It's not what your technicians do, it's how they do it

It's not what technicians do, it's how they do it, that counts most

American industry and its facilities maintenance programs seem to have an aversion to best practices that apply to developing and using standard procedures for maintenance tasks. The normal arguments are that the workforce is mature, the same personnel have been performing the same tasks for 30 years and there is no compelling reason to have detailed procedures.

Most people will agree that typical maintenance organizations have three tiers of maintenance personnel:

Superstars.

Rock-steady technicians.

Underachievers.

For the sake of argument, let's assume this mix is typical.

Superstars do everything they feel is needed, but no two ace technicians perform identical tasks or perform them in the same way. The middle portion performs the tasks, but methods still vary. The bottom tier will do only what they are directed to do. Without direct supervision, the outcome normally falls far short of what is needed to maintain equipment reliability.

Gray workers

Your plant may be one of the fortunate few blessed with a maintenance workforce that truly knows what work is needed and the best practices to complete it without need for constant direction from above. But, I ask you, what will happen when your experienced technicians retire? Many domestic plants already have a maintenance workforce nearing retirement age. Will the replacements bring the experience, knowledge and work ethic essential for future maintenance requirements?

Based on experience, I don't think they will. That's why now is the time to document the maintenance tasks essential to the continued operation of critical plant systems and equipment. Capture and preserve the experience and knowledge of the experienced maintenance personnel before they leave. Now is the time to develop effective preventive maintenance task descriptions and detailed work orders that take advantage of this knowledge and ensure acceptable levels of future equipment reliability.

Maintenance task requirements vary according to task complexity and type. Routine preventive maintenance work needs less detail than the disassembly and repair of complex production systems. However, both require specific directions regarding safety, methods and acceptance criteria. Following are suggested items every maintenance work order should include.

Safety issues

The first information block every maintenance task or work order should include relates to safety issues associated with the work to be done. Provide cautions that ensure maintenance personnel, regardless of experience level, fully understand how to perform the required tasks in a safe manner. If safety procedures exist, reference them on the job description and either attach the full procedure or make it readily available to the technician.

Tools, materials and equipment

The job description should include a list of materials, tools, instruments and other equipment needed to perform the task. It ensures the task is performed correctly and it minimizes the time required to identify, locate and fetch the necessary parts. Studies have shown typical maintenance technicians spend only 24 percent of the workday actually performing work.

Methods based on best practices

Universal adherence to best practices is a fundamental requirement of effective maintenance. In the absence of specific direction to the contrary, each maintenance technician will use the most convenient method.

While maintenance tasks can be performed in a variety of ways, there is, by definition, only one best way. Job descriptions, whether for relatively simple preventive tasks or complex rebuilds, should include specific instructions on the best practices. Each task or job description should include enough detail so technicians with the requisite skills can perform the work properly the first time it shows up on their preventive task or work order.

In complex tasks, such as rebuilds, this should include a step-by-step guide covering disassembly, repair and re-assembly. It should include tolerances, bolting torque and other details to ensure the job is completed properly.

Acceptance criteria

In addition to the information and directions suggested above, the technician needs to know the acceptance criteria to determine when the job is functionally complete. For example, a common task description is "Inspect V-belt and adjust as necessary." The safety, tools and methods content of the work order already define how the inspection should be performed, the necessary tools, as well as how to perform it safely. The missing information tells how much belt tension is acceptable. Simply adding the acceptable range of tension ensures everyone will perform the task identically.

Mean-time-to-repair

Maintenance job descriptions also should include the standard hours the task requires. While it's information essential for effective planning, many are reluctant to include time estimates in job descriptions. As a result, the lowest common labor description in most plants is "two technicians for four hours." Without accurate time estimates, it's impossible to plan and deploy manpower resources effectively.

A maintenance job description includes enough detail to eliminate variations in the methods. The idea is to achieve a common interpretation of a task among technicians. Whenever the workforce is permitted full discretion on when and how to perform tasks, some will do much more than is needed and others will do little, if anything to preserve reliability. Both result in higher maintenance costs and substantially reduced equipment reliability. These variations are simple to eliminate. Clear, concise job descriptions include at least the information outlined above and effective supervision that ensure the entire workforce follows these methods consistently. Granted, an investment will be needed to convert existing task descriptions to the suggested format, but it's a case of "pay me now or pay me later." The choice is yours. We can continue to work hard or start working smart.

Contributing Editor Keith Mobley can be reached via email at rkmobley@aol.com.

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