Making the business case for precision lubrication

Quantify the benefits of a holistic approach to maintenance and reliability.

By Jason Kopschinsky, Des-Case

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In brief:

  • When we start to investigate why some plants just don’t make the grade in precision lubrication or any maintenance improvement program, you can really boil it down to three common roadblocks.
  • The pathway to success in lubrication is not much different than any other improvement program within the plant.
  • The most challenging roadblock to launching a successful lubrication program, and perhaps the most important component, is illustrating the financial benefits of a sound lubrication program and gaining management buy-in.

In the past 15 years, I have walked into literally hundreds of plants in North America, and almost all of them had a sign posted at or near the front gate stating some important safety metrics: “235 days without a lost time incident” is the typical verbiage used. I’ve always wondered what prompted the broad marketing of this important statistic. It likely has something to do with the relatively unsafe working environments previous generations were subjected to in plants and the eventual push to improve those conditions so the risk of not making it home for dinner on any given work day was minimized. At this point, I’m sure most plant employees that walk or drive by a sign like this on a daily basis don’t give it much thought since the expectation of a safe working environment is business-as-usual these days.

Have you ever seen a sign that stated “265 Days without a lubrication-related failure”? I have not, but I have often wondered why. I suspect it has a lot to do with the culture that surrounds lubrication and maintenance and the way we typically reward reactive repair work versus proactive prevention work.

For example, a critical machine fails in the middle of the night completely halting production. The on-call mechanic rushes into the plant to find key stakeholders surrounding the machine asking questions.

“When was the last time this was greased?”

“Have we ever changed the filters?”

“Have we not done an oil change recently?”

As you would imagine in a scene from a movie, the crowd standing around the broken machine moves aside as the mechanic approaches with his toolbox in hand. As time slowly passes, the machine fires up and ends the grueling unscheduled downtime and massive production loss.

What happens next is contrary to intuition.

Instead of blaming the mechanic for the lost productivity and poor reliability maintenance, he is credited with rescuing the machine. The mechanic is rewarded with overtime pay, handshakes, pats on the back, and perhaps a day off for such skillful display of his effort. Everyone in the plant is impressed with the safeguards in place to reduce the impact of this kind of failure. In-house stores had plenty of spares in inventory, all the right people had been contacted, and the rescue mission was executed flawlessly.

The failure in this example may have never been fully identified, but the point is, in many cases, lubrication is still a massive unknown, and we tend to ask questions only when a problem presents itself. We rarely credit the positive things we do in lubrication simply because it’s difficult to pinpoint the advantages of single efforts.

Have you ever heard this? — “That machine has never given us a problem in 15 years. I’ll bet it’s because we have applied a holistic approach to precision lubrication and executed on proper storage and handling, or we have a solid oil analysis program and have modified the equipment to have ideal air breathers and oil filtration. Or we’ve also spent time training and educating those responsible for lubrication in the plant.”

I’ve never heard that, but I do know, if all those things had been done, the result is far different than a costly bit of plant downtime.

Roadblocks to improvements

When we start to investigate why some plants just don’t make the grade in precision lubrication or any maintenance improvement program, you can really boil it down to three common roadblocks:

  • lack of understanding
  • fire fighting
  • no management buy-in.

Perhaps the most challenging barrier is the third — lack of management buy-in. But it can be overcome with a financial business case analysis. Once we can see our way through these challenges, we need to sort it all out. We need to decide where to start (Table 1). We obviously want to capitalize on the low-hanging fruit and those items that are going to give us the quickest return on any investment we make, but how do we do it?

Roadblock Solution
Lack of knowledge of understanding of what's possible External Support & Engineered products/solutions
Too busy putting out fires to develop and action plan Project Management Support
Lack of management buy-in to provide funding Develop a Business Case
Table 1. Start improvements with the low-hanging fruit and the items that will give immediate return on investment.

What is poor lubrication?

The pathway to success in lubrication is not much different than any other improvement program within the plant. You need to quantify your current program — whether your lubrication program is formal or informal, sophisticated or simple. Identifying where you are in contrast to where you want to be is the first and most important step, which helps to identify the gaps. The biggest gaps — the gaps that are going to give you the greatest return on investment — are the ones you need to focus on first. In essence, that could become the start of your lubrication program.

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