Wrench time, a team-building adventure

There is no more frustrating job than maintenance, at least as it is practiced in most of the shops I have visited. Lack of planning, surprise breakdowns, poor communication, and Murphy himself all conspire to keep tradespeople from doing the work they come in to do every day. It is common for wrench time, as a percentage of paid time, to be in the low 30 percent range at the beginning of an improvement effort. By the time the department reaches the 60 percent range, they are sneaking up on world class performance. Of course I'm talking about hands-on, equipment changing or checking wrench time here. There is lots of value-adding time that isn't wrench time.
If we consider the worldwide shortage of qualified tradespeople, the need to remove impediments to their performance is a no-brainer. Still, every year or two I hear some pundit announce that wrench time studies should be a thing of the past. They are characterized as demeaning and damaging to team spirit, and difficult to do accurately. I respectfully beg to differ.
Wrench time, like any time study, can be damaging if it is done poorly, but the information can be very helpful. The output from a wrench time study should be characterized, in advance, as a list of the things that keep maintenance techs from doing the jobs that they are trying to accomplish. If the data are collected in this spirit, the effort will get a great deal of help from the tradespeople, and they will welcome the results.
The traditional approach of having one industrial engineer or consultant follow each tech around for a day and take minute-by-minute readings does cause friction between the study-takers and the tradespeople. Even worse, time sampling and delay studies feel like spying. This doesn't lend itself at all to building teamwork. Moreover the samples are microscopic. So what if they're accurate to three decimal places? It just creates a false sense of precision. One day is less than ½ of one percent of a tech's year. You need an awful lot of them to capture what happens in a 24-person 3-shift department.
Rather than do watch snapping, it is easier and more relevant to collect anecdotal wrench time data with individuals and focus groups. Beginning with a discussion of where the maintenance day goes, it is possible to collect approximate percentages of the day that are devoted to permitting, travel, planning, changes in the schedule, searching for tools and materials, etc. If the trades techs are allowed to help create their own delay categories, they will be only too happy to record the amount of their work time that goes into each, along with notes on unusual delays. Reconvene the group at intervals to collect and discuss the data. These experts will provide a description of where the time goes that is far superior to the three-decimal-place study of ten individuals' workdays that most studies yield.
By the time you're done packaging the output from the study, you will know who you want on your team to start reducing the delays. Work planning (not just scheduling), some logistical changes, operator support, and similar tools can make huge improvements, but only if the maintenance people will work as a team to make it happen. Start building the team as you gather the data you need.
You'll probably want to ring in a crib or procurement person, too. It never hurts to have the right spares when it's time for repairs.