Why does everyone hate maintenance activity?

In order to permanently change the status of maintenance we have to begin by noticing the existing conversations.

By Joel Levitt, Life Cycle Engineering

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There’s a common perception in many organizations that everyone hates maintenance activity. Is it possible that this stems from conversations about maintenance work that we and others in our business community hear and repeat to ourselves? Perhaps the reason we look at maintenance the way we do is because there are disempowering conversations traveling around the organization.

There are all kinds of conversations within organizations. Most obvious are the public conversations on everyone’s lips. These may be about the industry or profit levels or performance. These public conversations are all the things about the company that people say out loud to each other.

There are also behind-the-scenes conversations. These conversations are just as powerful as the public ones, and sometimes more so. These private conversations can include corporate-wide assessments — “Maintenance is wasteful” — and are significantly harder to change. These behind-the-scenes conversations have tremendous impact on the conduct of maintenance activity and how personnel who do maintenance, either operations or maintenance people, are treated.

One example of a conversation statement is that “maintenance activity is a necessary evil.” Let’s deconstruct this. What impact does such a conversation have? How do you act if you are a necessary evil? Is this kind of conversation the basis for a healthy attitude? How do you contribute if what you are doing is a necessary evil? Indeed, why would you even want to?

The necessary-evil conversation comes from the simple fact that maintenance activity doesn’t contribute directly to the manufacture or delivery of anything. In modern parlance, maintenance does not add value to the product. But modern organizations also agree that maintenance is necessary. So the necessary-evil statement is born. If maintenance work is an expense only, how does an expense contribute to the success of the enterprise? A good expense is a dead, or zero, expense. Do you see the uphill battle implicit in changing that conversation?

When we look at other businesses, we can see this idea at work. It would be pretty crazy to look at your 40-man football team and tell the defensive players that they don’t add value to the product — value in this case being the points on the scoreboard. The owner could save some real money on salaries without all those defensive linemen, not to mention the reduction in catering costs if you don’t have to feed them.

OK, let’s admit it would be crazy to run a football team without defense. If we translate the way companies view maintenance to the way football is managed, we would want as few defensemen as possible, pay them as little as possible, maybe even be creative and make one defensive squad play for two different teams. By the way, if the team loses we would downsize the defense. Also, as they moved to the top of the salary range we would scheme to get rid of them through buyouts or outright dismissal.

Plays would be handled differently because we wouldn’t try to design defensive strategies. If there were any defensive design, it would be done by the defenders themselves without resources or support from management. From a management point of view when the ball is snapped, the whole squad should run howling toward the ball.

Forget training and recruiting; just hire bodies. Especially forget respect. These folks don’t contribute toward the score on the scoreboard. If times get tough, get rid of them altogether. It seems pretty silly in football. It’s not silly in companies; unfortunately it is a way of life.

The all-too-frequent conversation of being a necessary evil greatly limits the contribution of maintenance activity to the success of the enterprise. We have to think up new conversations to take the place of the old. We have to think up new conversations that make more sense.

What if the conversation went something like this:

“We have different activities that support production, and each contributes its specific expertise. The only issues are whether each activity’s specialized contribution adds more to the bottom line than the cost and whether the expertise is essential to the long-term success and enhanced profitability of the organization.

Let’s look at a few of the players in a typical corporation. Lawyers contribute legal expertise. Accountants contribute accounting expertise. This seems pretty simple. If you have an accounting question you ask one of the experts. Likewise if you have a process question, an environmental question, or even a question about trash, you go to the person who covers that area. The trend today is to get rid of the expertise and use outside consultants. The outcome is the same; you want the specialist’s advice to be more valuable than what you pay.

Of course as organization’s size varies, different expertise becomes important. In the 1980s I worked on a project to computerize the fleet maintenance operation of Federal Express. At the time FedEx operated 47,000 light trucks. They bought the most advanced software available. Yet FedEx spent the money and time to continue tweaking the package in order to wring out a few more percent of benefits. After all, a small increase in the savings for 47,000 vehicles was quite a bit of money. In the case of a large company the specialized knowledge was worth it since the potential savings was so large.

We have to answer the question, “What does maintenance activity contribute to the success of the organization?” Once we identify the contribution, are we positioned to make a maximal contribution based on our present skills, knowledge, and attitudes? We also return to the question, “Does this specialized knowledge and skills contribute more to the bottom line than its cost?”

Unique expertise

What is your maintenance department’s real expertise? Some departments are experts in repairing breakdowns. This is the historical role of maintenance. They can fix just about anything. They have deep and subtle expertise in broken things, how things break and how to put them back together. And they know how to do that in the shortest time and with the least cost. There is no dishonor in contributing this expertise to the success of the organization. Fixing breakdowns is a real, valuable, and essential expertise that is duplicated nowhere else in the company.

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