4 reasons why so many reliability initiatives fail

Sept. 3, 2014

Results-driven reliability-excellence programs work differently in the real world than they do on paper.

So you’ve decided to develop a reliability program at your facility. You’ve read the books and know that programs such as planning and scheduling, root cause failure analysis, and RCM are key elements of the overall strategy. After convincing your organization’s leadership of the pile of money that is lying at the end of the road you get started. After a few short years, if they give you that long, the program is struggling to deliver the promised results; worse yet, that pile of money you promised your boss and the executive team looks less like a mountain and more like a mole hill. Where did you go wrong? Most programs that fail to produce the desired results get derailed for one of four reasons.

1. One reason is that many organizations build their program on what I will call the Field of Dreams strategy. In the movie “Field of Dreams” Kevin Costner plays the part of Ray Kinsella. Ray, who owns a farm in Iowa, hears a voice which tells him to plow up his cornfield and build a baseball diamond. Early in the movie the spirit voice tells Ray, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray takes a leap of faith and follows the spirit’s instruction. Organizations who desire improved asset reliability and lower maintenance costs hear the spirit voices of consultants who whisper, “if you build a maintenance and reliability program, improved asset reliability and sustained cost reduction will come.” While this leap of faith worked out for Ray Kinsella in the movie, the Field of Dreams strategy rarely returns those best in class results we all hope for, leaving stakeholders disillusioned. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against consultants. In fact I hope to make my living as one someday after I retire. But a consultant does not know your plant or its unique operating situation as well as someone within your organization. Consultants make their living by generating billable hours. After they place a resource on the payroll, it will take the person several weeks to months to learn the plant, know the people, and identify the low-hanging fruit which, when resolved, will fuel the program’s first successes. By the time the resource you hire helps you produce these initial cost reductions, you will have paid them a considerable sum of money — money I suggest can be better spent elsewhere. The reliability program must have an internal champion who drives the program, and she/he must have credibility within the organization. Consultants should be used as subject matter experts for specific purposes. If you have to hire a consultant to figure out where you need to start and where you need to go, the only one who is going to have an improved cash flow is the consulting firm.

2. A second reason many reliability initiatives fail is they never get off the ground in the first place. Those who preach the benefits of the reliability excellence model will tell you that you have to invest money to get the program off the ground. It’s the old it-takes-money-to-make-money spiel. You’ve all seen those graphs which show the initial investment required in the first few years of the program. Costs go up in the beginning as you hire resources, roll out initiatives, and invest in training. As the early initiatives start to pay off, costs level off, and then in a few years as a sustained reliability excellence culture takes root, costs drop sharply. The problem is most organizations that desperately need a reliability program are not awash in cash. They are struggling to meet quarterly cash flow targets. They are looking to reduce costs in the short term, and they have no appetite for those who are pitching programs which increase costs. If patience is a virtue, I have not met many virtuous shareholders in my career. We are a society in search of instant gratification. It is true that there are certain essential programs which must be established; they make up the foundation of your reliability strategy. It is equally true these programs usually do not have immediate payback. But they are the necessary elements of a sustained cost reduction strategy, so they must be implemented. The trick is to find the low-hanging fruit early in the program rollout and to use the savings generated from resolving these no-brainers to fund the essential elements which will place your program on a firm foundation. If you divide your initial time, energy, and resources equally between these two types of initiatives, you might be able to keep costs flat long enough to buy the time necessary to start seeing long-term results. But be aware, the clock is ticking. Think of it this way: if your reliability program is not meeting its cash flow targets, it’s like your house is on fire. The low-hanging fruit is like oxygen, and there is only so much oxygen in the room. Once it is used up, you and your program will suffocate.

3. A third reason many reliability programs fail is the timing, order, and speed at which you roll out your initiatives. Your reliability excellence strategy should take into account the current culture, available resources, and competing priorities. A culture can only absorb so much change. Remember, your reliability program is competing with several other change initiatives that are being simultaneously rolled out by production, purchasing, information technology, and human resources. If the end users — the engineering staff, operations and maintenance supervision, and the front-line maintenance craftsmen and operators — do not fully understand their role and commit to the programs you initiate, the strategy will not take root and produce results. Don’t be led to believe reliability programs are made up of secret best practices known only by your competition. Reliability excellence is created by executing the fundamentals better than everyone else. It’s blocking and tackling. It’s what my boss affectionately calls “small ball.” Like first responders or firefighters, the best of the best train over and over on executing the fundamentals of excellence, until these practices become second nature. It is better to do a couple of things extremely well than to do several things poorly. Do everything in your power to ensure each initiative produces results. It’s not as if you can’t survive another day maintaining the status quo. People will continue to do things in the way they have always done them, and the plant will continue to run.

4. The fourth reason reliability initiatives fail is there are no KPIs put in place to measure whether the intended results were met. I tend to believe using a plan-do-check-act (PDCA) approach increases the probability of success. And the check in PDCA is a KPI. If you roll out an initiative, you should have some measure in place to know whether you are on track. This will allow quicker course correction when an initiative is not producing intended results. And, no matter how good you are, you will never bat 1.000. It’s about recognizing failure, learning from it, making the necessary course corrections, and then learning to fail faster.

So I have shared my observations on why many reliability programs fail to deliver the financial results promised in the many books, articles, and seminars written and taught on the subject. I hope this blog is both entertaining and enlightening. I also hope you, my audience, will share your own nuggets of wisdom. So my first question is, “Why do you believe many reliability initiatives fail to deliver as promised?”

In subsequent posts, I will discuss individual topics related to building a results-driven reliability program in greater detail. I will share real-life examples of what has worked for me and what hasn’t. Hopefully I will share some little gem which, if applied, will turbocharge your reliability effort. The road to reliability excellence is long and hard. It is not for the faint of heart. But, by our collective wisdom, we can all reach our destination. Are you up for a road trip?

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