Operator Performed Maintenance

One of the scariest topics ever touched by manufacturing or maintenance management is operator performed maintenance (OPM). The basic concept is accepted by consultants and top managers throughout the manufacturing world: The people most familiar with equipment are generally the operators. Given their familiarity with the equipment, they should be important partners in maintaining the equipment. With appropriate training they should be able to perform simple maintenance operations, especially those that are required frequently. Decisions will be made where the information exists and operations will resume seamlessly.

Maintenance and manufacturing leaders who actually live on the shop floor generally have a different understanding of OPM: The guys who broke the machine in the first place will now have the job of fixing it. They will screw it up beyond recognition and in doing so will enrage all the maintenance people. In turn, the maintenance techs who do know how to fix the machinery will refuse to repair it or, worse, will sabotage it to the point where we won’t get any production and I'll be fired.

This misalignment of expectations is not universal, but it's pretty common. There is some truth in each of the outlooks, and, as we might expect, the opportunity for a solution lies in the sharing of that truth from both sides. Let’s take a look.

Upper management truth: Operators are the first to know a breakdown has occurred, or even that it is coming. Operators also understand what the failure mode will be and, usually, what sort of repair will be needed. Operators will also become available to help with repairs when production stops.

Shop management truth: If it's a common, repetitive problem, maintenance people will have fixed the same issue before. Operators may or may not understand the failure, or they may have caused it. Maintenance people are trained to make repairs safely and accurately. They also have the tools and materials to perform repairs. Operating procedures and maybe even labor contracts spell out who performs this kind of work.

What these truths add up to is that to predict, report, and manage production around common failures, production people are needed. To diagnose, repair, and restart equipment safely, maintenance people are needed.

Pooling this information is often done well in a Root Cause Analysis (RCA) environment. For most simple failures, a "5 Whys" approach is revealing enough to uncover the basic cause of the failure. Led and documented by a reliability technician or a trained production or maintenance leader, a small team of production and maintenance people identify, report, and repair the problem. Then, while the situation is fresh in their minds, they identify and document the failure mechanisms. Before adjourning, they also document the repair process, including important parts and special tools that are needed. Then they identify the equipment checks that could have helped operators see that the failure was coming. Finally, working as a team, the operators and maintenance techs create inspection, simple rectification and failure notification processes operators can perform to prevent future failures. Often these processes will include oil or coolant level checks and reports or refills, or other similar activities that sit on the border between operator and maintenance work. There is a wide variety of these condition monitoring tasks that should be performed every shift, or even hourly. All should be documented and assigned, along with proper training, to the operators who are in the area. The training will often come from maintenance people, giving them an important part to play in the new order. Production managers should provide the tools to document the checks and adjustments.

The primary thrust of OPM is not the repair of equipment failures. It is the prevention of these failures and the reporting of operating trends that lead to them. As the monitoring activities that can prevent failures are assigned to operators and the training is given to them, watching the equipment and reporting problems before they happen becomes a natural function. This observation and reporting is where operators can make their greatest contribution. The existence of OPM activities helps to cultivate ownership of equipment and responsibility for its performance. Of course, documentation of checks is also essential to make the program work.

Documentation of equipment performance after the procedures are installed is also essential. Area managers must ensure that the new tasks are being performed and documented. Then the results will have meaning. Operators should also be asked periodically if there are other, similar tasks that should be added to the list. The answer is usually yes, and the process for adding them is the same.

Procedures for these developing functions are essential.  Recognition of the operators who perform them is also important. This is particularly true when results begin to improve area performance. The term OPM or anything with "operator" and "maintenance" used together is optional. The point is that ownership and the kind of vigilance that owners exercise have begun to grow in the operation.

If this sounds interesting to you, pick an area that could use the help. Gather the available information on a few common failures. Identify a couple of key players who will support the program and begin the process. If performance of the new job elements is properly managed, equipment reliability will improve and greater productivity will follow. All levels of management can agree to the value of these improvements.