Most things in our lives require maintenance. Automobiles, trains, aircraft, trucks, houses, bridges, roads, industrial machinery — none of these can continue to operate correctly if they aren’t properly maintained. Even our own bodies require maintenance in the form of nutrition and exercise.
But what is maintenance? Some people think it’s fixing, like repairing a flat tire. But in reality, when a piece of equipment needs to be repaired, that’s an indication that maintenance didn’t occur. Webster’s definition of maintenance may surprise some people: maintenance is “those actions required for the care of machinery, a building, etc., to keep it clean and in proper functioning condition, to prevent or forestall damage due to normal use.” Maintenance is really all about keeping something from breaking or failing. It is all about prevention.
Worldwide, even in the United States, maintenance tends to be handled very poorly. Most municipalities, companies, and institutions either fail to maintain their capital assets or defer maintenance to some time in the future. Typically, that time never comes. And poor or deferred maintenance costs the United States hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
On the road to ruin
Take, for example, America’s roadways. Deferred maintenance causes millions of dollars in damage to American automobiles every year. Lack of maintenance leads to the development of potholes at best, and roadway failures at worst. Currently, 32% of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing U.S. motorists $67 billion a year or $324 per motorist, in vehicle repairs and operating costs, according to the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which also cites roadway conditions as a factor in one out of every three traffic fatalities.
How can improperly maintained roadways cost drivers so much? The obvious example occurs when a driver hits a pothole that causes a blown tire. In the best-case scenario, that blown tire merely has to replaced, which can cost the driver a couple hundred dollars. But in the worst-case scenario that blown tire may lead to an accident that could cause significant injury or even death.
There are also less apparent repercussions to insufficient roadway maintenance. For instance, hitting potholes or other roadway impediments can throw off a vehicle’s alignment, which can cause increased tire wear, cause poor gas mileage, and necessitate costly tire realignment. Similarly, that same pothole can wreak havoc with shocks and struts, which can also lead to potential safety issues and the need for shock and strut replacement.
And all of these hazards occur when potholes are struck by people in the relative safety of their vehicles. What happens when a motorcyclist or bicyclist hits those potholes? For riders, the implications can be much more severe, bringing the risk of serious injury or even death. Even runners and pedestrians are at risk for hurting themselves, sometimes seriously, if they step in a pothole.
And as dramatic as these examples are, they only measure the cost to drivers. When roadways fail and have to be repaired, those repairs are often very costly — certainly much more costly than maintenance that could have been done in the first place.
Roadways are far from the only example of infrastructure where improper maintenance imperils drivers. Many cities, towns, states, and counties, faced with long-term budget shortfalls, are pulling dollars from their bridge maintenance budgets. There have been cases of deadly bridge failures and structural collapses, many of which could have been avoided by planning ahead and not doing the easy thing — deferring maintenance. It can be tempting to defer maintenance since you aren’t likely to see any impact for a few years. But the ultimate cost can be disastrous. Sudden bridge and road failure costs our country billions every year in unnecessary liability and rush service and repair work, not to mention loss of life and limb. And, even if there is not a catastrophic breakdown, maintaining or repairing a resource after deferring maintenance can increase the ultimate cost tenfold or more.
Finally, look at yourself. Do you take care of your own body by maintaining the proper weight, engaging in exercise, and being careful about nutrition? Our hospitals are full of people who have broken down because they are not living a healthy lifestyle (preventive maintenance), and their bodies have broken down prematurely. This cost makes all of our other examples look small in comparison.
The wheels of industry
Of course, it’s not only in our personal lives where maintenance matters. Our economy depends on the efficiency and effectiveness of American industry. Unfortunately, when it comes to maintenance, American companies are not measuring up. As a result, their equipment runs poorly at a lower output, and they cannot deliver to the customer at a high rate. Major or catastrophic breakdowns can happen at any time. Poor equipment performance costs U.S. manufacturers enormous amounts in profitability each year because the equipment doesn’t produce at the level for which it was designed. Production worker overtime (to catch up), extra raw material costs (scrap), accelerated run-time to make up for poor quality, additional equipment, and additional energy costs all make up pieces of the additional costs that companies unnecessarily accrue each year because of shabby maintenance practices.
The difference between a manufacturing company generating a profit and having to close its doors is often in the hands of the maintenance organization and its ability to be proactive rather than reactive. Reactive maintenance is very costly, and it leads to the poorly performing equipment.
Over time, manufacturers begin to accept poorly running equipment as normal, a process which often goes unnoticed because it happens very slowly. They work around the failed equipment and quality problems, believing this is the only way they can maintain production levels. Although they may start to fall behind in meeting their output goals, some companies rationalize that shutting down for maintenance will make it worse, so they often defer it. However, if failed equipment, minor stoppages, and quality issues are the cause of reduced output, then maintenance, even with some downtime, is required.