Get with the program

Feb. 25, 2004
A few tips for integrating the maintenance function with the big scheme of things
One would think that instead of placing its focus on today, a company would be planning for the future. In our environment, most corporations and plants focus on short-term achievements, the only objective being to meet this quarter's numbers without regard for tomorrow.

Successful plants achieve short-term goals without jeopardizing their futures. That's why the foundation of an effective maintenance organization is a forward-looking management team committed to achieving and sustaining world-class performance.

Ineffective management severely limits and restricts the performance of everyone in the facility. Implementing world-class maintenance depends on a culture that's supportive of effective maintenance management.

Major obstacles

During the past decade, more than 19 million Americans have been downsized to improve short-term profits. Many companies downsized to the point of corporate anorexia. They've reduced headcount to a point that they can no longer be cost-effective in making products that generate a revenue stream. The apparent assumption is that the same level of activity, both production and maintenance, can be performed with fewer people.

Because few senior managers have a maintenance background, they don't understand the critical need for the function. It seems that this trend will continue until maintenance is expected to do everything with nothing. In some rare cases, these efforts to cut costs have achieved a momentary spike in profitability, but none of these companies has yet managed to save its way to prosperity.

To a degree, maintenance is responsible for the negative view that most corporate managers have of the maintenance organization. Historically, maintenance has not met it responsibilities or commitments. It hasn't been a value-adding member of the plant or corporate team. Instead, maintenance has done its own thing, without regard to the impact on plant or company profitability.

Management's commitment and support must be earned. This won't be an easy or quick process. It'll take a concerted, sustained, long-term effort by the entire maintenance organization, especially management, to reverse the perception.

Build trust, be honest

The maintenance organization must earn the trust of its partners production, procurement, engineering, human resources, among others. In addition, maintenance must learn to trust its partners. Without mutual trust, plants can't achieve or sustain world-class performance levels.

To be trusted by others, maintenance must make a concerted effort to meet its commitments. This includes promises or commitments made to its own workforce.

Maintenance must deal honestly with its partners, vendors and employees. A commitment to honesty must include interfaces between the maintenance organization and other plant functions. In other words, interaction between maintenance managers, planners, supervisors and hourly workers with their non-maintenance counterparts must be based on absolutely honest, open interchange of information, commitments and day-to-day coordination.

The commitment to honesty must be absolute. Maintenance can't continue in a "yes man" role that meekly commits to impossible schedules, workloads or budgets. Instead, maintenance must judge when requests are impossible, have a negative effect on asset reliability or will result in long-term loss of profitability. This philosophy must be followed, even when the answer won't be politically correct. It's the only way that maintenance will ever be viewed as a value-adding member of the plant team.


Because many managers misunderstand maintenance, their thought process is diametrically opposed to that of maintenance personnel. Moreover, many have no desire to understand maintenance or how maintenance personnel think.

The opposite is also true. Many maintenance personnel don't understand corporate management, cost accounting, production or procurement. As in the case of their counterparts, they have no real interest in understanding a new thought process, motivations or management logic. Instead, they prefer to operate in a vacuum, completely separate from the corporate structure.

Maintenance can't expect the other plant functions to voluntarily change their attitudes, motivations or perceptions. This leaves two choices: maintenance can continue to function as an outcast or second-class member of the corporate team, or it can take the initiative and make a concerted effort to become an equal, value-adding member of the plant team.

If the first path is taken, nothing will change and maintenance will continue to plod along doing the best that it can within the seemingly arbitrary limits imposed by non-maintenance managers. In this scenario, no one wins. Maintenance will continue to face an ever-decreasing headcount, shrinking budgets, impossible expectations and ultimately will fail, along with the rest of the company.

If the second path is taken, maintenance must radically change the way it thinks and operates. While this transition may be painful in the short term, the long-term benefits are worth the effort. This entails learning the logic, philosophy and methods required to run a profitable business. It means learning to think like an accountant or corporate manager. The advantages of this learning process include:

The ability to communicate intelligently with non-maintenance managers.

The ability to understand and accept the logic and thought process of other plant functions and management.

The knowledge needed to manage maintenance as a profit-generating business.

The ability to contribute to the overall plant or corporate management team to become a valued member of the team.

Take the initiative

Maintenance must educate its peers about the critical role maintenance plays in the plant's ability to achieve and sustain production capacity. One can't expect non-maintenance management to take the initiative to learn about the real value of maintenance. Therefore, maintenance must take the initiative and provide the education critical to adequate management support and commitment.

One advantage of the invisibility of the maintenance organization within the corporate structure is that maintenance managers are given much latitude in the way they run the department. While many view this as a negative, it can be turned into a positive.

Within limits, maintenance managers are free to execute maintenance functions and activities as they see fit. As a result, the maintenance manager can implement changes in the policies and procedures that govern day-to-day activities within the department.

If a maintenance manager sees a need for better planning, improved supervision, more effective performance measurements or any other change that would improve the overall effectiveness of the maintenance function, they are free, within limits, to implement these changes. The only thing that holds maintenance managers back is their hesitance to take the initiative.

E-mail Contributing Editor R. Keith Mobley, principal consultant, Life Cycle Engineering, at [email protected].

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