Mentoring the next generation of maintenance and reliability leaders

In this Big Picture Interview, Chris Mears talks about the responsibilities of being a rising star in the maintenance and reliability profession.

Chris Mears is section manager, asset management process and technologies, at Aerospace Testing Alliance, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, in Tennessee. He was selected as the 2013 Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional of the Year in the Rising Leader category by the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals.

PS: What is your current job title and job responsibilities?

lead chris mearsCM: I really have three major roles in my maintenance and reliability professional life right now, so I’d like to discuss each, if you don’t mind.

Within ATA at AEDC, I am the Section Manager over an Asset Management Support group that serves multiple functions (condition-based maintenance, preventive maintenance program oversight, maintenance and reliability analysis, instrumentation calibrations, systems engineering/configuration management, and pressure and hazardous materials.)

Within Jacobs Engineering (the parent company of ATA), I serve on the Jacobs Technology Asset Management Community of Practice Steering Committee. To me, this company-level committee is a best practice since it enables a group of individuals from various operations and maintenance contract sites to collaborate with the goal of developing and promoting maintenance, reliability, and asset management best practices. I have been given the opportunity to visit multiple NASA contract sites around the country to assess and help them in implementing these best practices.

Finally, I have also served a number of roles within SMRP. I have been on the Conference Committee for its annual conference for a few years now, including this year as the Co-Chair of this premier maintenance, reliability, and asset management conference in Orlando October 20-23. I have also held the office of Secretary/Historian for the Middle TN Chapter of this Society for a few years now. And finally, I have served with the Best Practices committee in developing metrics and guidelines that are in use around the world.

PS: How did your education and background prepare you for a career in maintenance and reliability?

Do you have what it takes to be CMRP of the year? Then nominate yourself or a colleague for the Rising Leader or Veteran Professional award.

CM: Both my Bachelo'rs and Master's degrees are in the field of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management. This degree field is very process-oriented, with a focus on the tools related to continuous improvement. When starting at AEDC, I was fortunate to be able to look into not only specific maintenance jobs but also the overall maintenance processes at AEDC. Although my field did not focus specifically on maintenance and reliability, it did help me to look at how to assess and improve the processes related to them.

PS: Which aspects of your job have surprised you — any parts of the profession that your studies hadn’t mentioned or couldn’t have possibly prepared you for?

CM: Pretty much the maintenance and reliability field in general. My Bachelor's degree in Industrial Engineering from Tennessee Tech never really focused on maintenance. However, I was fortunate that my Master's degree from the University of Tennessee did include a course or two that either focused on or at least highlighted maintenance and reliability best practices.

As a point of discussion related to this question, I feel that there is a lack of focus on maintenance and reliability within the engineering and technology degrees at most universities. This is where we as individuals, organizations, publications, and professional societies need to proactively work with universities to overcome this knowledge gap of outgoing degreed professionals.

PS: What are some examples of the leadership and accomplishments you’ve exhibited that were instrumental in your being selected by SMRP as the 2013 Rising Leader?

CM: This is a difficult question for me to answer since I wasn’t involved in the selection process for this award, but I will try to highlight some items that I think went into consideration.

Shortly after gaining my CMRP, I was given the opportunity to lead multiple multi-million dollar, multi-year maintenance and reliability efforts over the next few years.

I have had the privilege of working with a great team of professionals over the years, including the last few years as Section Manager of this same group. We have been a leader in the maintenance, reliability, and asset management community, including the winner of the Uptime PdM Program of the Year award in both 2008 and in 2010.

I had the opportunity to work with multiple organizations and sites to help improve their maintenance and reliability best practices within my parent company Jacobs Engineering.

I have been heavily involved in professional societies, such as SMRP, including in various leadership roles.

And I have never stopped learning, continuing to pursue my higher education while working, even at this point in pursuit of my PhD in Industrial Engineering/Engineering Management from the University of Tennessee.

PS: Can you talk about one or two people who’ve been important in mentoring you and helping you to become more knowledgeable in your career?

CM: I’d like to tell you about two individuals from completely different backgrounds that took an active part in mentoring me in my career as well as my career/life balance.

Ramesh Gulati has been a steady influence in my career from the beginning of my time at AEDC. He has guided me in career choices as well as mentored me in the knowledge of best practices related to maintenance and reliability. He also pushed me to get more involved in organizations like SMRP, including in leadership positions such as the Conference Committee. Additionally, he has started me on the path of becoming an author in the field of maintenance and reliability by allowing me to help with his secondedition of his book, Maintenance & Reliability Best Practices, and co-authoring its companion workbook.

Another person from a completely different background that played an extremely important part in my professional and personal life was Ron Martin. Although he passed away a few years ago, he is still a steady influence on maintaining the right career/life balance. He took me under his wing as a teenager and showed me that a person could have both a professional career (he was a teacher and school administrator) as well as a spiritual career (as the minister of the congregation I attended). I think his guidance in providing yourself with the right career/life balance has aided me substantially throughout my life to this point, and I’m confident in the years to come.

PS: Where should a young professional turn to find a mentor or guidance?

CM: I think that young professionals need to think outside the box for all possibilities.

It’s a really good thing to find the right mentor at your workplace since that’s where you will spend your career growing in your selected profession.

I am confident that it’s also good to look outside your workplace to like-minded individuals in your career field, such as those you will find within professional organizations such as SMRP.

But also, I think it’s far too limiting to only seek out like-minded individuals in your own career field. As I gained from my mentoring experience with a minister, teacher, and school administrator (Ron Martin), I’m certain others would also gain substantial value from the oftentimes completely different point-of-view that someone outside their chosen profession or career path can provide.

One final point that I’d like to make related to this question is that as a young professional, do NOT wait for someone to come to you and ask if you’d like to be mentored. They should be proactive with their own career and ask someone to be their mentor. And if that person is not able to satisfy that request or if that person ends up not being the best choice, they shouldn’t hesitate to ask another person. They will find that since they are the ones who care the most about their own careers, they shouldn’t wait for someone else to take that first step.

PS: On the flip side, what about seasoned veterans — what programs or means are available to them to share their experience and expertise with the next generation of maintenance and reliability professionals?

CM: I would suggest to our seasoned veterans to take an active role in the careers of young professionals, both inside and outside your workplace. I am certain that every organization has eager young professionals that are just waiting for someone to take them under their wings and provide some guidance.

Also, professional organizations are ripe with young professionals also looking for a mentoring relationship – just pick someone and begin that relationship.

And even if you’re already retired, I’m confident that there are young professionals that would love to just sit at their feet and learn what to do and oftentimes even more importantly what NOT to do.

My simple suggestion to the seasoned veterans in our profession and others is to play an active part in shaping our future for the better through your many years of experience. Our profession and our world will only benefit from this.

PS: Where is the maintenance and reliability profession headed, and how will you, as a Rising Leader, help to influence the direction it takes?

CM: To me, the maintenance and reliability profession is headed more and more in the direction of data-based decision making. Since this is a fairly broad term, I would like to elaborate.

In the area of a maintenance approach, condition-based maintenance is the direction of the future. It is the most cost-effective and least downtime-impact maintenance strategy. Of course, it’s not applicable to every single fail mode, but if it is feasible to apply a particular technology, whether vibration, infrared, or some other type of health data, I think that this is the approach that should be used.

Speaking of asset health data, this is another place where data-based decision making will lean more in the future. We all have an idea of what’s wrong with our assets and facilities, but unfortunately we are oftentimes only aware of the near-term problems. Therefore, the systemic problems that our assets experience are oftentimes overlooked so that we only end up fighting the fire of the day, every day. That’s where good asset health data and its analysis come into play.

Most maintenance excellence organizations have some form of a CMMS, but most use only a very small piece of the data that it collects. And that’s just one of the asset health data systems out there. Many facilities have sophisticated facility control and monitoring systems that are collecting data every minute and even every second, and yet so very little of it is analyzed or even looked at. With the maintenance and reliability workforce filled with Baby Boomers ready to retire, organizations will need better data than just what’s in their heads, which brings me to the last point about data-based decision making.

We as a profession must look at how we can justify the knowledge transfer that is needed to keep our facilities highly reliable. This must be viewed as an investment, no different than a capital investment in equipment. The longer we wait as organizations to begin a knowledge management emphasis, the more likely we are to let this technical expertise and much of what is known about our facilities simply walk out the door. Then if we have a particular problem that only that individual knew how to fix, we will be limited to whether this individual is willing to come back and help us out. And not everyone wants to come back from retirement.

As the 2013 CMRP Rising Leader, I will continue to promote data-based decision making within my own organization, including an emphasis on knowledge management. As the subject matter of my PhD dissertation, I hope to add to the body of knowledge so that organizations can benefit from this field of study. Additionally, as an active member of SMRP, I intend to highlight this subject matter within the different committees I participate and throughout this professional society, emphasizing this importance to its various participant organizations. With the certifications of CMRP/CMRT and the emphasis on various means of providing knowledge to the community at large, I believe that SMRP is already at the forefront of highlighting the importance of this direction that maintenance, reliability, and asset management is taking.