Software / CMMS / Predictive Maintenance / Reactive Maintenance / Preventive Maintenance / Industrial Automation

Benz's building blocks for reliability buy-in

In this installment of What Works, learn how a Mercedes plant conquered cynicism to help a reliability overhaul succeed.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Ken Hayes, senior manager for central engineering at the Mercedes-Benz SUV plant in Vance, AL, knew he had his work cut out for him trying to convince his co-workers of the value of a total overhaul of the plant’s maintenance strategy.

In 2016, Hayes and a team of maintenance managers began rolling out their carefully developed initiative to transform the plant’s reactive maintenance approach – an effort called the Maintenance Excellence and Reliability Program, or MERP. Technicians quickly offered their own definitions for the acronym: Make Everyone Regret Participating, the Maintenance and Engineering Reduction Program, and Hayes’ favorite, the Mercedes Executive Rewards Program.

“The first thing in trying to change the culture in an organization is denial that maybe there’s something better out there,” Hayes says.

He was ready for the pushback, having already overcome skepticism from the maintenance managers when he first pulled that group together two years earlier. Hayes has worked at the Vance plant for 23 years in various roles in maintenance, body planning, body production, and assembly production. After returning to the maintenance department five years ago, Hayes says, “I decided that we’re still doing maintenance the same way we did when we started up the plant.”

Determined to find a better way, he embarked on a mission to benchmark maintenance practices at other Daimler facilities in the United States and Europe. Hayes found similarly reactive maintenance elsewhere, and so in 2014 he teamed up with Justin McCarthy, the Vance plant’s maintenance strategy engineer, and assembled the plant’s maintenance managers to work on a new approach. The managers (who represented the plant’s body, paint, assembly, facilities, and central standards departments) agreed that the maintenance status quo wasn’t great. But when the group began discussing the things that weren’t working and what it might take to fix them, inevitably someone would protest that proposed changes weren’t feasible or wouldn’t stick.

Initially, there was a lot of “But that’s the way it’s always been...” at the team’s weekly two-hour meetings, Hayes says. His response to the team: “There’s a lot of power in this room.” If the maintenance managers could come to agreement on goals and present a unified front to their respective teams and to upper management, he noted, a major maintenance overhaul stood a much greater chance of succeeding.

As a team, “(we would) try to frame up exactly what maintenance utopia would look like, our dream, our vision, if we could change anything with no restrictions,” Hayes says. “It was a lot of painstaking arguing inside that room for two hours every Thursday debating where we should go next.”

After six months of debate, the team finalized a vision statement: “Become the benchmark maintenance program by adopting a proactive mindset through evolution, not revolution.” The long-haul approach was necessary, Hayes, McCarthy, and the managers recognized, to ensure that the push to take a more proactive maintenance approach didn’t fizzle out as a “flavor of the month” initiative.

Maintenance managers received basic reliability training developed with the support of training and education firm Eruditio.Technicians and engineers (as well as colleagues from other departments) attended three-day reliability “boot camps.” To improve use of the plant’s SAP CMMS system, a CMMS specialist who had a reliability background was hired. That move resulted in better, easier data and work-order management, which was vital for tracking not just work itself but also the progress of reliability efforts. In addition, a kitting system was successfully piloted, and vibration sensors were installed on critical assets to promote real-time condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

By late 2015, “MERP” hadn’t even made its formal debut yet, but the plant was already recording early wins in the form of an avoided major breakdown and other avoided expenses. These wins helped win further backing from upper management; additional support for the team’s efforts came when a report from a third-party assessor noted that the plant’s maintenance personnel had quick response times to problems but that the organization still could realize substantial cost savings and efficiency gains by continuing the transition to more-proactive maintenance.

It was a finding echoed in one of the banners that hung in the maintenance management team’s “war room,” as Hayes calls it: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get the same result.”

Early in 2016, MERP had its official name and was ready for prime time. But although 170 people at the plant by that point had undergone reliability training, many technicians greeted the program’s kickoff with snickering and cynicism. Getting people trained in developing a reliability mindset and reliability strategies was one thing; willingly putting it all to work was another.

Hayes recognized the need to get technicians further involved in defining new maintenance practices. To that end, his maintenance management team pulled together three cross-functional groups of employees from different roles and responsibility levels – maintenance technicians, engineers, team leaders, and managers – to focus on three key priorities: asset criticality, problem-solving, and planned maintenance execution.

Previously, Hayes says, “We’d touch 100% of the problems but we got maybe 10% resolution on them.” Further, even for problems considered fixed, “we really didn’t go back and look (to ask) what were all of the potential causes of that problem and put it into a fault-tree diagram .... to get us down to understanding what is it going to take so that problem never comes back,” says Hayes.

To help maintenance prioritize its work and tackle problems more effectively, the cross-functional groups developed criticality matrices to quantify asset criticality, a root-cause analysis scorecard to rank problems based on criticality, and a failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) template that assigns a risk weighting for all potential failure modes on critical assets, and an equipment maintenance planning tool and PM optimization dashboard. 

All of these new tools were developed with input from the technicians and other plant-floor employees who would be using them. And the cross-functional groups didn’t work in a vacuum, either – Hayes instituted a monthly newsletter focused specifically on providing MERP updates. Hayes himself made sure to be visible, attending all monthly maintenance meetings and training sessions to answer employees’ questions.

Seeing support for their efforts, the cross-functional groups took ownership of their work, and as the tools they developed have been rolled out in the past six months, Hayes has seen that initial pushback from technicians decline. “We don’t hear (those comments) so much anymore,” he says. “After they got some experience and some exposure to what we’re doing, they’re saying, we should have done this 20 years ago.”

Now, he says, “With our root-cause analysis based on criticality, we’ve cut down to where we’re looking at the top hitters and deep-diving using good problem-solving tools to make sure we’ve got effective countermeasures put in place. That’s been something that the maintenance guys have seen has helped tremendously.”

So far this year, equipment efficiency and asset availability are up. New cross-functional groups are tackling additional priorities, including training, predictive technologies, and life-cycle management. The plant’s painstakingly detailed approach to its maintenance transformation, designed to build buy-in at all levels by making changes incrementally and delivering quantified results, is paying off, Hayes indicates. It’s not an easy or quick process, but he thinks it’s one worthy of replication: “I would like to see us as the benchmark maintenance system in the world,” he says.