Emergency maintenance: we have to work hard to look this dumb

Giving a surprise party is a lot of work. All the usual party costs and chores have to be covered, and it all has to be done in secret, with a lot of extra details to keep the guest of honor in the dark. It's worth it, though. It's great when the guest comes in and everyone jumps out from behind the furniture and shouts, "Surprise!" at just the right moment.

The only thing I can think of that would be tougher than throwing a successful surprise party for someone else would be throwing one for myself.

Impossible, you say?

I would agree, except in maintenance departments we manage to surprise ourselves routinely, don't we? Not only do we manage to be ambushed by perfectly predictable events year after year, the best of us manage to do it with repetitive failures! Often the RCA for last year's identical failure is in the drawer of some engineer or manager when the new one happens.

Actually, maintenance probably couldn't pull the surprise off single handedly, but they don’t have to. The entire organization often pitches in to help craft the perfect surprise breakdown.

• Maintenance maintains its leadership by making sure that nobody knows exactly what work was done or what parts were used for the fix this year. Usually only one tradesman knows what bearings or seals were used, and he keeps the information in a little book. If he really has the party spirit, he will reorder the parts that were used, but he won't let procurement or engineering in on the secret. That would spoil next year's party.

• Procurement keeps the party spirit alive by allowing plant personnel to do most of the MRO purchasing. That way nobody comes to the crib demanding that the right spares be stocked. Instead everyone buys his or her own parts, and procurement maintains excellent order fill rates on the few items they do provide.

• Production keeps the secret as well by making sure that nobody has a chance to work on the critical equipment when it isn't broken down. After all, they're trying to catch up on the production that was lost during the last breakdown. In fact, there's a good chance the equipment will be running faster than design speed to help catch up. Of course, this also helps prepare for next year's surprise.

• If the failure was serious enough, there's a solid chance that reliability and maintenance will perform a root cause analysis (RCA) after the failure party. They will find one or more causes and publish a report to the members of the RCA team. Unfortunately, the team probably won't include most of the support departments needed to fix process parameters, quality of cooling water, operator training, and the many other variables that contribute to equipment failure. Repetitive failures usually result from problems that must be solved outside production to deliver success within production. If one group has to work to solve another group's problems, improvement gets much tougher. Anyway, why spoil the surprise?

• Accountants love a party as much as anybody. When the spare parts order arrives from maintenance, it can usually be tucked into the last bits of some project that has leftover money. If nobody insists that the cost be tied to the equipment that was repaired, then next year's surprise won’t be spoiled. Heck, the project engineer may even get credit for ordering spares for the new equipment. If that won't fly, there’s always overhead.

• The one function that often comes closest to party pooping is the preventive maintenance (PM), condition monitoring (PdM), or reliability team. If nobody watches them, these guys tend to gather embarrassingly revealing information. But this is still a case of one group doing the work to solve another group’s problems. Resourceful party planners can usually arrange for PdM information to be shipped in raw form to people who aren’t trained to read it. PM work orders can be postponed until shutdown, when all the maintenance people will be on vacation or playing nursemaid to contractors. Reliability and process engineers can be turned into party planners, too. After all, somebody has to figure out how to speed up the old equipment.

Some parties do get spoiled. Sometimes management insists on a clear understanding of breakdown causes and execution of clear, well-planned solutions. Leaders occasionally get behind PM and PdM work orders and assign them the same priority as breakdown parties. On very rare occasions, managers may actually join hands and provide an example that leads operators, maintenance workers, and technical support to feel joint ownership of equipment performance and reliability. These guys just don’t know how to party.

Look at the surprise equipment failures that are a fact of life in many plants. Where do we get all the hard work and dedication that keeps the party going? You’d think it would be easier for everyone to do his or her job and prevent recurring problems.

Still, real party people love that moment when the equipment jumps up and shouts, “Surprise!” Then we know we’ve thrown ourselves another breakdown party, maybe an all-nighter.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?