What Tom Hanks knows about maintenance and reliability

Aug. 25, 2021
Whether your maintenance team is large and corporate or small and nimble, here’s what each type can learn from the other.

The iconic ’90s movie “You’ve Got Mail” is the quintessential pop culture take on the dichotomy between Corporate America and small businesses. Tom Hanks, owner of fictional Fox Books (a.k.a. Barnes & Noble), has a sizable budget, infrastructure, and an insatiable appetite for expansion. His competition is Meg Ryan who owns a small business called The Shop Around The Corner.

A maintenance department is defined in no small part by where it lies on the “You’ve Got Mail” spectrum. Is it rigid yet stable like the corporate Fox Books, or is it more like the flexible but riskier Shop Around the Corner?

Corporate conglomerates like Fox Books don't exactly have a sterling reputation for many small business employees who, after all, didn’t choose to work in that environment. However, what big corporations get right tends to be exactly where small businesses are weak. As long as care is taken not to go overboard with unnecessary bureaucracy, adopting key features will bring in easy wins for smaller maintenance departments.

First and foremost is a steadfast commitment to standardized work practices. You don’t often see the same rigorous adherence to written work instructions or defined processes at small facilities. While the benefits of standardization hardly need rehashing, many companies don’t make time to develop the documentation. If larger corporations have forms for everything, their smaller counterparts don’t have forms for anything. Any maintenance department stands to benefit from becoming more corporate in their approach to standardized work practices, even if it feels out of place for the size of the business.

A second area where smaller companies can improve is training. Large corporations are more generous in this regard, which is why they’re a great place to start for those with little experience. Small businesses should do as much as possible to copy the corporate philosophy. Ask your staff, and you’re likely to find that more (or even just some) formal training is at the top of their list of needs. An easy target for a maintenance department is 40 hours of paid training per technician per year, which is an industry best practice. A small company that provides quality training for their staff is a unicorn!

Human resources is a third area where small companies can take a few pages from the corporate playbook. From onboarding to performance reviews and exit interviews, the employee lifecycle is polished at large, established businesses. Touchpoints such as these help people feel secure in their jobs and allow for their concerns to be heard. And employees, current and prospective, are keenly aware when those elements are missing, particularly early on. Small shops can make a great first impression on new hires by presenting a schedule for their first two weeks on the job. Ultimately such practices are not particularly difficult to implement, so act big when it comes to HR.

If smaller companies like the Shop Around the Corner can benefit from copying their larger counterparts, the same advice applies to corporate Fox Books. While large corporations are slower to change by nature, management should strive to steer the business in a way that draws inspiration from smaller, more nimble enterprises.

One way is to allow individual sites as much autonomy as possible. Every plant has unique challenges. Operating experience, personnel, and even identical equipment can be drastically different depending on circumstances. As such, top-down decision-making is a recipe for inefficiency because rarely does one size really fit all.

A maintenance and reliability implementation requires strategy to be successful, and the essence of strategy is identifying strengths and weaknesses in order to derive an advantage. The advantages enjoyed by corporations of scale tend to be disadvantages typical of small business and vice versa. As with “You’ve Got Mail” (or any other rom-com), the moral of the story is as classic as it is cliche: ultimately, we’re all better off meeting in the middle.

About the Author

Alex Ferrari

Alex Ferrari, CMRP, is a Maintenance Manager of a specialty cosmetics manufacturer in Charlotte, NC. He has worked in the chemical and nuclear industries both in the US and abroad in Argentina. As a blogger and as a maintenance professional, Alex aims to explore the challenges faced by small and mid-sized facilities without the budget for by-the-book reliability programs.

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