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

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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.

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