Don't let resentment and second-guessing interfere with maintenance excellence

May 22, 2009
Contributing Editor Joel Leonard says climbing the ranks of maintenance is going to get more difficult if we don't intervene in the skills shortage.

Forget the avian and swine flu pandemics. There’s another animal-labeled malady causing industrial havoc, and it requires a response. If you put a dozen crabs in a bucket, soon an industrious one climbs up to bolt for freedom. As it reaches the bucket rim, another crab pulls the ambitious fellow back to share the misery with the others.

The same behavior manifests itself in the business world. I recently visited a facility to confer with its chief engineer and its newly promoted maintenance supervisor. You could feel the new supervisor’s tension. He walked tentatively and was careful with every word he uttered and each move he made.

When I diagnosed his malady as “Crab Bucket Syndrome,” he was confused. After I explained it, he was amazed at the diagnostic accuracy. He wondered how an outsider needed less than five minutes to figure out his biggest challenges. He confessed that all the ideas he suggests are being second-guessed and he feels resentment from his staff, many of whom are close to retirement and don’t want to take direction from a 40-year-old “kid.”


We met with the rest of the staff the next day. The chief engineer introduced me to his team and mentioned that I can identify the most troubling issues instantly. It sounded like quite an honor, but it’s not that difficult if you visit lots of facilities.

The economic downturn has forced many companies to cut back and put hiring freezes into effect. Older workers who would have retired can’t because their 401(k) accounts are now 201(k)s. As we move from the baby boomer generation to some future state, we’re going to do one of two things: Either hand it to them nicely or simply drop it on them.

We don’t have much time to build up the next generation’s skills and maturity level. We need to figure out how to keep our seasoned personnel on the payroll to prepare the next generation of workers. I gave the new maintenance supervisor some suggestions that would earn respect from both management and his staff.

First, he must recognize that he has earned the right to fail. If he’s to succeed, he’ll need to work both within and outside the company. He’ll need to earn credentials and certifications from outside entities if he’s to be taken more seriously inside his company. I explained that he should earn the Certified Plant Maintenance Manager (CPMM) designation and become a local chapter volunteer leader in the Association for Facilities Engineering (AFE), the Society of Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) or the International Facility Management Association (IFMA).

I suggested he take digital pictures before, during and after any future maintenance projects to allow executives and the staff to see the progress that they’re making in upgrading their operations. I encouraged him to set up a brag board to share key metrics, goals and achievements, and to allow the staff to post their concerns. I recommended he make efforts to listen to the staff and strive to implement their suggestions, as well as ensure that older workers feel they’re still being heard and adding value.

Later, I visited Jeff Kershaw of Intercept, a predictive maintenance service provider, who shared an interesting approach to providing skill development opportunities for future generations. He said that when the NASA summer internship program didn’t accept his 17-year-old son, he and three business friends, all of whom have sons around same age, developed a summer internship program of their own. Each teen apprentice gets three-week stints in accounting, marketing and manufacturing in a factory and, to ensure they understand real labor, they work in the hot sun as landscapers for the final three weeks. They cycle through the positions and report to their father’s friends. If one fails to pull his weight, his own father ensures he doesn’t get paid for that assignment.

With companies in survival mode, cutting staff and reducing training, developing future generations of workers isn’t high on most priority lists. We have no choice but to get creative and implement our own systems and processes to help pass on the baton and ensure this country’s future success.

If you have any suggestions or ideas about mitigating Crab Bucket Syndrome, please e-mail them to me at [email protected].

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].

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