Maintenance and reliability: What's in a name?

Thomas Wilk explores maintenance, reliability, and the challenge of New Horizons.

By Thomas Wilk

One of the more amazing things to happen this past July was the success of NASA's New Horizons mission to begin exploration of the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt with a flyby of Pluto on July 14.

By now most if not all of us have seen the striking initial full portrait of Pluto, a near true color image of textured browns and grays that revealed the bright and now-famous surface feature shaped remarkably like a heart (or, for Peanuts fans, the shape of Snoopy in profile). Among the other surprises in store were the discovery of 11,000-foot-tall ice mountains on Pluto's surface, as well as deep surface fracturing on Pluto's moon, Charon, including one canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles deep.

“We're not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission,” NASA said in a press briefing. “We'll be writing them from scratch."

This phase of the New Horizon mission completes what NASA calls the "reconnaissance of the classical solar system", an achievement that had me as well as many friends and colleagues glued for several days to whatever device was handy as new information rolled in about the farthest planet. Um, minor planet. Plutoid. Kuiper belt object. No, planet – after all that's what I learned it was called in school.

Does it really matter?

It reminded me of a similar question in our industry: just replace the terms "planet" and "Kuiper belt object" with "maintenance" and "reliability", and you may find yourself in a detailed, perhaps heated discussion on the similarities and differences between these types of work. For some, the difference can be as simple as the distinction between measuring Mean Time To Repair vs. Mean Time Between Failure. For others, the adoption of more proactive strategies to managing machine health requires significant cultural change, as people let go of their previous mindsets and explore how new tools and strategies can help them achieve their goals.

In the end, like Pluto, the machines are simply there, challenging us to be both curious enough and open enough to improve our knowledge about them and about the work we do. And, sometimes, to recognize that the debate over a name usually signals the emergence of a deeper understanding of the subject at hand.

On a related note, if you haven't already done so, I'd like to encourage you to participate in this year's Plant Services Leadership Survey ( The short survey is designed to improve our collective knowledge of the current state of plant leadership. Just click or re-key the above URL to begin – all responses are anonymous (we're looking for trends, not names!), and results from the survey will be shared in future issues of Plant Services, and in particular by Tom Moriarty in his "Human Capital" column. Thanks in advance for helping to promote leadership excellence throughout the industry, by whatever names we use to describe the many facets of maintenance and reliability work.