The dual role of maintenance in flat organizations

Oct. 12, 2006
You can succeed in maintenance’s dual role as diplomat and a technical guru.

In the face of fierce global competition, companies eliminate layers of management to minimize overhead costs. Sometimes attrition offers an opportunity to flatten out the hierarchy, otherwise companies rely on layoffs and restructuring.

In a flat organization, with few or no layers of management between upper-level executives and workers on the plant floor, the maintenance department must take on a dual role. Owners and executives always expect maintenance to keep things running: the facility, the machinery, the equipment. But in a flat organization, executives also expect maintenance professionals to serve as diplomats.

One can’t be muddled when it comes to controlling these complex work demands. How well you handle your dual role depends on your experience and skill set. A flat organizational structure influences the maintenance function and plant professionals should understand the tactics that can help them face the challenges flatness engenders.

Flat project management

Even the best laid plans can deviate wildly and unexpectedly. Nevertheless, you remain responsible for the success of maintenance department projects. Other departments can abandon disastrous product launches, fiascos and failures and begin afresh. But, maintenance can’t really abandon the installation of a new bulk storage unit when the excavator hits hardrock or the state bureaucrats refuse to issue a permit. You must persevere. You, the diplomat. You, the technical guru.

Managing projects and working through difficulties in a flat organization can tax your leadership skills. Involving others from both inside and outside the organization can help to lessen your load; others also can offer breadth and depth of experience.

What? You have no plant engineering department? In that case, you’ll need to be resourceful, identify key areas of concern and recruit the best of whoever is available to help out. Lobby to engage a consultant or independent contractor to help with the project. Gaining and keeping momentum is easier done with a team (and even two is a team).

Project success relies on good organizational skills. In a flat organization, your maintenance department might not have a lot of resources to help you keep track of project deadlines, contacts, filings, quotes and meetings. If you have no one to whom you can delegate, develop a custom tracking system that works for you. Think in terms of e-mail, clipboards, notebooks, work orders, white boards, meeting minutes. Think about your project team and design a system that serves your purposes.

Communicate across the gap

Getting your message across in a flat organization can be simple and effective (or alternatively nonexistent). Strive to speak directly with coworkers and executives; open-door policies should be standard operating procedure in a flat organization. Lubricate the communication lines by asking often and telling frequently.

Because maintenance brushes up against so many critical areas of the organization, it’s best if you communicate often and clearly. Use any medium available, including old fashioned face-to-face conversation. Ask and tell often. Some groups use two-way radios to keep everyone informed; by listening in, workers get briefed on current conditions and events in real time.

As a diplomat, you’ll need to be the conduit that brings plant-floor issues forward. Operators and technicians funnel information through you to the executives, managers and owners. Issues about machinery, facilities, production and even safety need to reach the top. Your role in a flat organization is to channel that information to the top for investigation and resolution.

Often, management will need you to spread the word to plant-floor staff when a change is in the works. Many maintenance pros are uncomfortable with this envoy role of carrying messages back and forth because too often they get stuck in the middle. You can avoid being whipsawed if you learn to facilitate communication, rather than simply funneling information.

Ambassadors excel at facilitating communication because resolution comes about only when two groups talk directly. If an issue, topic or project is pulling you in two or more directions, get the principals together and facilitate a face-to-face conversation.

Mindfulness and focus

Mindfulness is a common term for being in the moment. As part of a flat organization, you’re busy managing projects, facilitating communication, designing systems, and just plain fixing stuff. Sometimes you might feel like you’re losing your mind.

Focusing on the job at hand can help you complete it safely and effectively. Staying in the moment means you must give the task at hand your undivided attention. This is where your technical skills can shine. The most educated and experienced maintenance workers make a habit of putting all their energy into the current job.

Mindfulness also means knowing how to listen carefully. In a project or committee meeting, practice mindfulness and immerse your attention in what is being discussed. Your coworkers and managers will be talking about production, maintenance and planning. If you’re mentally present, you can use what you hear to organize your workload and facilitate clear communications.

Organizing your workload includes prioritizing. The practice of mindfulness may tempt you to jump on every new project that comes before you. Find a balance; try not to procrastinate and then have to expedite.

Development and discipline

Your continued value as a technical guru, a key maintenance person, requires staying current on industry trends. New products and processes appear every day and if you’re too busy or disinterested to notice, you’re going to become outdated.

The benefit package in many flat organizations doesn’t include provisions for continuing education. Besides, you’ll probably be too busy to take advantage of seminars, workshops and conferences. Still, sharpening your skills is important for your personal development as well as your job performance.

You can learn about new technologies from vendors. When considering a new vendor, or evaluating an existing vendor, ask to speak with the technical or engineering department. Be prepared with your questions, and listen carefully to the answers. Follow up on the conversation by reviewing your notes and researching topics (online or in books). If you don’t have time to attend classes or lectures, consider webinars. Many universities, suppliers, trade associations and consultants offer these online courses. The variety of offerings is enormous and the cost ranges from free to thousands of dollars.

Continuous development requires continuous commitment on your part. Remain devoted to your skills and discipline yourself to seek out learning opportunities. Remember, the flat organization values you for your versatility as well as your skill set.

Quest for clarity

Vague instructions can waste everyone’s valuable time and lead to failure. Take on new assignments like a new investigation – dig until you have all the information. Clarity comes from asking, “Why, why, why?”

To succeed as a diplomat, to tactically motivate others on a project or challenge, tool yourself with all the available information. In your quest for clarity, try to ask clear questions to discover clear answers. Repeat what you understand; it is what you leave unsaid that will sabotage your success. Dispense information with the clarity you’d expect from anyone else.

The time is right

Traditional middle management may have disappeared from some organizations, but for now, maintenance and other skilled workers are filling the gap. Executives are reaching across the managerial gap to connect with maintenance; execs rely on maintenance professionals for technical knowledge and an ability to get a job done well.

Maintenance departments aren’t getting flat, in fact, they’re gaining depth. Maintenance professionals are developing the communication skills, project management skills and diplomacy needed for success in our new reality. The amalgamation of technical guru and diplomat is a winning combination for many maintenance departments and flat organizations. Become a part of that trend.

Julia Bartlett is vice-president, fulfillment management, at D.D. Bean & Sons Co. in Jaffrey, N.H. Contact her at [email protected] and (603) 532-8311.

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