Integrate the maintenance organization into the rest of the plant to achieve better reliability

Best practices: The maintenance organizational structure can provide benefits.

By Glyn Thorman, ABB

Starting a maintenance organization with a blank sheet and Visio software is a dream most managers will never realize. Typically, the organization is a hand-me-down with a well entrenched culture to go with it. Paradigms persist and often the structure is based more on the individual rather than best practices. The “We’ve always done it this way and we’re still around!” mentality prevails over the possibility that the plant could be significantly better and not just in the good category but rather world-class. In reality, many plants are good because good people make them work in spite of poor maintenance organizational structures.

Before you resign yourself to what exists, consider what you can change, how arranging a small area might be the start of a major improvement and how you can sell change by selling advantages to those outside of maintenance. Think of it as a chess board with the opportunity to win driven by the understanding of what you have, what a best practice arrangement should look like and what changes can be done without triggering major culture shock.

Let’s start by looking at what best practices would look like for an entire organization and not just a maintenance organization, because the success of one piece is really contingent upon the structure of the whole.

Best practices for a plant organization

Regardless of whether you manufacture widgets, refine oil, turn trees into paper or operate a world-class recreational facility, much of the same rules apply.

Columns of departments, with each reporting to the plant manager often suggest importance and equality. Unfortunately, they also tend to overextend their importance.

– Glyn Thorman, ABB

Flat structures: Organizations that are the most successful often are small mom and pop sites, where the owner is the plant manager, the operator does production and the mechanic fixes components when they break. The reason such organizations have excellent performance and communication is that the connection between the manager and the hourly workforce is virtually direct. Filters (misinterpretations) from each level don’t exist. The manager can readily convey his vision and dreams, the operator reports on production results and the mechanic keeps things running. But, the key reason communication abounds is not that the facility is small but rather, the organization is flat. The message is heard loud and clear each time it’s spoken. When we move up to large organizations, there is a tendency to build in department and mid-level managers. The hourly operators report to a supervisor, the supervisor reports to an area superintendent, superintendents report to an operations manager and finally, an operations manager reports to the plant manager. Add in shifts, and the chain isn’t only cumbersome but also broken as the shifts rotate through 24-hour days and long weekends.

Of course, the maintenance sector usually is similar and now there are two parallel, over-extended groups. The chance of a plant manager presenting a clear, concise message with the same enthusiasm and clarity to the hourly level is at best, challenged. But what triggers these extensive levels of organization? In some cases, it’s because of large numbers. However, the real reason often is more related to a lack of clear roles and responsibilities, a lack of delegation and a perception of mid-managers feeling the need to work one level down.

When you hear, “Wait, let me have a look at that and get it fixed,” there’s a clear indication of work being done down at least one, and often two, levels. When that happens, the levels above the perpetrator also are required to work down in order to cover the “missing manager.” Clearly, there’s a need for each organizational level to stay in its own zone of responsibility and use delegation, empowerment and accountability for levels below them. Repetitive failures shouldn’t justify additional levels, but should trigger an examination of the capabilities of the level’s leaders and the participants in the next level down. Flat organizations not only enhance rapid decisions and good communication channels, but also are reflective of competence within the organization. For your plant organization, regardless of head count, shoot for no more than four levels with at least six or more direct reports per individual.

Minimal departments: Columns of departments, with each reporting to the plant manager often suggest importance and equality. Unfortunately, they also tend to overextend their importance. This is not to say that Human Resources or IT aren’t valuable assets, but often these departments are ranked as high as the production department. The plant manager spends as much time with the support organizations as he does with the production organization. To counter this effect, plants often (and incorrectly) have an Operations Manager who is responsible for both production and maintenance and reports to the plant manager. Better organizational structures have production and maintenance each reporting directly to the plant manager, but group several of the other service departments together. IT, Human Resources, Training, Security, Warehouse/Shipping and Safety might be lumped together in one department, often called Facility Services. Another category such as Support Services could include Mobile Equipment, Project Engineering and Purchasing. If the plant is small enough (<500), the goal might be to eliminate the Operations Manager level by pushing Production and Maintenance to the plant manager.

Corporate/plant, solid/dotted-line: Many organizations select sensitive areas for reporting directly to corporate offices. Departments such as IT, accounting, purchasing, HR or security are targeted because this tends to remove any local plant manipulation and ensures consistent application of rules and methodologies. In most cases, this solid line to corporate and dotted line to the plant is a positive as it reduces the amount of oversight plant management requires. This, in turn, allows the plant more focused attention on production and maintenance activities. Generally, the use of solid line and dotted line relations is a positive in other areas as it generates a dual level of accountability. Best practices and “fence to fence” consistency are experienced with the solid line reporting, yet the secondary dotted line allows for internal customer feed-back and job performance evaluations. This arrangement will be recommended further as a best practice within the maintenance organization being discussed next.

Best practices for a maintenance organization: Similar comments apply to the maintenance department

Centralized versus decentralized maintenance: Maintenance practitioners have long been asked if a maintenance organization should be centralized (all out of one shop and covering the entire plant) or decentralized (many shops, each having a complete or near complete unit of maintenance). In reality, the best concept is probably “yes,” meaning that the organization should be set up according to what the culture supports, perhaps a combination of both. Over the years, we’ve all seen the above functionally in place and successful. We’ve also seen the above selections failing. At the end of the day, there are positives and negatives to each one:

  Centralized maintenance      
Decentralized maintenance Combination
Labor expense
Lower Higher Either
Area knowledge
Lower Higher Either
Craft synergy
Very high Diluted Varies
Area commitment
Lower Higher
Either
Supervisor-craft ratio
Good Varies Good
Contractor need
Lower Usually higher Usually higher
Labor flexibility
High Very low
Either
Tool & parts expense
Lower Usually higher Usually higher

 

Many plants pursuing best practices use the combination choice. Planning & Scheduling and Reliability Engineering are in central groups with fence-to-fence responsibility. Mechanical shops are located in each unit and electrical/instrument shops can cover each unit or several units based on work load. Most plants seem to justify the extra cost of decentralized shops for the increased value of area knowledge and commitment. However, decentralized usually implies a significantly higher head-count and greater reliance on contractors for supplemental labor when needed.

Central planners decentralized assignment: Often considered the heart and soul of a maintenance organization, planners often are incorrectly placed within the individual area structures. But consider best practices for planners to be universal, regardless of the plant area they serve. Unfortunately, they’re often seen reporting within a maintenance team (planners, maintenance supervisors, maintenance craftsmen) to a production unit, or in worst cases, to the maintenance supervisor. Another ongoing argument is whether planners should be centrally located or spread through the plant in close physical proximity to the maintenance supervisor and the corresponding maintenance shop.

In truth, each of the location options has strengths and weaknesses. When in a central group, they’re totally removed from the crew and the area activity and are unable to build synergy within. In some cases, this can be a positive as the planner located in a shop area tends to become the “junior” maintenance supervisor and is pulled into minute-by-minute emergency work, locating parts and maintenance clerk duties. In our best practices maintenance organization, the planner is in the shop area but with secure space, including walls and a door. As for structure, the planner should have a solid line of report to a planning manager or lead planner with a dotted line relation to either production supervision or the maintenance manager. This arrangement allows the planners to receive consistent best practice direction from their manager and allows the planners to be evaluated for their performance within their respective areas by the customers they serve.

Central reliability decentralized assignment: Included in the term “reliability,” practitioners often are predictive maintenance technicians, oiler/lubrication techs, reliability engineers, rotating equipment specialists, pump rebuild specialists or preventive maintenance technicians. As can be deduced, best practice dictates that the reliability team be separate from the response/routine maintenance group. Reliability is a key and, arguably, the most important element of a maintenance organization. Too often the skills are scattered throughout the organization and are found within the general maintenance areas, central engineering or even plant services. The ability to get a core team of reliability personnel under one banner with a solid-line relation to a reliability leader is critical. Once again, the individuals can have a dotted-line relation with the corresponding areas they are assigned to work at. For preventive maintenance (PM), there’s a trend to pull the best craftsmen from the various maintenance shops and centralize them to perform the PM activities for the entire plant. Although not mandated, this arrangement virtually guarantees that consistent best practices are applied across the mill rather than be subject to a coin-toss of who will do a PM out of a general maintenance crew. This also tends to increase the PM completion metric by eliminating the common temptation of canceling a PM job because the mechanic is needed for the latest emergency. Many plants recognize the difference between reliability engineers (focused on proactive issues), maintenance engineers (specializing in reactive repair issues) and capital engineers (new construction). Separating these groups can ensure that their focus remains true, as engineers often prefer capital work or are caught up in emergency work — both of which leave the critical proactive reliability engineering work for another day. Each of the entities within the reliability group are there to guarantee the well-defined best practices are kept in focus, with clearly defined goals and applied consistently across the plant.

Multi-unit planners, multi-craft planners or planner/supervisors?

The term “multi-craft” often is applied to maintenance technicians, but it’s also an opportunity for consideration with planners. In smaller organizations, there might be crews with a small number of both electrical and mechanical craftsmen. In this example, it might be desirable to use a single planner for both crafts. Also, plants can combine the planner and supervisor role for one of the crafts or use the planner for one craft but with multiple area assignments. If the planner has the capabilities, the multi-craft planner is probably the preferred solution.

Shut-down planners: Shut-downs, scheduled outages and annual outages refer to major events that close all or major portions of a plant for repairs, equipment upgrades or plant expansion projects. Depending on the extent of the planned downtimes, plants might be justified to have dedicated shut-down planners who focus on the outages. Dedicated planners for this work not only relieve day planners of the responsibility but also tend to become good at planning the events, which often include numerous contractors and significant capital expenditures, and have high-dollar implications if completed late.

Lubrication and oilers: Years ago, machinery greasing and lubricating were assigned to the lowest class of craftsmen as defined by various descriptions. When preventive maintenance came into vogue, the oiler — or “greaser” — became the lubrication technician and the responsibility to complete the work accurately and thoroughly increased significantly. Best-practice organizations find this role in the reliability group working hand-in-hand with reliability engineers and predictive maintenance technicians. For operations with 24/7 maintenance coverage, lubricators often are assigned to shifts, but with solid-line responsibility back to reliability. Don’t underestimate the value of properly lubricated equipment and the technician’s eye for spotting impending failures from lubrication routes.

Central PM technicians: As previously mentioned, plants typically assign PM work to craftsmen on a random basis. Unfortunately, assigning (perceived) low-value or low-recognition work to technicians schooled in doing emergency repairs with all its hero accolades can be a disaster. The work can be “pencil-whipped,” ill-performed or micro-performed with no degree of big-picture perception. Best practice recommends that PMs be done by those who are content to work behind the scenes, are self-motivated needing minimal supervision, can look beyond the task to see and evaluate the overall equipment health and pay 100% attention to details. If fulfilling these requirements means selecting a few from each maintenance shop and building a PM super-team within the reliability group, then do so. The competitive environment of today’s plant requires maximum life from the assets and the application of best practice preventive and predictive maintenance tasks.

By taking best practices and placing them into an organization chart, you could end up with a sample as shown below. Although there are several acceptable alternatives, this is one example of a flat organization, with centralized and decentralized elements and dotted/solid-line reporting relationships.

By taking best practices and placing them into an organization chart, you could end up with a sample as shown below. Although there are several acceptable alternatives, this is one example of a flat organization, with centralized and decentralized elements and dotted/solid-line reporting relationships.

Setting up a totally new maintenance organization at your facility might not be possible. However, by using best practice concepts, you can make some changes and begin to realize the benefits of an organization with better focus, improved efficiency and increased reliability.

Glyn Thorman from ABB can be contacted at glyn.o.thorman@us.abb.com.