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Use sound reasoning to determine maintenance best practices

Oct. 12, 2005
There are no quick fixes out there says David Berger in his latest column. Chasing maintenance best practices may do more harm than good.

In our fast-paced, highly-competitive industrial world, it’s no small wonder that management is anxious to uncover the dark secrets that lay behind such powerful terms as world class, best in class or best practices. However, as we have discovered with every new methodology, software package or piece of equipment that comes on the market, there’s no panacea or quick fix out there. The concept of best practices is no exception.

It’s my belief that best practices are rarely best –- at least for you. Moreover, maintenance organizations that chase best practices can do themselves more harm than good. To illustrate, let’s look at a simple example in which following best practices might be problematic for your maintenance shop.

The problems
What does best practice imply with regard to the optimal worker-to-supervisor ratio? On average, how many technicians should report to a given front-line supervisor?

Problem one: There isn’t any not-for-profit, third-party objective organization that tracks and validates world class standards of excellence. Without this benchmark source, any individual or organization can claim to be in possession of such knowledge. Therefore, who’s to say what is the best practice?

Problem two: Even if there was an organization we could turn to, how would it be able to determine a best practice?

Problem three: Even if we could determine a best practice, what application would it have for your particular environment?

Despite these problems, world class standards and best practices abound. Clients eagerly ask CMMS vendors and consultants to provide best practices as part of a CMMS implementation or consulting assignment. In turn, vendors and consultants dutifully provide what purports to be best practices. For example, some expert might claim that the optimal worker-to-supervisor ratio is about 15:1. This might be based on the premise that a higher ratio leads to degradation in the span of control, which renders the supervisor less effective in providing leadership, motivation, training and supervision for so many people. On the other hand, the argument also says that any fewer than 15 direct reports lead to a drop in the supervisor’s utilization and efficiency.

In theory, this opinion makes some intuitive sense. In the reality of your maintenance environment, it’s rather simplistic. Consider a few other factors. Suppose you have five technicians on each of three shifts. Should there be only one supervisor for the 15 technicians? Thus, supervision on multiple shifts must be a consideration.

Suppose you have 15 technicians spread over five facilities at locations within a given geography. Can one supervisor provide adequate coverage? Thus, physical location must be another factor.

Suppose you have three mechanics, one window glazer, three electricians, two pipefitters, three millwrights and three welders. What trade experience should the supervisor have to provide sufficient leadership to this diverse group? Thus, you should consider the mix of trades in determining the optimal level of supervision.

Suppose you have mostly experienced, long-term employees who are familiar with the company and their own role in it. Should this group have the same level of supervision as a group of inexperienced, temporary, part-time or contract technicians? Thus, the worker’s level of experience and tenure with the company are key factors.

Suppose you lose your best mechanic when you promote her to become a supervisor, and then her former colleagues complain of their new supervisor’s complete lack of leadership skills. Does every supervisor have the same ability? Thus, capability and experience of the supervisor is important in determining the optimal span of control.

Suppose you have a completely decentralized environment where one or two resident mechanics on a given shift in a given production area report directly to the operations supervisor with dotted line responsibility to a maintenance supervisor. Does this not increase the potential span of control for a maintenance supervisor? Thus, organizational structure -- centralized versus decentralized versus distributed maintenance organization -- must be factored into the answer.

Suppose you determine that preventive maintenance is best done by three crews of three technicians working only nights, weekends and holidays. How can you provide adequate supervision when 15:1 is optimal? Thus, specialty crewing is an issue.

Suppose you have experienced technicians in each trade, each of whom is up to the challenge of taking on some supervisory responsibilities. Could you make use of assistant supervisors, working lead hands and acting supervisors to increase the maintenance supervisor’s span of control? As well, in a small maintenance shop, could the maintenance supervisor be a hands-on or working supervisor to increase productivity? Thus, distribution of supervisory functions is a point of consideration.

It’s about context
Perhaps you can think of even more factors to consider when assessing the optimal worker-to-supervisor ratio for your unique maintenance environment. So, does the notion of “best practices” have any universal utility whatsoever? The answer is a resounding yes, but it doesn’t necessarily lie with the best practice itself. Instead, the best practice is simply the act of raising a red flag and pointing it to an area of potential improvement that’s worth investigating further.

Therefore, if you have 30 technicians and four supervisors, hearing that the optimal worker-to-supervisor ratio is 15:1 should motivate you to investigate further for possible savings. Similarly, if you have 30 technicians and only one supervisor, you should explore further to ensure that supervisory coverage is adequate.

It’s the context around the best practice that is key, not the best practice itself. In the example above, this means examining each of the eight factors to determine which qualitative factors can positively impact your environment.

Quantitative versus qualitative
There are two types of best practices. Quantitative best practices are pronouncements as to measurable, best-in-class performance targets. The optimal worker-to-supervisor ratio is one such best practice. Other examples include:

  • MRO inventory turns/year = 10
  • Unplanned downtime = less than 3%
  • PM compliance = 100%
  • Wrench time = 75%

In many cases, quantitative best practices are quoted for a given industry or equipment classification. For example, in the banking industry, downtime of less than 0.1% for a network of ATMs is a more appropriate best practice than less than 3%, especially around holidays.

Qualitative best practices, on the other hand, are policies or procedures that lead to higher performance levels. In the example above regarding the optimal worker-to-supervisor ratio, embedded in each of the eight factors are potential qualitative best practices such as:

  • Conduct PMs during off shifts where possible, and with adequate senior resources.
  • Use experienced working lead hands as an alternative way to ensure supervision across multiple trades and shifts.
  • Screen and train technicians adequately before assigning them any supervisory duties.
  • A distributed maintenance organizational structure (resident mechanics reporting solid line to a decentralized production supervisor, and dotted line to a centralized maintenance supervisor) is ideal for a mature maintenance shop that wishes to provide adequate area coverage for a production environment that is spread out geographically.

Good versus best
So, perhaps best practices should be renamed good practices for both quantitative and qualitative versions. We must stop looking for those easy answers to difficult questions -- what is an acceptable level of downtime? -- and begin the hard work of determining what is the best practice for your particular maintenance environment. Vendor or consultant pronouncements of quantitative best practices should be viewed as possible red flags, and qualitative best practices as possible policy or procedural ideas that may or may not mesh with your environment.

What are your plant’s best maintenance practices?

With most maintenance departments being understaffed, it’s important to work smarter. One way to gain insights for making better decisions is by benchmarking and networking with your peers across the country. As a way to facilitate such dialog, Plant Services invites you to send an example of what your plant has found to be a truly best practice. Then, in a future column, David Berger will offer his comments on the ideas you submit. Please send your best practices to him at [email protected].

Factors that help determine the optimum worker-to-supervisor ratio:

  • Supervision across multiple shifts
  • Physical location of work locations
  • Mix of trades
  • Level of experience and tenure with the company
  • Supervisor’s capability and experience
  • Organizational structure
  • Specialty crewing
  • Distribution of supervisory functions

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger at [email protected]

About the Author

David Berger | P.Eng. (AB), MBA, president of The Lamus Group Inc.

David Berger, P.Eng. (AB), MBA, is president of The Lamus Group Inc., a consulting firm that provides advice and training to extract maximum performance, quality and value from your physical assets, processes, information systems and organizational design. Based in Toronto, Berger has held senior positions in industry, including for two large manufacturers, and senior roles in consulting. He has written more than 450 articles on a variety of topics such as asset management, operations management, information technology, e-commerce, organizational design, and strategy. Contact him at [email protected].

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