As I reflect back on my engineering career, I realize that my father taught me a lot about reliability engineering long before I thought about being an engineer. A lot of people, especially those with whom we work on a daily basis in plants, don’t understand what reliability engineering is. They tend to think it’s something complex that doesn’t involve them. I hope these lessons my father taught me will make this subject easier to understand.
My father was trained as a machinist, and in my early years, he worked in the cigar industry. When I was in elementary school, he became the production/maintenance manager of a small cigar factory. I remember that there were two shifts of production working five days a week when he took over running the factory. Within a year, my father was able to increase production capacity to a level where only one shift was needed to meet production demands. He was able to accomplish this through the principles that I learned from him.
As I have advanced in my career and learned more about reliability engineering, I’ve realized that my father did a very good job of preparing me to help clients understand and improve reliability in their plants. My father is no longer with us, but it would make him proud that I have applied what he taught me to my career helping others achieve success.
Lesson 1: Take care of where you work
When I first read the statement, “If we don’t take care of the place where we work, it won’t be there to take care of us,” in Ron Moore’s book “Making Common Sense Common Practice,” I realized that my father had been telling me this my entire life. He always told me to take care of my tools so that they would work the way they were intended to when I needed them. He repeated the same thing about my car and places where I lived. He taught me that if we do the right things to ensure the life of the tools, equipment, and vehicles that we use daily, they will be there when we need them. My father was explaining the definition of reliability: the probability that an asset will provide its intended function without failure under stated conditions for a stated period of time. It was, and is, a good lesson to learn, and it has helped me to become a better engineer.
Lesson 2: Pay attention to the details
My father paid meticulous attention to details and stressed that to me as I grew up. By the nature of their job, machinists are required to be precise and detail-oriented. Throughout my career, I have witnessed that the key to successfully completing a task or project is to pay attention to the details.
I have often used this principle when troubleshooting problems. During the early '90s, when the plant where I worked was trying to get ISO 9001 certified, we had a mass flow meter that had been installed on a project four years earlier. The process engineer told me that the mass flow meter was off by 20% and had been off by that much since it was installed. I told the process engineer that it couldn’t be off by that much because mass flow meters are one of the most accurate instruments used in the process industry. We didn’t have the ability to check the span of the mass flowmeter; we could only zero it in the field. To test the instrument, we simulated the signal into the PLC. According to our instrument loop drawings, the mass flow meter was calibrated for 0-4,000lbs/hr. of flow. When we simulated the signal, it read out on the operator display 0-5,000lbs/hr. This was our 20% error. The problem from its original installation was a keystroke error made by the process engineer, who then blamed the instrument for not being accurate. By paying attention to minor details, we can eliminate problems down the road.
Lesson 3: A problem is an opportunity to excel
In my career, I have often encountered problems that had existed for years, but because the equipment failures were so common, it became an expected condition for how equipment operated. By taking on these challenges, asking questions, studying what an asset was supposed to do versus what it was actually doing, getting a lot of help from knowledgeable mechanics and operators, and being persistent, I could help develop an acceptable solution. I earned a reputation as a problem-solver. My father taught me that problems are solvable. If you persevere and don’t give up, a problem can become an opportunity for you to excel.
Lesson 4: Use the right tool for the job
A tool is designed to make the task at hand easier to accomplish. I have often seen mechanics and E&I techs use a tool that they carried with them even though it wasn’t the right tool for the job. It wasn’t that they didn’t have access to the right tool, but they tried to minimize how many tools they needed to carry to the jobsite. This is where good planning and scheduling, including taking into account the details of what needs to be accomplished and the necessary tools to accomplish the task, could make the jobs of mechanics and E&I techs easier. An adjustable wrench has rounded off more bolts and nuts than the correct size wrench or socket. In my experience, using the wrong tool also increases the probability that you will injure yourself. My father taught me that there is always a right tool for the job, and it is your responsibility to learn how to use it properly.
Lesson 5: There's a right way and a wrong way to do something
My dad always emphasized that there is a right way and a wrong way to do the task at hand. I have learned that there are many ways to accomplish a task, but more than likely there is one best way to do the task. A simple example occurred when I was working for my father as the night custodian in the cigar factory. One of the lessons that I’ll never forget is that there is a right way and a wrong way to install paper towels in the bathroom dispensers. The wrong way results in the paper towel only coming out partway or getting torn so that you don’t get the whole paper towel or you get multiple paper towels instead of just one. The right way is to install it so that the fold on the paper towel hangs down naturally with the fold to the back of the dispenser. It was a very simple lesson, but it taught me that by doing something the right way, you eliminate waste and frustration.
Lesson 6: You can always do better
The last lesson that my father taught me was that no matter how well I did something, there was always room for improvement. He was teaching me the concept of continuous improvement, one of the primary tenets of any reliability improvement effort and one that we teach our clients as we work with them to implement Reliability Excellence®. While we strive for perfection, we are not able to achieve it. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to pursue it, because in our efforts for perfection, we will achieve excellence.
As we get older, we tend to be more reflective about our lives and careers. It turns out that my father, who was my hero, was preparing me to be a good reliability engineer long before I knew what I wanted to do in life. The lessons my father taught me at a young age, along with the discipline that he instilled in me, have served me well in my career. I hope that these lessons, which are at their essence just good common sense, can help you, too.
Terry Hall, CMRP, is a senior reliability subject matter expert at Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). He has more than 35 years' experience in maintenance management, reliability improvements, and predictive maintenance technologies. Contact him at thall@LCE.com.