Maintenance needs to improve its negative image

March 28, 2005
In order for maintenance to be viewed as a valuable and profitable discipline, maintenance professionals need to help change the negative image of their profession.

In last month’s issue, we officially killed off Bubba and Skeeter and their maintenance practices. The next question is how do we make it so maintenance is viewed as competitive business advantage?

Manufacturing during the past decade could easily be called the “Era of Efficiency.” Organizations have endured unprecedented pressure from many sources, including domestic and global competition. Employees in Asia are compensated as little as 15 cents per hour, whereas the average American makes about $15 per hour. Many companies must compete against newly automated facilities that produce -- with a staff of 50 people -- the output of a 200-employee operation of the past.

To compete in this adverse environment, companies switched mantras, from “Do or die” to “Do more with less or die.” Every year, the bar of acceptable performance is raised. Employees are challenged to achieve these objectives with fewer resources. This is not just a recent trend, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 1981 to 1996, 18 million workers lost jobs they held for three or more years because a plant or company closed or moved. 

Within this harsh economic landscape, maintenance has been viewed as a cost center, not a profit center, which has made it an easy target when downsizing takes place. Rather than providing justification for keeping valuable employees, most maintenance managers simply have complied with top management’s edicts for meeting workforce reduction quotas. As a result, many companies are experiencing the effects of smaller maintenance staffs. Often, these companies are not able to achieve profitable production levels or keep their equipment maintained to reach its full life expectancy.

Despite the popular perception that maintenance is simply a cost center, it is not. Maintenance is a profit contributor that generates production capacity. It requires an attitude of professional excellence and promotion of its corporate value. Maintenance managers have had difficulty collecting information that documents their true contributions and have trouble presenting that information in a way that proves their department’s value to top executives. But every department within a business must justify its value ratio: value = benefits/costs.

Another common problem in maintenance is the focus on today and not planning for tomorrow. Maintenance typically operates by the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra. To be successful, however, companies must not only focus resources on improving current systems, but also on installing technologies for the future. Implementing preventive maintenance programs has proved to reduce emergencies, downtime and maintenance costs. Yet another obstacle to maintenance success is the traditional image of maintenance professionals. They’re often perceived to be “grease monkeys” as personified by Bubba and Skeeter.

To help change this perception, maintenance professionals need to stop perpetuating this negative image of their profession. This includes eliminating the following attitudes:

Bubba and Skeeter attitudes

  • My job is only to fix the machines.
  • I don’t have to care what production thinks about my performance.
  • I don’t need to know how to use a computer; I know how to turn a wrench.
  • Why should they care about the way I look or dress as long as the machine works?

Machines don’t sign our paychecks, people do. Maintenance professionals must become more sensitive to the needs and desires of their internal customers, whether they’re in production, management, engineering, etc. The quality and level of responsiveness of the maintenance group is its best sales tool. By exceeding the expectations of internal customers, maintenance will come to be viewed as a valued resource.

The “reliable care” process includes the following steps:

  • Talking to customers and employees.
  • Setting service goals and rewards.
  • Observing and measuring service quality.
  • Handing out rewards.

To become customer-focused, maintenance professionals must learn to look at themselves through their customers’ eyes. Internal customers are not dependent upon us; we are dependent upon each other. They do not interrupt us; they bring us their wants and needs. They are not people with whom we must argue or match wits; they are people whose problems we must resolve into a mutually profitable solution.

Internal customers do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. To show you care is to be:

  • Credible: Customers need assurance the job will done right.
  • Attractive: Sloppiness opens up questions of overall quality.
  • Responsive: When machines are down, the company loses potential revenue.
  • Empathetic: Put yourself in your internal customers’ shoes.

Please keep spreading the word. The more our society understands our true value, the more support we will receive, which can help minimize a major maintenance crisis.

Please e-mail suggestions and feedback to [email protected].