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What is the true function of the maintenance department?

March 28, 2013
Production and maintenance are dependent upon each other's success.

The “self-licking popsicle” may seem like an odd term. It is a phrase that my graduate-school mentor used to use when referring to Washington, D.C., bureaucrats. He hated the megalomaniacs that were seemingly so myopic about their political or military agenda that they forgot or didn’t care about the domino effects of their decisions. The point of the term is to put a label on those in our profession who myopically see our vocation and profession as a means to an end. Simply put, the vast majority of you work in some kind of industrial setting, for a company that ultimately provides a product. As maintenance professionals, our function in this endeavor is to “own the capacity” — to make it run or make it reliable — with one ultimate goal: make product. Often, those of our ilk forget this fact. Conversely, we start believing that maintenance and the maintenance function are the most important entity and event in a plant.

There are literally hundreds of methods and tools, and thousands of consultants, that will teach you best maintenance practices. The methods, in a nutshell, are all relatively similar and, if done correctly, will produce results. However, I contend that the greatest lever you have as a maintenance professional in achieving maintenance excellence is not in the methodology, tools, or skills. Success is predicated on the relationship you and your department have with your counterparts, the operators. There is nothing magical about learning the SMRP Book of Knowledge. If one can read, one can learn the right way to improve reliability, a better way to manage MRO, or PM optimization, and the list goes on. What is hard to learn is how to develop what I call a “trust relationship” with the maintenance team’s arch nemesis — the production team.

I spent the youth of my life serving on navy ships. A navy ship is very much like a plant or industrial facility. There is a hierarchy with departments that serve different roles in making the ship and its mission successful. There are two divisions of departments: engineers, affectionately named “snipes,” and combat systems/operations, also known as “topsiders.” The engineering department on a combatant vessel is responsible for making the ship and all of its auxiliaries run. Topsiders do just about everything else; they steer the ship, shoot the weapons, and plan the attacks. The philosophical division between these two major departments is much like plant life. An engineer on a ship believes that the weapons systems are there to protect the engineering plant. A topsider believes that the engineer’s only function in life is to make the engines run, so they can fight battles and fire missiles. For the record, they are both right. One is useless without the other. Moreover, their very existence is predicated on the success of the other. This codependency is also true in a plant setting, between production and maintenance; they are indelibly linked and wholly dependent upon each other’s success.

John Thompson is maintenance manager at Honeywell in Geismar, Louisiana. Email him at [email protected].

The best ships, the ones that won all the awards for performance, were captained by amazing leaders who knew how to build teams, and not drive derisive wedges between misguided and prideful departments. Simply put, it is about service. The sooner we maintenance professionals realize that we are a service to, but not subservient to, the real money makers in a plant environment, the sooner we will be able to achieve truly awe-inspiring maintenance milestones. That’s right: we are overhead. We do not directly make money for our companies; we save it. The best advice I could give a new maintenance superintendent or maintenance manager would be to find a counterpart in operations and pledge support to keep the plant running. Tell him or her that you understand what your department’s role is — to help make product. Ask the operations manager to trust you and your professional judgment on decisions regarding seemingly emergent work and become the biggest advocate in achieving the production goals. Always be ready to offer a cogent business reason for your recommendations, whether it is to run equipment to failure or to take the plant down for repair.

Your operations counterpart thinks in terms of pounds or bushels or batches, and you think in terms of when you can get that equipment to perform the PM, the skill sets available, resource requirements, schedule compliance, and budget. Moreover, most of industry’s operations managers are not provided incentives to care whether or not the schedule is completed. Operations managers care whether they’re going to meet production goals, and, frankly, you should, as well.

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