Revolutionary maintenance

Sept. 20, 2011
Tom Moriarty says plant maintenance teams can learn from George Washington's Continental Army.

Have you ever heard of Friedrich von Steuben? I’d argue he was one of the first consultants in American history. Freddie was a Prussian military officer in the mid to late 1700s. And, if you know your history, you’ll remember that Prussia in those days was recognized as the epicenter of military science.

Freddie was a mid-grade officer who had found himself unemployed because of an unfortunate outbreak of peace in neighboring countries and states. Hearing that the “rebels” in America were picking a fight with the world’s foremost superpower, Freddie decided he wanted a piece of that action.

In 1776 and 1777, the home boys suffered defeat after humiliating defeat. The Continental Army was hanging by a thread during the winter of 1777-1778.


Freddie made his way to France, where he’d heard that Benjamin Franklin was looking to drum up support from the French. Ben, being a wise old gentleman, knew the Continental Army was in reactive mode. They needed a facilitator and coach. Freddie was introduced to Ben, and during the introduction, Ben misinterpreted Freddie’s introduction. Freddie’s most recent military assignment was that of an aide to the commanding general. Ben thought he heard that Freddie was a Prussian commanding general. Impressed, Ben arranged to have Freddie travel to the colonies to see what he could do to assist the Continental Army under General George Washington.

Freddie arrived at Valley Forge and immediately recognized the camp lacked control and stability (no planning and scheduling). He changed the camp layout (organizational restructuring, with some 5S and lean principles thrown in). Freddie put the latrines on the downhill side of the camp, the mess hall at the highest level of the camp; morale improved. He also organized the living arrangements for the officers and men in a more functional arrangement; the men were thrilled.

Next, Freddie worked with the troops to increase military order and discipline (developed a work order management system). He first trained a model company (pilot team, who became internal champions).

I understand Freddie didn’t speak English very well and he was quite loud. Reportedly, he was able to curse at the troops in three languages. When Freddie couldn’t find the words he apparently had interpreters swear at the troops for him (no longer considered appropriate for today’s consultants, plus the interpreter adds to overhead costs).

Next, our man Freddie assessed past performance on the battle field (collected and analyzed metrics). One of the biggest problems was that the Continental Army and militia were fighting a well-armed and disciplined British fighting force. When the lines of battle formed, the Americans and British fired their muzzle loaders at each other. After a few volleys the British would charge with fixed bayonets. The Americans, having no effective training in the appropriate use of bayonets, other than using them for hanging meat over cooking fires, didn’t have time to reload their guns; human nature being what it is, the lads preferred to run rather than being skewered (root cause of failure).

The Continental Army and militia had effective weapons, and they were every bit as capable as their British counterparts at operating the systems and tools at their disposal. They just weren’t getting the same level of performance. This is much like today’s plants in which the leadership and workforce are intelligent and experienced, but lack the time or support needed to be more effective.

Freddie spent a fair amount of time that winter helping the troops become proficient at bayonet tactics (increased proficiency at using tools; CMMS, PdM tool, RCM methodology). The first battles after the winter of 1778 — the Battle of Barren Hill in May, 1778, and the Battle of Monmouth in June, 1778 — showed that the troops had learned well. In 1779, at the Battle of Stony Point, a select group of Continental soldiers (a reliability action team) used only bayonets in a surprise attack on a fortified British position. The assault resulted in the capture of a full regiment of British infantry (eliminated a source of production upsets).

While there were still some setbacks after Freddie became involved, the Americans held their own in battle after battle (continuous improvement). Eventually, the Americans earned final victory at Yorktown, Virginia, in October, 1781, followed by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which provided independence from England (sustained culture change).

Like Freddie, consultants have an important job as a resource for strategy, knowledge and experience and by instilling confidence.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.