"Lean" on your maintenance materials

Reengineering the stockroom is a good way to increase wrench time.

By Steve Stephenson

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Lean manufacturing is arguably the single greatest advance in plant efficiency during the past 50 years. Lean has helped to systemize, organize and modernize big and small plants the world over.

A custom blueprint for streamlining internal processes, Lean has helped to increase production at many plants. Except, all too often, these plants don’t enjoy the maximum return on their investment. This is because managers often limit their Lean implementations to production-related processes.

Such applications provide only a fraction of the benefit Lean is designed to offer and often deprive plants of achieving the true potential for growth and development.

One must be willing to think critically about the actions personnel take in handling materials.

– Steve Stephenson

To be truly effective, managers must be willing to apply Lean to every plant process within each department. Of course, converting a department to a Lean process requires the support of all personnel and the dedication of leaders who recognize the benefits of working together in this endeavor. Once globally applied, Lean is known to influence the many routine actions of all employees so a plant can reach its true potential.

Perhaps the most overlooked department in a plant’s Lean implementation is maintenance. In many cases, plants are notoriously production-focused and managers might view maintenance as somewhat peripheral. For this reason alone, plant professionals who haven’t applied Lean to maintenance fail to recognize how much more Lean could do to improve their plant’s efficiency.

In maintenance, the Lean process consists of simplifying routine duties involved in completing repairs. In other words, these processes usually begin with a need for materials that go into storage somewhere along the line. The steps between are all of the actions personnel take to complete an entire process.

To help streamline your maintenance department, group related actions into steps to help make the process as efficient as possible. This helps managers identify inefficiencies more clearly and allows them to customize Lean so it better fits the department it serves. Diagram the process steps to prepare for Lean implementation. This provides a clear picture of an overall process to make modifications more successful.

When properly applied, Lean maintenance plays a leading role in a plant’s overall success. However, it must be tailored for the maintenance department it serves if it is to be truly effective. This means plant managers must be innovative about the processes they design and see the benefits of applying elements of Kanban and 5S wherever possible. Kaizen also should be applied consistently throughout a Lean maintenance implementation. This advances communication and fosters departmental teamwork. Applying the right combination of these techniques produces the greatest return on your Lean investment.

Managing materials

One must be willing to think critically about the actions personnel take in handling materials. Inefficiencies can ripple throughout an entire plant, causing delays or even downtime. The goal is to streamline each action into one step so less time and energy is wasted.

Maintenance managers often are charged with purchasing parts and supplies for their departments. Inefficiencies here have far-reaching effects. Purchasers must ensure the right parts and tools either are on-hand or readily available. In Lean, this routine duty is treated as a critical element.

To avoid costly purchasing mistakes, maintenance managers should evaluate suppliers of goods and services. Managers should develop and follow a simple checklist of purchasing criteria. Generally, this list includes the minimum requirements for quality and price. Both are important, but rarely are they deciding factors in Lean maintenance.

The leading criterion in supplier selection usually is the additional services — the added value — a supplier offers with the sale. For example, predictable and reliable delivery always is an important service in a Lean maintenance process. If your plant is like most, maintenance parts and tools need to be delivered as soon as possible. Sometimes they even need to arrive the day they’re ordered. When suppliers have proven they can deliver on their promises, price becomes less of an issue. Keep in mind that downtime is the enemy in Lean maintenance and relying on “penny smart” purchasing usually winds up being “pound foolish.” 

Suppliers who meet the established purchasing criteria should be added to a list of approved suppliers. As long as they continue to meet the criteria, make every effort to purchase from them. Over time, reliable suppliers become valuable assets. The additional services they provide might eventually include things like emergency deliveries, 24-hour technical support, discounts and other critical services that a plant comes to rely on. Either way, Lean maintenance departments benefit from lasting relationships with reliable suppliers.

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