Compensating errors are not a reliability strategy

It seems likely that there is as much good luck out there as bad. We know from the language that good luck exists. If it didn’t, we’d just call bad luck “luck.” Moreover, when someone loses something, someone else usually finds it, so luck should sort of balance out.

Our own experience shows the two sides of luck as well. Take the winter of 2014. Almost nobody on the eastern seaboard would call this winter’s weather good luck. But it’s undoubtedly been a banner season for anyone who owns a New England bump shop. And while we’re in the colonies, you know there’s a public works guy somewhere around Boston who forgot to cancel a duplicate salt order. He’s a hero today because he didn’t run out. In 2012 he might have been canned, but compensating errors saved his career.

Sometimes our own bad luck turns out to be good. Henry Clay Frick, a Pittsburg steel baron, had a European vacation marred when his wife sprained her ankle and had to be hospitalized in Italy. He forfeited a big deposit and missed his trip home – on the Titanic. (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/seven-famous-people-who-missed-the-titanic-101902418/ )

Yes, luck does some funny things, and sometimes it can be very kind, but trusting in luck isn’t a reliability or maintenance strategy. Compensating errors won’t save your career. “Yes, the plant’s down, but think what we saved on oil!” won’t cut it. It also looks iffy on a resume.

If you are responsible for equipment, you are also responsible for the safety of the people around it and its ecological impact on the planet. It’s good to know the legal liability situation where you work, but that’s just the beginning. It’s more important to understand the technical environment you manage. The media are still talking about the 2014 spills in West Virginia. Would things have gone better if the managers of the sites had understood the mean time between failures (MTBF) of their valves?

To keep the math simple, let’s say the MTBF for large valves in non-corrosive environments is 15 or 20 years. How many valves do you suppose a coal processing facility has that might cause major ecological damage or injuries to workers if they failed? It wouldn’t take a very large plant to give us a number over 20 valves.

Do the math. Without intervention there’s going to be at least one important valve failure in our hypothetical plant in the average year. If you’re the person responsible, or if he or she works for you, that means you’re responsible for at least one major failure most years. More and more, the lack of a reliability plan is also the lack of a career plan. As Anonymous (the composer of most Irish music) said, “Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan.” So is the manager responsible for the failure.

There are a lot of great books out there that can fill in the knowledge gap for basic reliability. My favorite is John Moubray’s Reliability-centered Maintenance. It is constantly being revised, but it retains a level of readability that underscores the common sense behind reliability strategies. Anyone with plant responsibilities owes it to herself and her neighbors to understand this material and use it every day.

Whether one is a machine operating associate, a supervisor, a maintenance tech, or a general manager, the logic doesn’t change. We can’t trust to luck. Some equipment must be repaired or replaced before it fails. We need to know which things are in that category and how to look after them. Read the book and apply what you learn. It’ll make you feel better about yourself, and it will take much less time than a job hunt.

Read Stanton McGroarty's monthly column Strategic Maintenance.

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