In the Trenches: Acme is asking for an elevator disaster

Oct. 7, 2008
In this edition of "In the Trenches," Acme has trouble bearing the ups and downs of state regulations. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

After weeks of haggling, Les Zizmoore finally got his counterpart in the operations department to release the production line so the maintenance technicians could close out a stack of backlogged work orders in the shortest possible time. The agreement was that the line would be down for no more than two full shifts.

The primary reason that Acme, a union shop, hired Jacob Slatter as a mechanic was that he possessed critical skills acquired through attendance at many specialized training programs during his career and had achieved licensing and certification across a range of maintenance and operations activities.

The production line was set up in a vertical configuration that required workers to access each level. Acme provided an elevator for operator convenience. That device was the reason Jacob was perfect for the job. The state where the Acme plant was located licensed the mechanics who maintained elevators, and Jacob held the required license. The purpose of this regulation was to ensure that public safety was the paramount consideration during any elevator repair.

His skills gave Jacob the right of final approval that certified any repairs he performed, supervised or inspected met the minimum safety requirements established by the state. If Jacob signed off on an inadequate repair, the state could revoke his license, thereby affecting his livelihood and future employment. Worse, if an inadequate repair caused the elevator to damage property or injure people, Jacob could be held legally liable.

During a backlogged elevator inspection, Jacob saw that a sprocket was worn and a chip was missing from one tooth. He saw a spare sprocket in storage so he removed the broken one and noticed that the inboard sleeve bearing was badly scratched and showed signs of severe wear. This condition, if not repaired, could cause a mechanical failure. But replacing it meant that the elevator would remain shut down for not less than three hours, a time frame that left about six hours of leeway in the allowable maintenance window.

Jacob removed the bearing and carried both parts to the machine shop, where he tossed them into a Dumpster outside the loading dock. He went inside to update the work order status and to record his findings in the inspection report. The applicable regulations, he knew from memory, required that the damaged bearing be replaced, but Acme’s online inventory system indicated there were no spare bearings in stock. A few more mouse clicks revealed that the earliest he’d be able to get a new one on site was the following evening. This meant the elevator would be out of service well beyond the time the production line was scheduled to restart.

Jacob reported this problem to Les, who ordered that the old bearing be touched up with a file to remove the worst scratches and then reinstalled. Les was adamant that missing the startup wasn’t an option. It had taken him a long time to gain access to the equipment and his credibility was on the line. He wasn’t going to let some worn bearing destroy it.

Jacob pointed out that the regulations dictated that a new bearing be installed, not some reworked scrap. Les warned Jacob about the problems that would befall the maintenance organization if the elevator wasn’t finished before the deadline. He said he’s in charge and would be rather displeased if Jacob didn’t do as ordered and get the elevator operating again.

Jacob took a coat hanger from the coat rack and used it to snag the old bearing out of the Dumpster. He spent an hour trying to refurbish it to the point where he could feel comfortable with reinstalling it with a new sprocket. With the elevator now functional, Jacob pulled out his next work order and continued his assigned route, performing various maintenance activities along the way.

Jacob and the other mechanics finished their work orders before the end of the shift and remained on the plant floor to help restart the production line slightly ahead of schedule. When the production supervisor formally accepted the repair work, Les paged his maintenance technicians to recall them to the shop before they left for the day.

Les waited for Jacob to return. As soon as Jacob walked into the room, Les demanded to know why the paperwork for the elevator repair was incomplete. Jacob reminded Les that an elevator repair of this type required a licensed mechanic. Jacob was adamant that now his own credibility was on the line and he wasn’t going to let some worn bearing destroy it. It was in a loud, angry tone of voice that every mechanic in the room could hear in which Les demanded that Jacob sign the appropriate paperwork before leaving the building. Jacob merely replied that he refused to sign any paper that even remotely suggested he certified the used bearing/new sprocket repair as meeting the requirements and, thus, the elevator was fit for service.

Les immediately suspended Jacob and scheduled a termination hearing. The next morning, Jacob called the state to report the problem with the bearing. He then initiated a grievance procedure. At the first grievance hearing, Acme accused Jacob of insubordination because he refused to sign off on the repair. By the third hearing, Jacob was terminated, an action that prompted his lawsuit for wrongful discharge and retaliation.

How could this situation have been avoided? Would it have made more sense for Acme to outsource the elevator repairs? How should one respond when a potential schedule delay looms? Where is the balance between supervisory impatience and a well-documented scope of work when negotiating the duration of a plant shutdown? Does this case drift into whistle-blower territory?

An attorney says:

In the workplace, “insubordination” is often defined as the willful failure to adhere to a lawful order or instruction. In this case, Les' order for Jacob to sign the elevator repair paperwork doesn’t fall into that category. Safety should never fall prey to expediency, and Les' order was clearly out of line.

Acme is going to have great difficulty defending this case. Whether Jacob also has a claim for retaliation, or, more appropriately, a “whistle-blower” claim, is not clear from these facts. After Jacob refused to sign the paperwork on the inadequate elevator repair, Acme merely suspended him. Jacob then called the state to report the problem with the bearing, but it isn’t clear whether Acme knew he did so before it discharged him. If Acme had no knowledge of his report to the state, it couldn’t possibly have discharged him for engaging in this conduct, and he has no whistle-blower claim.

Many states have enacted whistle-blower legislation to protect employees who are given the Hobson's choice that confronted Jacob. The intent of these laws is to protect employees who, in good faith, report illegal conduct on the part of the employer to the appropriate authorities. An employee shouldn’t have to suffer the loss of his job for making a legitimate complaint about unlawful conduct.

Outsourcing the elevator repair work wouldn’t solve Acme's problem. In all likelihood, an outside contractor would have taken even longer to complete the work. There are times when no quick fix was possible, and this was one of them.

Acme's next quick fix should be replacing Les with someone competent and responsible.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

Let’s look at this scenario from a couple of angles. First, we’ll consider the organizational reliability angle. It appears from the scenario that Acme doesn’t have a reliability-based culture. This is evidenced by Les having to haggle with the operations department to clear out a building backlog of work orders expeditiously. This indicates that they’re running the equipment without allowing sufficient time for proper maintenance. After Jacob removed the parts, he threw them in a dumpster, indicating that Acme wasn’t analyzing failed parts. That suggests there was no reliability-based continuous improvement program in place. Les clearly lacks the support and communication skills to make the case for organizational reliability. This problem is at the level above Les and the operations manager: Acme’s senior leadership needs to drive reliability for improved production availability and lower operating costs.

Second, the elevator system is for “operator convenience,” but it’s an elevator with safety and regulatory requirements having a likely effect on worker efficiency, thereby affecting operating costs. Jacob’s inspection requiring the production system to be down to inspect components indicates that there was no predictive maintenance (PdM) program in place. If there were to be a PdM program on anything in the plant, you would logically assume it would be on a system with safety, regulatory and production efficiency implications. If a PdM program was in place, a vibration- and oil-analysis program could have flagged the worn bearing and damaged gear in enough time to obtain the parts, plan and schedule the repairs with minimum operational, regulatory and safety risk.

Third is the interaction between Jacob and Les involving Les’ demand to reinstall inadequate parts to “maintain his credibility,” and his insistence that Jacob certify the temporary repair. If Les had a better grasp of the value of operational reliability, he could have used the elevator’s extended downtime to enhance his credibility. How? With the worn parts in hand, Les could have shown them to the operations manager with a discussion on the implications of deferred maintenance; safety and reduced operating efficiency. Further, if Les was on top of his game, he could have asked the operations manager to support Les’ push for a PdM program to improve safety, reduce production downtime and reduce operating costs.

With regard to the post-shutdown interaction in which Les demanded that Jacob certify the repair, Les was dead wrong. As a trained, certified and capable elevator mechanic, Les has no basis to question Jacob’s integrity. Again, Les missed the bigger credibility issue. Dismissing the safety aspects of elevator maintenance sends a message throughout Acme that the company values production over worker safety.

Outsourcing elevator inspection and repair in some respects would have been a better alternative. Perhaps an outsourced inspection and repair service would have been using PdM, and perhaps they would have had repair parts readily available. On the other hand, if the outsourced firm was told in reinstall the old bearing, they might have done that, but not certified the repair, resulting in the same safety risk to employees. The major issue in all of this is safety.

At the risk of being flagged for piling on after the play, Leadership 101 says that one always should praise in public and chastise in private. If Les has a problem with someone, that discussion (loud and angry or otherwise) must be done in private. In the grand scheme of the scenario, it might seem to be a trivial issue, but it’s another indicator of Les’ lack of leadership abilities. To characterize the termination hearing and grievance and lawsuit from the Acme perspective, I submit a quote by Clubber Lang in “Rocky II:” “Pain.” The lawsuit will end in pain for Acme.

Organizations should have a set of criteria for assessing risks and managing their response to risk. I normally look at four areas: safety, regulatory compliance, production and corrective action costs. Safety is easily twice as important as corrective action costs. Regulatory compliance and production are at least one-and-a-half times as important as corrective action costs. Thinking about the effect of decisions in these terms often provides clarity when confronted with difficult decisions.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP
Organizational Reliability Professional Services Consultant
(321) 773-3356
[email protected]

An academician says:

My first suggestion for Acme is to move to a preventive maintenance system that should eliminate much of the backlogged work orders and eliminate a lot of downtime. It’s less costly to prevent fires than to fight them, and Acme can save a lot of grief and cost by a preventive maintenance system.

My second suggestion is to outsource the elevator maintenance. The guideline is to focus on your core business operations and outsource everything else. It’s probably expensive to keep an elevator mechanic on duty and to keep an inventory of parts. Better to outsource to a vendor who can provide immediate service and who has a complete inventory at hand. It’s much less hassle and usually much less expensive. Actually, I don’t know of any company that hasn’t outsourced its elevator maintenance (unless the elevator is part of the manufacturing line). However, I’m sure there are several out there.

I also had a question as to whether the elevator could have been kept in service (or maybe put in limited service) for another 24 hours until the new part arrived. This is a judgment question; the issue here is one of safety. If it’s a safety issue, then the elevator should be shut down. However, it appears that Acme is running a lot of equipment in less-than-perfect condition, as witnessed by the backlog of work orders. So, perhaps the elevator might be allowed to run for another 24 hours. Or, maybe have the workers use the stairs for 24 hours. It’s an interesting question.

The pay and bonuses of many plant managers or production managers is based on how many units are produced. So, any downtime affects their pay and bonuses. Thus there’s always a lot of pressure on guys like Les, and this, in turn, leads to tension between the Les-types and the Jacob-types. I think you have to look at it as a system problem. And that is why I like preventive maintenance. You usually can demonstrate to the Les-types of the world (and to their supervisors) that preventive maintenance “costs” less downtime, and thus can make the boss a bit more money.

Finally, it was fairly predictable that Jacob’s whistle-blowing would get him fired. Companies don’t like troublemakers around, and the fate of most whistle-blowers (in spite of their concern for the company) is that they’re history. If I were Jacob, I think I’d have pushed the problem up to the plant-manager level before I blew the whistle to the state. The plant manager might have been more sensitive to the issues and might have found a way out of the problem.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

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