Generating maintenance success: Proactive maintenance for power gen

In this installment of What Works, a North Dakota power-gen plant corrects a slide to reactive maintenance by overhauling work management and scheduling.

Has your plant experienced crisis creep? Production and operations are humming along smoothly, but then stuff happens, and maintenance work orders start to pile up. You wind up quickly with a backlog of maintenance requests, and then suddenly every order that comes in is marked as "urgent," even if it's really not. It's an understandable reaction: Operations personnel jockeying for the limited time and resources of maintenance crews believe that unless a request is listed as a top priority, the work will never get done. But it doesn't let maintenance teams manage their time most effectively.

That’s the situation in which Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young Station in Center, ND, found itself in 2012. Production and machine downtime were not at levels the electric generating station desired. Though the co-op had striven to take a proactive maintenance approach, with designated maintenance coordinators assigned to schedule and plan maintenance jobs, as downtime escalated, Young Station slid into reactive mode.

Most work orders were classified as 1 (emergency) or 2 (urgent), despite the fact that Minnkota had four priority codes in place. Maintenance coordinators became go-to parts and labor expeditors for maintenance supervisors and technicians scrambling to complete rush jobs. Personnel who weren’t part of the official predictive and preventive maintenance (PPM) team sometimes performed preventive maintenance tasks without documenting them, and oftentimes, completed work orders never were closed out in the plant’s asset management system.

The result? At one point, the plant’s backlog of open work orders tallied more than 3,000.

“It used to be that coordinators had a difficult time telling what was true priority 1 or 2 work,” says Jody Meyer, reliability excellence facilitator at Minnkota Power. “It was really hard for them to tell which jobs they had time to plan and which jobs somebody needs to address right away.”

Early in 2012, Minnkota brought in Life Cycle Engineering to conduct a business assessment. The analysis included a comparison of Minnkota's existing work management practices with industry best practices. That fall, the co-op wound up choosing Life Cycle to serve as its consultant for implementing proposed changes.

Giving everyone a say in developing new procedures was one of the keys to overhauling how work was categorized and performed, Meyer says.

"We wanted to have a lot of employee involvement," he says. "We really wanted (employees) to 'own' the processes."

The plant developed both a leadership team consisting of plant managers, superintendents, and union representatives and five focus teams made up of individuals from all departments. Each of the focus teams addresses a different business process: work management, material management, reliability engineering, operator care, or infrastructure (primarily the CMMS system).

"We wanted to have a diversified group and wanted the people that were really on the ground floor, that use the processes every day, who understood the good and the bad about them, to give us some good ideas on what needed to be improved," Meyer says.

With the help of LCE subject-matter experts, teams identified best practices specific to their process and established steps they needed to take to meet milestones on the way to fully implementing those best practices. Teams also enumerated benefits they aimed to derive from employing the best practices.

A RASI chart was used to establish accountability for meeting the goals. The chart identifies the individuals who are to be:

  • Responsible for completing the task
  • Accountable for ensuring the task is complete
  • Supporting or providing task assistance (generally a subject-matter expert)
  • Informed of progress on the task

 The outcomes of the teams' work? Several big, meaningful changes:

  1. The number of priority codes was expanded to six, and clear parameters for each code were established. Maintenance coordinators now are tasked with handling work orders labeled priority 3, 4, or 5. "They know that those jobs are strictly theirs," Meyer says. "A '3' priority is essentially a 1 for them…They know that they need to be working on those, and then can leave the 1s and 2s for operations and maintenance (technicians) to deal with." The work management focus team evaluated a sampling of requests each week to ensure that the information entered was accurate and adequate, sharing their findings with other employees to help guide them in creating work orders. The effort paid off fast: Priority 1 and 2 work requests dropped 22% in 90 days.
  2. A vendor-managed inventory system was instituted. “Items that we use frequently on the plant site, it used to be that you had to run down to the warehouse to pick up every little thing imaginable,” including oft-used nuts, bolts, and screws, Meyer says. Tying these to a work order wasn’t beneficial, he adds. Now, instead, a vendor comes in at least weekly and refills a stockpile of in-demand items available to employees on a grab-and-go basis. In addition, the plant put in vending machines for larger but everyday-use items. “Gloves, batteries, anything from contact cleaner to paint is in there,” Meyer says. “Instead of running all the way to the warehouse, they can just go to the closest vending machine, scan their personal bar code, pick like from a grocery list, grab their items, and then off they go.” These aren’t expensive items, but they’re high-use and easier to get from a vending machine, he notes.
  3. The maintenance coordination team expanded from three people to seven. The additions came not from new hires but from reassigning maintenance technicians or operations personnel to the team. Coordinators wear hats of both planners (who order parts and make sure materials/special tools/job plans are ready to go) and schedulers, who work proactively with maintenance supervisors to build the latter team's schedule for the week.

Formalizing new procedures and best practices is and will continue to be a big asset for Minnkota as it grapples with workforce change. The Young Station facility has had 50% turnover in employees in the past five years, Meyer says, and many more employees are less than five years from retirement. Standardized practices are expected to be a powerful tool in ensuring the success of ongoing knowledge transfer efforts.

Minnkota's work with LCE continues, too, with the plant bringing in LCE consultants on an as-needed basis. In November, the plant conducted a reassessment to evaluate its progress. Meyer is pleased with the results: Since the implementation of the focus teams, he says, "our employees feel they have more of a voice and influence in making improvements." That's exactly what management was hoping for, he says. "Having our employees take ownership and receive support from management is huge in helping break down barriers that had hindered earlier process improvement attempts…We're becoming more of a 'we' organization and less of a 'me' and 'they' organization."

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