Is your plant performance based on truth or tradition?

Tom Moriarty explores how culture can impede change warranted by factual evidence.

By Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor

Tradition is defined in the Encarta Dictionary as a long-established action or pattern of behavior in a community or group of people, often one that has been handed down from generation to generation. Note that in this definition there is no determination that the actions or pattern of behaviors are the correct or optimal actions or pattern of behaviors.

Truth is defined by the same source as something factual, something that corresponds to fact or reality. When you think about day-to-day activities and the results that are being achieved, consider whether the gap between current and optimal performance is due to tradition or truth.

An example of a traditional belief is that reactive maintenance is the only way to deal with chaos in the volume and type of maintenance work that seems to be insurmountable. Reactive maintenance, in truth, can and has often been overcome through a combination of communication, education, improved process design, improved CMMS data structures, accountability, and performance measures. There are hundreds or thousands of examples of organizations that have made this transition. In making the transition away from reactive maintenance to control and stability of maintenance management practices, tremendous business results have been realized.

Oftentimes organizations do things because of tradition, not because of truth . The truth of the matter is that stepping back and removing yourself from the traditional frame of reference opens your mind to a wider array of possibilities. One way to widen your frame of reference is to research how others under similar circumstances have achieved high performance. Research includes educating yourself by reading books or articles, attending conferences, networking with peers, or hiring outside support experienced with the type of improvements you’re interested in.

Stepping back and removing yourself from the traditional frame of reference opens your mind to a wider array of possibilities.

So why do some leaders of organizations refuse to believe the factual evidence that moving from chaotic reactive maintenance is worthwhile for their organizations?

Traditionally, power structures shift to lower levels of the organization when positive control is not asserted by senior management. The power shifts to the supervisor level because these people are closer to the work, and managers are overwhelmed by other activities. In any population of people, certain personalities will take responsibility when there is a perceived gap in control of activities. These people will assume power when it isn’t exerted by people with formal authority.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at tjmpe@alidade-mer.com.

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The idea of having control at the lowest level possible in the organization isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there have been numerous examples of self-directed work teams and other management theories that require lowest-level decision making. But in all of those models there is an understanding that managers remain engaged and active in providing strategic direction and oversight of results.

When the senior managers leave the power at lower levels and do not retain strategic direction and oversight of results they put success or failure of activities in the hands of those that have assumed the power.

Traditionally, when a senior manager commissions an improvement project, the lower-level power-holders will determine if the project will be successful or not. The power-holders will make it happen if it is in their best interests. If it is not perceived to be in the power-holder’s best interest, the power-holder will simply be passive and not wholeheartedly support the effort. Without the power-holder’s support, the project will collapse within a year of implementation.

Organizations employ people to perform work on behalf of the owners of the organization. People need to have effective leadership and management so they perform in the best interests of the owners. In truth, when there is a gap in leadership and management, people will act in their own self-interests, as opposed to the interests of the owners.

The culture of an organization is formed by the traditions. Change occurs when there are truths that compel the organization to change. If the tradition is that power is ceded to lower levels in the organization without strategic direction and oversight of results, then the organization is preordained to have an endless cycle of “programs of the month.” If there is strategic direction based on truths and oversight of current results, the organization has a good chance of sustaining positive improvements.

Tradition allocates power when senior leaders relinquish their strategic direction and oversight. While some traditions are beneficial, others can be detrimental to good order and high performance. The truth is that leadership is about influencing positive traditions while retaining the strategic direction and performance oversight.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.

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