How to solve your plant's invisible problems

Thomas Wilk says sometimes it takes a partner to help really see the solution.

By Thomas Wilk, editor in chief

Regular readers of this editor’s note have probably picked up that two of my interests are science fiction and Chicago sports. Those hobbies go so well together that for a long time, the only place you could see the Cubs win the World Series was in the “Back to the Future” movies.

This month’s cover story on servitization in our industry, reminded me of a different sci-fi series: Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books. If you read industry magazines, then chances are good that you’ve read at least one of Adams’ novels. His absurdist approach to science, engineering, and human interaction holds a special appeal to engineers, who tend to share a very dry and offbeat sense of humor. What other sci-fi writer would posit that the answer to the meaning of existence is known, but it is the question that is lost?

The concept that came to mind this month is from the series’s third book, “Life, The Universe, and Everything,” in a scene where the two main characters walk directly (and rather painfully) into the side of an invisible spaceship. One of the characters, Ford Prefect, knows immediately what they’ve encountered: a ship covered by an SEP field.

And what is an SEP Field? According to Ford: “An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.” It turns out that building an SEP field is a lot cheaper and simpler than making something literally invisible, as it does not involve removing mass from the universe or even just moving mass from point A to point B. Instead, the SEP field “relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

In this month’s cover story, Sheila Kennedy explores the expanding market in MRO services from four different perspectives. The trend toward servitization in our industry is gaining momentum, as plant teams are increasingly coming to trust external partners to round out their asset management programs, and fill in specific skills gaps that otherwise would be very difficult and expensive to address with a new full-time employee, if one could be found at all.

In each of the four cases, the maintenance teams determine to no longer treat their work challenges as a bunch of SEPs that can be kept at bay by doing things the way they’ve always been done. Instead, they seek out partners who help them see the situation more clearly – partners who make the spaceships visible again, and who help them fix and then restart the spaceships.

Given that this note is about Douglas Adams, it would be incomplete without a mention of what is on page 42 of this issue. Is it the Answer? The Question? In fact, it’s advice from error prevention specialist Jake Mazulewicz on how to improve reliability. As Adams would say, Jake really knows where his towel is.