Maintenance machismo for today

Machismo is in the eye of the beholder. Different groups and lifestyles tend to create their own versions. Country records celebrate macho truckin', stock car racin', and honkey tonkin', as well as complex relationships with law enforcement. My military friends' version has to do with ignoring pain from injuries; ignoring separation anxiety; and otherwise maintaining a laser focus on the job without benefit of food or rest. Extra points are available for shooting a clean, tight group with firearms that would jolt the fillings out of my teeth if I pulled the trigger once.

My father, a chemical engineer from Rensselaer Polytech, introduced me to ChemE machismo, the strangest version I’ve seen so far. Dad could pour liquids from anything into anything without spilling a drop. Seriously, we’re talking about filling a test tube from a garbage can lid.

"Macho?" you say.

Well, it took a keen eye and a steady hand, especially considering some of the stuff people poured in a 1950s chemical plant. Of course he wore side shields on his glasses and kept them safely atop his head where they wouldn’t interfere with his aim.

The point here is that we in the factory, like everybody else, have the right to create our own definition of machismo and to refine it over time. Let’s take a few minutes to characterize maintenance machismo – and then talk about how to update it.

In 1970s Detroit, where I joined the party, maintenance machismo consisted of responding to emergencies with skill and energy. We would set to work the instant the alarm was sounded and work as many hours as necessary to fix things when they broke. In the auto assembly plants there were “crash trucks” staffed with crews that were absolutely unavailable to do anything but fix line-threatening emergencies. “If I’m sitting,” they’d say, “it’s good news. It means everything’s running.”

Yeah, that was fun to say, but by then the fire department wasn't even running that way. They had firemen in the schools teaching kids not to play with matches. In some areas of manufacturing this old approach was also fading. Both aircraft and nuclear energy leaders had come to realize that letting things break was out of the question. The results were too dangerous. They were already developing and using the PM and PdM tools that the rest of us have, in varying degrees, adopted since.

By about 1990, the notion of operational reliability had begun to take hold among forward thinking industrial leaders. Reliability engineering was no longer just the province of equipment designers. Reliability tools could be applied and even retrofit to very old machinery. Preventive Maintenance (PM) and Predictive Maintenance (PdM) had been well thought-through. Since then a dazzling array of inspection equipment and services has become available to identify and isolate deterioration in equipment long before it endangers production staff or factory output. Users of these wonder tools are achieving financial results that place the tools among the best investments available to modern manufacturers.

Yet somehow in the midst of all this development, the dude with the old machismo is still seen in many places as the real maintenance guy. He rides into the fray when disaster hits and then sits back in his chair while the plant runs, thereby guaranteeing the next disaster.

We know better. We know that most maintenance should be planned in detail, parts ordered and received, and proper work instructions issued before a crew is assigned to do the work. We know that emergency work, which simply means work that isn’t planned and must be attacked immediately, costs three to five times what planned maintenance does for the same repair. We know that most process plants are designed so that, given proper PM and PdM programs, maintenance can run without disasters. We know that double digit output increases and immense profit growth are available if unplanned emergency work can be held below five percent of total maintenance.

Maybe it’s the guy. Maybe we need to create the image of a new macho maintenance guy. Maybe he needs the skill and determination to keep the plant safe for people and the environment, a guy who can make the plant productive and profitable.

Let’s see, what do we know about the new macho guy?

  • He’s got skills. He’s probably a tradesman and/or engineer with a strong background in reliability concepts and practices.
  • He knows the equipment and the tools. He’s probably been around your plant, or one like it, for some years.
  • He regards his time as too valuable to be spent standing around dealing with another surprise. He hates surprises and will work himself and everybody around him hard to prevent the next one.
  • He’s a man of his word. When he says he’ll have a pump fixed in five weeks, it will be fixed, and the backup will immediately go to review and rebuild.
  • He won’t accept sloppy or half-hearted support from anybody, be they colleagues, contractors, or leaders.
  • People trust him to keep his word and to be unyielding in his demands for smooth operations.
  • He knows that emergencies are failures. He knows well-handled emergencies are well-handled failures. They are expensive and embarrassing. He will end them.

Sound like a wimp? Not to me. This guy’s a world changer.

Find him. He’s probably within your organization, if it’s of any size. Give him the support he needs to work his way. Help him develop a plan to get control of a manageable area, then expand the influence of the new way. Define success, support the plan and watch him make your maintenance team deliver.
He’s the new macho maintenance guy. You can trust your plant to him. And just so you know – look around. If you’ve been building your workforce right, he just might be a woman.