Mixed results on the maintenance crisis: It's gotten worse, but it's also gotten better

Check out these signs of revitalized maintenance.

By Joel Leonard

Two years ago, I penned a column titled, “Pipe dreaming: Fix it or they will leave.”

The article was inspired by a television reporter who asked me how I’d know when things were getting better. It was written a couple of months before Hurricane Katrina, a year before the BP pipeline leaks, a year-and-half before the mess at Walter Reed was reported, and long before the outbreak of salmonella in peanut butter caused by a leaky roof and faulty sprinkler system.

Back then, I noted that the video gaming industry was approaching $1 billion and more than 100,000 kids tried out for “American Idol.” Now there are college degrees offered in computer gaming and more than 300,000 kids pursuing their idol dreams.

It’s been hard getting people to understand that if we don't change where we’re going, we’ll end up where we’re headed, which isn’t a pleasant place. Our society is so focused on fulfilling fields of dreams (if you build it they will come) that we don't consider maintenance pipe dreams (if we don't fix it, everyone will leave).

While it has gotten worse, it also has gotten better and that’s why I’ve updated the signs of revitalized maintenance. The world would be a better place if:

  • Maintenance was perceived as cool. Amazingly, some areas of this and other countries have finally recognized that maintenance contributes to profits. Holland is working to establish Maintenance Valley. U.S. government leaders and professional associations are taking notice. And more students are enrolling to pursue technical degrees, but still not in the needed numbers. Once implemented, the European Federation of National Maintenance Societies’ professional standards will significantly upgrade the image of our noble profession.
  • Maintenance truly worked with, not against, operations. Still needs work, but some maintenance and production managers share the same office or swap job responsibilities to get a better understanding of each function.
  • The decision to have no training had to be justified as vigorously as the decision to train. Still a challenge. Many states subsidize maintenance training, yet companies decline because of limited available time for their limited staff to be away from the plant. What if you train them and they leave? What if you don’t train them and they stay?
  • One-hundred percent (heck, 90%) uptime was the rule and not the exception. More automation, Six Sigma, and Lean Maintenance Strategies are making progress on this front, but we still have room for improvement.
  • Executives spent more time in the boiler room and really knew how their businesses work. Finally, management is being held accountable for developing sustainable business processes and not just short-term stock prices.
  • Stockholders held management accountable for implementing long-term maintenance strategies. The most exciting development since 2005, the Breach of Duty lawsuit filed by British Petroleum stockholders against their management has sent shockwaves through corporate boardrooms worldwide.
  • Maintenance experts testified before Congress to report on the State of the Union's infrastructure. Not quite there yet, but at least congressional forums on facilities maintenance issues have been held and more politicians are taking notice.
  • Presidential candidates were questioned about their long-term maintenance strategies for the country. The 2008 election is upon us and I hope that concerned citizens ask each candidate what they plan to do about the maintenance crisis.
  • A new cabinet position was called the Secretary of Maintenance or Reliability Czar. Well, actually, they just named a war czar — hopefully reliability will get its czar or czarina soon.
  • Hollywood produced an “ER”-type television show on facilities engineering. I haven’t had time to develop scripts to pitch to producers.
  • There were books written about maintenance heroes. Not one published to my knowledge.
  • A Maintenance Hall of Fame was established. Coming soon: see www.PlantServices.com/articles/2007/120.html and send in your nominees.
  • Maintenance was truly understood and valued by our society. Still not there yet, but I’m elated that many in the media, industry leaders and some government officials are beginning to listen.
    Want to help achieve these pipe dreams? Spread the word. Pass this article on for outsiders to read. Volunteer to speak at local schools about why maintenance is cool. Invite your company executives to tour your operation. Teach your HR staff about what a maintenance professional needs to know, so they’ll know who they need to hire.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at leonard.joel@mpactlearning.com

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