Field time for managers and engineers

Doc Palmer says everyone needs to get out of the office for a little perspective (and a reality check).

By Doc Palmer, PE, CMRP, Richard Palmer and Associates

Last month we discussed that sufficient field time is a best practice for both planning and supervising. Most plants do not have problems with planners being in the field about 25% of their time. However, most plants have great trouble freeing up supervisors to be in the field 75% of their time. Plants should strive to provide proper field time for supervisors to maximize the effectiveness of their maintenance organizations.

This month we will go beyond planning and supervising to discuss why managers and engineers should also get out of the office. Their field or shop-floor presence is of great interest to the success of maintenance overall as well as to the planning function itself. There may not be a percentage-wise rule of thumb for managers and engineers, but most managers and engineers spend too little time out in the field, a great mistake.

The manager’s jobs are to plan, organize, staff, direct and control. While we won’t talk about all of these functions, most managers fall short on control. They set great programs into place and expect them to keep going by themselves. In fact, the great Six Sigma programs of recent years were predicated on designing programs to have almost zero defects, knowing that some “drift” would happen but that eventually the result would be an acceptable level of defects. But programs do not live by themselves. Management must be aware of reality and encourage proper performance.

Managers rely greatly on KPIs; however, personnel sometimes “game” KPIs to look better than reality. In addition, everyone knows the game of password, wherein one person tells another person who tells another person, etc. The final person in the password chain often hears a warped version of a truth. There is great learning to be had in the field. Local managers should get out in the field to see reality for what it is. In the 1980s and ’90s, “management by walking around” became popular. We called it management by wandering around at my company. An “open door” policy whereby people can come to a manager’s office about any issue is not good enough. People will not usually go out of their way to see a manager. But if a manager simply wanders by, amazingly, people often try to catch the manager’s ear: “Did you know this? Did you know that?” Great unfiltered learning takes place!

Is a program management that has been set in place really heading in the right direction? Are the planners really planning work orders, or have they been sidetracked into other duties? Managers should add field time to their schedules to know for sure.

A word of caution, however: There is danger in a manager being on the shop floor. Managers often are tempted to make field decisions and bypass the chain of command. No: Decisions should come down the chain of command. But everyone should be talking to everyone. Managers need to be careful to listen but not meddle by making decisions outside their chain of command.

Furthermore, being aware of reality is only part of maintaining control. Management must also exercise control to guide things that have veered off track back to their proper course and continue to assert control to keep them there. While decisions should come down through the chain of command, managers can always encourage everyone on the shop floor. Managers can explain what the company is trying to do. A manager showing up in an area such as maintenance planning shows that the company values planning. A manager attending a planning training class or a weekly scheduling meeting just to offer a word of encouragement is a wonderful thing for control. If a management team shows that it cares, others may feel compelled to do the same. Managers should control by encouragement in the field to stay the course.

Not only managers but also engineers need field time. When I started my career as an engineer for the electric company in Florida, one of my assignments was to replace a set of pumps. When I left headquarters and showed up at the plant to meet with the maintenance manager, he exclaimed: “What are you doing here? Most engineers do ‘engineering by telephone!’ ” It had become a joke that the company engineers only called other people to find information.

A few years later, when I became an actual part of the plant maintenance team, it became even more apparent that there’s nothing like actually being there seeing the machinery and talking to technicians and operators. While an engineer can certainly get someone else to find information, engineers need to develop relationships with their customers. John Naisbitt, in his best-selling book “Megatrends” back in 1982, set forth the principle of “high-tech, high-touch.” With ever more technology allowing people to work remotely, we must still engage face to face frequently to develop good working relationships.

One problem hindering maintenance planning is inappropriate coordination with engineering, in two ways. First, engineers tend to ask planners to gather data to excess. Planners are very busy planning routine work for as many as 30 persons. This routine work does not require engineering. A planner having to stop to gather work-order, failure, or nameplate data for engineers compromises the routine work of as many as 30 persons. Rather, engineers should make appearances in the field to see the equipment and learn to access the local CMMS data for themselves. Second, occasionally a work request requires engineering judgment, as in making the decision to change the mesh size in a strainer that protects a control valve. Planners must have easy access to pass such work to engineers. Engineers who make field time to establish in-person relationships with planners facilitate this exchange. The consequence of not having a close engineering relationship with planning is the temptation of planners to make design-change decisions on their own, which can create a significant risk to plant design integrity. For both of these reasons, engineers should make time in the field to increase maintenance success.

Engineers and managers alike need to spend time in the field. Managers help keep programs both by getting a better grip on the way things really are and encouraging good performance. Engineers will learn more about the plant and develop better working relationships with planners.

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