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

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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.

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