Uptime: How To Improve Maintenance

bob williamson thumb thumb“I’ve been in maintenance management a long time. It seems that the toughest part of my job lately has been making improvements in the way we do maintenance. And it’s not getting any easier. If anything, it’s tougher to find support for improving maintenance these days than it was ten years ago. So, how can we REALLY improve maintenance?”

 Great question—especially following last month’s column on the difference between maintenance management and asset management. After you’ve wrapped your mind about those two different, yet closely related, approaches, you still have to get back to the basics of improving maintenance. Asset management systems will not work without efficient and effective maintenance work processes.

Activities vs. improvement
A reminder before we get too far into this discussion: Be careful not to get maintenance “activities” confused with maintenance “improvement.” Merely doing something differently or implementing a new maintenance program does not necessarily mean that maintenance will improve. Here are a few real-life maintenance improvements gone wrong—and gone right… 

  • New preventive maintenance (PM) procedures were developed and deployed for critical equipment in the plant; they were the most detailed, best-looking PM work instructions ever seen at the facility. The new PMs all got scheduled and performed on time, but they didn’t make any sustainable improvement in equipment performance and reliability. Although the PM development activity was considered a success, neither maintenance nor reliability was improved. 
  • A very thorough RCM (Reliability Centered Maintenance) program was started and a failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) performed, leading to a comprehensive maintenance improvement action plan. The plant struggled for months with the action items, though, and the equipment did not become more reliable.  Many RCM experts say “implementation is where most RCM programs fail.”
  • Operators were involved in basic lubricationas part of TPM development (Total Productive Maintenance). Lube stations were set up, visuals were designed and training was provided. This activity was a genuine improvement—maintenance resources were freed-up because lubrication related failures were reduced, equipment effectiveness was improved and operator productivity was increased.
  • Kitting spare parts for maintenance jobs and PMs puts everything together before maintenance work is scheduled and assigned, increasing productivity (wrench time). Parts are removed from inventory, held in limbo in the kits and store-room inventory is replenished. On the other hand, when the kits aren’t used, kitted parts go missing due to emergencies and unused parts aren’t re-stocked, maintenance improvement has NOT really occurred. Instead, maintenance costs have increased.



It can be easy to get excited about developing and deploying new maintenance activities—and, in turn, to work diligently on those activities for months or years. But, has maintenance really improved? Implementing maintenance activities in the hopes of improving performance often misses the mark. 

Maintenance improvements should be observable and measurable. For example, not only should maintenance be more efficient (i.e., take less time), it should be more effective (i.e., generate improved equipment performance and reliability) and more cost-effective (i.e., reflect reduced maintenance cost per unit produced) than the former maintenance activities. Work often becomes easier, equipment runs better and maintenance costs decrease. Those are results you can see and measure.

Launching maintenance improvements
Getting back to the question of how we can we really improve maintenance, let’s begin by answering three basic questions (that will help calibrate your starting point).

#1: Why improve maintenance? Why change? Identify the benefits, the business case, the fundamentally compelling reasons for improving maintenance—the sense of urgency. 

#2: What’s getting in the way of actually improving maintenance? Attitudes, work culture, environment, resources (people/money), skill shortages, training, myths and misunderstanding can stall improvements. Determine the root causes of these barriers or specific failure modes of an improvement activity.

#3: How do we address the specific root causes of the barriers and re-focus on the compelling business case for improving maintenance? This is the launching pad for improving maintenance: what maintenance improvement activities to deploy, where and when, and how to measure the results.

Getting started
Most of us who have been working in and around “maintenance” for years (or even decades) know intuitively why we need to improve maintenance. We know what needs to be done. We know who needs to do it. We even know where to start. 

It’s when we get to actually improving maintenance—the “how” and “when” parts of the journey/the boots-on-the-ground part of making sustainable gains—that our plans can begin showing immediate improvement or start unraveling.  It is more than just timing. It’s about focused and purposeful deployment, not merely implementing new and improved maintenance activities.

Reflect back on your answers to the three basic questions above: Not only are those answers your launching pad for improving maintenance, they also are your basis for securing the authority to do what needs to be done. Never underestimate the power of a compelling business case for change.

Shifting from maintenance “activities” to improved maintenance “results” is a pivotal point between immediate improvement and unraveling plans. Compare the following typical maintenance “activities” versus the “results” and “failure modes” commonly associated with maintenance improvement. (Caution: Since maintenance is the least-defined of all industrial activities, cut me some slack on the definitions used here.)

Preventive Maintenance…

  • Activity: Periodic cleaning, inspection, replenishment, replacement, adjustment, calibration.
  • Results: Reduced unplanned downtime and trouble calls; improved equipment reliability.
  • Failure modes: Inaccurate, incomplete, or vague work instructions; lack of training and/or accountability to follow instructions; sub-standard replacement parts…


Predictive or Condition-based Maintenance…

  • Activity: Technology used to identify deteriorating conditions (vibration, infrared, oil condition, etc.). Performing maintenance based on real-time data.
  • Results: Prioritized and optimized planned corrective maintenance action before functional failure.
  • Failure modes: Improper data collection; insufficient analysis, reporting and trending; lack of timely corrective action; deferring recommended maintenance interventions…


Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM)…

  • Activity: A structured analysis of equipment functions, failure modes, causes and effects to identify risk-mitigation actions.
  • Results: Equipment failures addressed in a preventive manner; risks reduced; reliability improved.
  • Failure modes: Analysis paralysis, incomplete or inadequate action-item implementation…


Maintenance Management (computerized or not)…

  • Activity: Organizing and coordinating maintenance work processes and resources.
  • Results: Efficient and effective deployment of maintenance resources; equipment repair and maintenance histories; improved equipment performance and reliability.
  • Failure modes: Lack of defined and integrated maintenance work processes; software & system functionality a priority versus desired maintenance work processes; limited end-user input…


Lifecycle Asset Management…

  • Activity: Organizing and coordinating life-long equipment cost and performance from acquisition through decommissioning/disposal phases.
  • Results:  Longer equipment life; improved equipment performance & reliability; lowest total cost of ownership.
  • Failure modes: “Lowest cost” project or procurement budget goals; no operability or maintainability reviews; RCM analysis not utilized; little or no standardization of components or controls…


Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)…

  • Activity: Organization-wide and high-involvement approach to improving equipment effectiveness.
  • Results: Major equipment-related losses are eliminated; improved equipment effectiveness (OEE); lower operating and maintenance costs.
  • Failure modes: Lack of focus on eliminating major equipment-related losses; overemphasis on operator-performed maintenance; limited interdependent application of five basic TPM “pillars”…


Maintenance Planning & Scheduling…

  • Activity: Reviewing work requests to develop (or identify) appropriate work plans, procedures, parts and supplies, contract work, estimated labor hours and duration, and then expedite needed resources. Scheduling work when required resources and the targeted equipment are available.
  • Results: Efficient and effective labor utilization and job completion; minimal interruption; lower cost…
  • Failure modes: Undervaluing the importance of “job planning” and assuming that supervisors will plan the work, as well as schedule and assign people; not using standard job plans with estimated hours and other required resources as a basis for planning; outdated job plans/procedures.


Maintenance Training…

  • Activity: Training programs, classes, vendor training, apprenticeships, on-job coaching/training (OJT)
  • Results: Improved maintenance efficiency and effectiveness; improved equipment performance and reliability; improved workplace safety.
  • Failure modes: Generic craft skills/knowledge training; little or no equipment and task-specific training; informal or unstructured OJT; seniority versus job-performance requirement based; not provided to operators; no performance demonstration or qualification.


The path to improved maintenance
Keep these three points in mind: 1) Focus on sustainable results. 2) Deploy the right maintenance activity to address the compelling business case. 3) Beware of the known failure modes of the chosen maintenance activities. 

There are many proven maintenance activities that, when properly deployed, will assure consistent and sustainable results. In this era of skills shortages and ever-tightening productivity improvement goals, make sure the time and energy you and your organization spend on maintenance activities leads to solid results. MT

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