their manufacturing equipment to make more products faster—and at a lower cost. Since he liked to control the purse strings on all projects, low cost was king. Thus, the mandate was to self-perform anything that would save money. Arie Thereyet was frugal, to say the least.

The manufacturing-engineering department eventually pulled together a massive upgrade project: six major production cells with new machines, new automation, automated data-collection systems and new production rates with big bottom-line paybacks to justify the project. The equipment was ordered from both foreign and domestic suppliers and, to save money and help shorten the project-payback period, the maintenance department installed it. (Note: There was no objection to overtime work for the maintenance crews installing the new machines.)

After a few months, the project budget grew to the point that cutbacks began hitting training, spare parts and startup expenses. OEM training was provided for one operator and one maintainer for each new cell. The most costly spare parts from Europe and Japan were deferred. As the project neared completion, the automated data-collection systems were also deferred. Startup and commissioning became the responsibility of the in-plant engineering staff.

Although the project for the six major production cells came in well under budget, it went way over schedule. On the other hand, since low cost was king, the project was seen as a huge modernization success. The schedule, Arie said, could be made up by running the new cells for three shifts, five days, rather than ramping up over a three-month period, as originally planned.

Imagine the results. . . 
One trained cell operator and one trained cell maintainer struggled to keep up in the fast-tracked three-shift startup. Unexpected breakdowns led to expensive and prolonged delays waiting for spare machine parts from the OEMs in Europe and Japan. Then other equipment in the plant—lots of it—began breaking down (because it had not been maintained while the maintenance crews were installing the new machines). 

Of course, when the newly installed machinery broke down, the one-and-only trained mechanic had to work overtime to get it back up and running. At least he did until the maintenance overtime budget came under scrutiny and was cut back. . .

The one-and-only trained machine operator was also pretty busy: work-ing around the clock for weeks just to get someone else on each shift up to speed. And because there weren’t enough skilled maintainers to fix the new equipment, that poor operator also began turning wrenches to fix the machines—with mixed results.

One more frugal fatal flaw. . .
Many of the finished products made by Arie’s plant required components produced by some of the site’s older equipment. More often than not, that machinery couldn’t keep up with the new cells. More maintenance trouble calls and more operations overtime were the answer.

Arie Thereyet’s rules. . . 

  • If you can’t measure it, and you can’t improve it, blame maintenance. 
  • Focus on new technology rather than improving an existing process. 
  • Run the constraint equipment faster so it’s no longer a constraint. 
  • Maintenance is the supplier and production is the customer—and the customer is always right… right?

Given his position as VP of Operations, Arie Thereyet and his “mindset” influenced the thinking of the entire plant leadership team. What he saw as he walked by the maintenance shop was NOT what he thought: In reality, those newspaper-reading coffee-drinkers were dedicated mechanics coming into work a half-hour early in each morning and afternoon (on their own time) so they could touch base with their outgoing counterparts. Sadly, the negativism gen-erated by misinterpretation was reinforced in Arie’s own mind, the minds of his managers and, ultimately, the minds of his hourly workforce.

Improving reliability
Our job is to educate top management on the true causes of unreliability and their necessary corrective actions. Focus on results and changing the mindset, the culture and the behaviors along the way. It’s a fact of life: Reliability really is more about people than machines. 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 .