Operator-driven reliability – The front-line defense in the battle for equipment reliability

In this month’s post I would like to discuss the importance of engaging operations in the battle for improved asset health. I do not believe it is possible to have a successful reliability program without involving operations in basic equipment care. I have seen different studies which indicate anywhere from 25-40% of failure maintenance is the direct result of how facilities operate their equipment.  If operator basic care is not part of your overall reliability program, I suggest that you are leaving about one third of your asset improvement opportunities on the table.

Building a successful operator driven reliability program takes more than just asking operators to go and inspect their equipment. Many operators are not adequately trained on basic maintenance troubleshooting techniques. They do not understand the cause and effect relationship between the symptoms (warning signs) and the consequences (the resulting functional failure.) Remember, their primary job is to get product out the door. When a machine starts showing the first warning signs of functional failure, it still had the ability to perform its basic function. A pump with a leaking mechanical seal is still capable of moving product from Point A to Point B. Operators, in a culture where the reactive running mode is the norm, learn to ignore the warning signs, make due, and wait until full functional failure before writing notifications. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” rules the day. If you want operator-led inspections to improve your overall equipment reliability, I suggest you develop inspection PMs using SMART criteria. Figure 1 shows the definition of each letter in this mnemonic acronym SMART and my own examples of how each letter’s definition relates to the inspection task.

I cannot stress the importance of having inspection tasks be both “Specific” and “Measurable”. The inspection task should be “point specific”, not generic in nature. The “point specific” task should directly address a known failure mode. If your PM says: ‘check pump’, the inspection comments you receive back very well might say‘pump OK’”. So write your inspection criteria as specific as possible for improved results. Take the following inspection task: Check whether a rotary dryer trunnion bearing is receiving adequate lubrication. If the task states, “inspect lubrication on trunnion bearing”, you might get several different answers and any notification that is written will be more opinion then fact. But if your inspection task is “point specific”, and instructs the operator to count the number of drops of oil dripping on the trunnion in a given time interval, you will be making a specific request and receive a specific answer. If the task further asks the operator to determine whether the oil is being evenly distributed across the trunnion’s surface and provides an explanation illustrated by two pictures; one where the oil film was uniformly colored across the surface (an acceptable condition) and one where a tell-tale darkening or discoloration occurred on one end of the surface indicating a potential misalignment issue. This “point specific” task addresses a specific failure mode. Training the operator to write a notification requesting that maintenance check the trunnion for misalignment if the second condition is observed, closes the loop and creates a value added inspection task. You have now created a specific inspection task which gives you early signs of a failure mode (misalignment) before full functional failure, and collateral damage, occurs and a procedure where the notification requests a specific corrective action by maintenance. Do you see the added value of this approach?

Visual management plays a big role in teaching operators “point specific” inspection and corrective action techniques. I learned that introducing too many new concepts at one time overwhelms people. Inspection techniques should be taught in what I refer to as “single point lessons”. Single point lessons teach one concept at a time using simple language and pictures which clearly illustrate the desired technique.  Laminated single point training lessons are a great way of getting the desired objective across. Refrain from using “Engineering Speak” when writing single point lessons. Operator driven reliability PMs should include simple corrective actions the operator can complete during the inspection along with the failure identification tasks you desire. I can distill equipment reliability down into one simple sentence. Keep heat and dirt away from the machine, keep the machine clean, and keep it from vibrating. Sounds simple, but if the corrective actions taken by the operator during his rounds help accomplish these objectives, you will greatly extend your equipment life. Figure 2 illustrates the proper cleaning techniques used to remove material from around a motor.

Keep your operator led inspections simple. Once again, remember the operator’s primary responsibility is to get product out the door. Your operator basic care program should serve three purposes: First and foremost, you are trying to help the operator gain an appreciation for the impact their role plays in equipment reliability. As long as maintenance is seen as the maintenance department’s responsibility, your reliability program will never be best practice. Equipment care is everyone’s responsibility, just as servicing the customer is not solely the responsibility of operations. When silos are broken down, reliability excellence takes root and flourishes. Remember 25-40% of failure modes are caused by equipment operation. Second, the simple corrective actions operators can perform when they gain an appreciation for how important these tasks are will greatly extend equipment lifetime. I know it sounds simple but it is worth repeating. Keep heat and dirt away from the machine, keep the machine clean, and keep it from vibrating.

Last but not least, done correctly, operator inspections can identify specific failure modes so notifications can be written that are meaningful and relevant. Operator led inspections are not meant to diagnose the root cause of failure, they are meant to identify the symptom of machine failure with enough advanced notice so the issue can be effectively troubleshot by a highly skilled craftsmen or your planner. Many facilities have hundreds, if not thousands of assets, and operators can become additional sets of eyes and ears which can act as a first filter to identify opportunities so limited maintenance resources can focus on corrective actions.  The trick is to write inspection criteria in a manner so failure modes can be identified early enough on the PF curve to allow successful troubleshooting, work planning and scheduling before collateral damage and full functional failure occur.  Figure 3 illustrates the window of opportunity where operator led inspections reap the greatest benefit.

In summary, operator driven reliability programs are an essential element of the overall reliability excellence strategy. But success takes more than just creating a bunch of PMs and handing them to the operators. Like any other element in the strategy, you must be intentional, Careful planning, point specific inspection criteria taught through “single point” lessons with plenty of pictures, and adequate training by qualified personnel who understand the equipment failure modes will equip the operate to perform the inspections at best practice levels. May your weekends be spent at home with loved ones as your plant hums along smoothly. See you next month on the road to reliability.     

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  • <p>Phil good article, but it bothers me that you think you should down play engineering speak as you state. NEVER, NEVER, do this rather cover the work by teaching things to the crews. If a rule or comment is made on a subject that one of you maintenance or operators do not know, then teach them, or if you can't do this then replace them. These people are your first line of defense for cost saving. Training you people is or should be number 1 on your list. Stop and think about the cost of a plant full of cheap motors that are running hot. This heat must go somewhere and it cost money making heat. Think of the employees, cost of fans and the added A/C needed to control the space. It was always part of the operation and inspection to be able to put you hand on a motor. This also allows the operator to feel not only the heat, but the bearing condition as well. If the operator feels heat and vibration more inspection is needed. With modern equipment the touchy, feely, has been replaced by infra-red thermometers, but you get my point, Teach Safety too!</p>

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