Understanding proactivity: Are you managing your assets or are they managing you?

Feb. 27, 2022
In this episode of Assets Anonymous, George Williams and Joe Anderson explore what proactive maintenance is and how to gauge the success of the program.

Assets Anonymous is a 12-step podcast series designed to help you get grounded in reliability basics and create a culture of continuous improvement with your team. This series will feature interviews with George Williams and Joe Anderson of ReliabilityX. ReliabilityX aims to bridge the gap between operations and maintenance through holistic reliability focused on plant performance. The second episode focuses on understanding proactivity.

PS: Last time, we dove into what the term “reactive” could mean. It's got various nuances to it. It can be a strategic tool. It can also be something where you lean too much into that work and you get in trouble. This episode is on understanding “proactivity” and there's a lot of terms that are associated with proactive maintenance. So, let's start this episode by first defining what we mean by proactive maintenance, then we can get more into the specifics of that type of maintenance.

JA: In the first episode, I talked about reactivity and proactivity being a sliding scale. When you talk about pure proactivity on the very furthest into the scale, you're talking about controlling situations by causing something to happen instead of waiting to respond when something happens. In maintenance terms, it's the mitigation or elimination of defects, anticipating things that are going to come and putting solutions in place before they ever occur, right?

The problem with certain domains, for example using predictive tools, is that you're more proactive than just using your senses to try to find defects. But the problem is that when a defect does occur, we have to respond to it, which means it's reactive in nature by the response. The proactivity comes from being in search of those defects, so it sits more towards the proactive side of the scale; but depending on how the program is utilized, can still be very reactive in nature.

GW: Just as Joe mentioned, just as we talked about on the reactive side, it is a sliding scale. If you walk through the RCM logic, and you're saying to your team, "Can I engineer it out? If I can't engineer it out, can I predict it? If I can't predict it, can I do some cycle-based preventive maintenance activity, or then time-based, or do I do a one-time rebuild based on time?" And you're going through all of those questions, the further you dig down into them, the more reactive your strategy is, right? You're going to get to a point of just failure-finding, and in failure-finding, the failure mode has already occurred. So, is the engineering-out part proactive or is the exercise of asking those questions the proactive piece? And I think all of those are true, they're just differently located on the scale.

I think where you can afford to be is also a function of how much of that scale is currently on the reactive side for you. So, if you are a completely reactive organization that has no PMs, I do not recommend your starting point to be full RCM studies on all your equipment, because you'll be doing that for years and it'll be a very long time before the implementation phase and before you start seeing benefits. There are things you can do that are proactive and will give you better results as you step through maturity. Is a sliding scale, and as Joe mentioned, they're kind of like leading and lagging metrics, right? Everything is a leading and lagging metric to something else. And proactivity is the same way. It's how much proactive you are in relation to your reactivity that will define if you're spinning your wheels or if you're making progress.

PS: Well, what does making progress look like then when it comes to proactive maintenance? What are some of the signs that are the giveaways that you're on the right track?

GW: Less reactive maintenance.

JA: You get time. For example, if I wasn't planning and scheduling before, and I'm now planning and scheduling, and I'm getting my work orders, I'm getting more work done, I'm restoring my equipment, eliminating more defects which leads to less breakdowns, less calls out on the floor, and I have more time to invest in things like my PdM inspections while my equipment is running so that I can spend my planned downtime doing corrective maintenance. The goal is to give yourself more time. You also have more time when you're finding defects early on in their initiated state versus farther down the PF curve. You're giving yourself more time to order the parts, wait on the parts to come and you start gaining control over your assets instead of your assets controlling you. You know you're in a very reactive state when the asset determines when you get to go to bed at night, versus you determining when you get to go to bed at night because you are in control over the machines. As I start to see more time, and I can start putting people out doing other tasks, that’s a gauge for me, knowing that I'm on the right track.

GW: Yeah. When we say proactive/reactive, you can just return that to be “assets managing you” and “asset management.”

PS: That's a good way to think about it. Joe, in your phrase earlier, controlling the situation versus the situation controlling you, what are some other signs this would be working? Is it that you find assets breaking down less often?

JA: No, the end result is more throughput or better customer service. It depends on what industry you're in, right? In manufacturing, your throughput numbers start going up because you're down less. You have more uptime, which means your cost to produce typically is going down as well as long as your spending is level. Right? There's a lot of lagging indicators that will tell you whether you're making progress or not.

GW: Even just the culture, your folks will be less stressed. You'll have a better safety record. As you move in maturity in a space, the benefits are substantial, but they all boil down to profitability of the organization.

PS: George, you mentioned going down the RCM chain when it comes to the kind of proactive work you're engaged in. And you did run through the terms that, again, when I was new to the industry, trying to figure out where terms like preventative, predictive, and now we hear prescriptive a lot when it comes to big data analysis, where those all fall along the proactive timeline, the proactive scale. What's the role, in your opinion, of when predictive maintenance comes in? Say you're taking these steps down the path, and you are creating more of a culture of continuous improvement. Someone goes to an event, they see a great presentation on either video motion capture or on vibration analysis, what are your thoughts on how to introduce that, or when to introduce that?

GW: So, Joe and I, we have our own podcast called "Practical Reliability." And it's called that for a reason. I'm going to give you two answers. I'm going to give you the technical answer that most folks would probably give, and then I'm going to give you the practical reliability answer.

The first answer is, I use predictive maintenance technologies when the failure mode risk priority number is high enough and the cost-benefit analysis of using predictive maintenance over a time-based or a cycle-based preventative task is cost-justified. So when I go through my FMEA or my RCM study, and I get down to a risk priority number for that specific failure mode, and I determine am I going to take a human intervention or use some predictive technology, there's a cost-benefit analysis that takes place at the failure mode level that determines that.

As we talked, reactive proactive is a sliding scale, and the further you are from being a proactive organization, the smaller the steps need to be to add significant benefit. So if you go see a webinar or go to a conference and you see a technology – we'll just use ultrasound as an example – and as you walk around your plant and go in all your equipment, you just hear the hissing going on, you don't need an FMEA or an RCM study. You need the ultrasound gun in your hand. So, the “should I?” is a cost-benefits of the company. The technical answer of getting down to which technology should be used where, and getting that down to fine-tuning – that is not step one if you are a reactive organization. As we talked about the broader the gap or the lower your maturity level is, you should be taking incremental smaller steps towards proactivity. You should not be trying to create the perfect scenario out of the gate. You're going to miss a lot of intermediary value.

JA: That's why ultrasound is probably for me the most recommended technology to start because of its versatility; not only can you fix air leaks, you can survey electrical buckets for electrical anomalies, if you have sub-stations, you're looking for Corona tracking and arcing. From a structure-borne standpoint, you can monitor bearings, you can do precision lubrication. There's all this versatility for a tool and its ease of use is probably the simplest of all the technologies to learn. So, not only will it provide the greatest benefit, the most versatility, it's easy to use and easy to show value.

If I can start by, like George said, just eliminating my air leaks and reducing my energy consumption – it does contribute to the performance of equipment, right? – you're going to start to see a lot of these little issues that become bigger ones go away, so it's a good place to start. The problem is the reason you're in this situation is because there's not a robust equipment strategy. It's a chicken or an egg thing. When you're that reactive, utilize technologies to start freeing you up time to develop that equipment strategy. Whereas if you already have time, your robust equipment strategy can determine what technologies to use when.

PS: In your experience, how many plants out there, just like a thumbnail percentage, are at that point where they do have a sense of their equipment strategy?

JA: 0.01.

GW: Yeah, less than one.

PS: Wow.

GW: I know that sounds harsh, right? But this is an always-moving target. In an industry, and we'll just say “industry” meaning all of maintenance, and regardless of the industry that the plant is in. In this industry, it is a never-ending target to be world-class. While some of the numbers have not changed, how you get there, technologies that are at your fingertips, data analysis, all that stuff is ever progressing and the complexity of the equipment is ever progressing.

Listen to the entire interview

JA: And the business need.

GW: So, the job gets easier and harder at the same pace, right? The skillset and the available information to take care of it is always moving. Couple that with the fact that from a support leadership and financial resource perspective, it is a cyclical environment, meaning you get really good at reliability, no one wants to budget it anymore and invest in reliability because we're already there. And so a leader figures out how to save money by stop investing in reliability because we are already reliable. You have no choice but to then become more reactive again, and then hope that somebody comes in and supports you, and it becomes cyclical, and it happens over and over and over again.

Then you get a leader, you get organizations where they just change leadership on a regular basis because they think it's fantastic for the business. And just like a politician, they come into the plant and think their job is to change something. We didn't need you to change anything. We needed you to operate it. We didn't need you to change it, but you needed to leave your mark so you create laws and you create programs, right? You didn't need to leave a mark, you just didn't need to leave a skid mark. So, they come into a plant and they go, "I can be a superstar. I'm going to reduce budget and save a bunch of money." And so they get rid of people, they reduce budget, they leave their mark, and then they go on their way. Right?

JA: Well, the other piece is also that the business need changes and the business climate changes. Look at when COVID hit, right? No one was prepared for that. And now, the supply chain shortages, right? There's always something, always. That's life. And that's the maintenance life, and we're used to that. Part of the reason why most of us love maintenance is the ever-changing day-to-day, where we don't like to do the repetitive, redundant motions of grabbing something off the line and putting it in a box, or whatever. We like that challenge of things changing every day.

So there's a lot of variables and a lot of complexity that comes into this. That's why the target is always moving. Things are always changing. For example, with the supply chain shortages, now you have to reassess your criticality analysis, your equipment strategy, everything has to be reassessed. And then once those shortages, if that backlog ever gets fixed, your business needs are going to change again, so now you have to go back and update it all again. I mean, it's a constant moving...I don't want to say struggle, but it's a challenge, even for the best organizations.

GW: You've got companies now that because of the labor shortage, they're going to throw automation everywhere. But there's also a skilled labor shortage. No one can take care of this equipment. So, who's winning?

JA: Well, that's the thing: let's offset cheap headcount, which is easy to find with automated equipment which requires us to hire highly skilled folks to offset the cost that you saved reducing that headcount. Because you're going to end up paying these people two, three times more, and you're only going to hire three of them to manage this automated equipment, but you eliminated 12, but now you're paying them the price of 12. There's no ROI on that. Right? And then to find those three unicorns that don't exist, it's like, now you've put yourself in a situation and this equipment's going to be down all the time, and you've added more complexity to a simple line that you could have just kept moving, which is detrimental.

It happens a lot. I was asked one time, "Can you show me a plant that doesn't use automation that's highly successful?" And my answer there really was, "No, but I can show you 100 plants that failed miserably because of automation." Now, automation is a huge genre, using some AI and data to better yourselves versus using automated equipment, I'm more talking about automated equipment. I've seen hundreds of plants fail miserably because the cool sexy thing was to automate, not realizing on the backend how detrimental it is to the company.

PS: You mentioned the unicorns that you're in search of then to hire on your team. Even if you can't find those unicorns, though, the unicorns that exist and work for the OEMs in their service departments, there's only so many of those too. So, if you're going to rely on that kind of outside help, you may be waiting in line as those techs go from plant to plant, from unit to unit. And I'm thinking of something real simple on a consumer level, it's the McDonald's milkshake machines.

JA: Yeah, right.

PS: That just happened a week ago to me. I took my kids and promised them milkshakes after they got their homework done and we couldn't go to McDonald's that day because their maintenance techs, there weren't enough to get to that store to fix that milkshake machine.

JA: Well, find one that works, right?

PS: Yeah, right. The asset is so complex that there's not enough mechanics to keep up with the failures.

JA: Yeah. Well, it's actually not complex. The problem is they don't clean their machines. So, if they kept them clean, they wouldn't have these issues, but no one takes the time to break them down and clean them properly. But a lot of that is because they lack training, the same problem as industry.

GW: But that's no different, right? Versus I take a metal cup, and I put it underneath the shaft of the mixer and push a button. So, that wasn't good enough. We couldn't have that. So we created an automated machine that kept everything cool, then all I had to do was pull a handle. But now, the machine keeps breaking. So, now, is it the machine's fault? I don't know in this particular case, but in most scenarios, no. In most scenarios, as Joe indicates, we're not operating it well, we're not maintaining it well, and so it is what it is.

JA: Because the training budget was the first thing to get nixed because they wanted to save money, then it's the reliability program. And now, you're in this vicious cycle, back again into reactivity.

GW: What's interesting is the topic is being proactive. Being proactive is understanding the investment cost versus the benefit and financial gain that comes in. It is not the equipment that creates the financial benefit that comes in. It is the design of the equipment coupled with consistent-within-specification raw materials, coupled with well-trained operators who operate and do their part of maintaining the equipment; along with a strategy to keep the equipment operating well, whether that strategy is to maintain it at some frequency, or keep a specific spare part on the shelf – the maintenance piece of it. All of those things are the investment to receive the goods. It is not just the acquisition of equipment. And that's what we have to get conveyed to those that acquire machines.

PS: And those are the conversations which people who do receive those machines or order them, they should be having. That's what I'm hearing from you guys, that these conversations don't happen at every facility at all times.

JA: It's not that the automated equipment doesn't work. It works and all the promises that they make most of the time is kept when it comes to the equipment, but it's not the equipment that's the problem. You have a culture, you have people, a lot of unskilled people because you've chosen not to invest in people and build an organization that's strong and robust and that can handle these types of changes. You go the cheap route most of the time and just hire somebody that can push a button and somebody that installed the car stereo once and he's now an electrician.

This is what you're running your groups with and a lot of that, again, it all comes back to leadership, and your understanding of how to build a robust business versus taking the cheap route, which most people are taught in business school, from Harvard business professionals that have never ran a business a day in their life. And yet us that have, sitting here trying to bring awareness to the situations, we get laughed at and scoffed at, but then we sit back, and five years from now, that business doesn't exist and all we can say is, "I told you so." I've seen it for almost 30 years. History repeats itself, and so it's not a good situation to be in.

GW: The understanding of efficiency and cutting costs, there's just such a massive gap between leadership saying “reduce cost.” No one starts a business to be the best at reducing cost. That's not the goal. The business model wasn't “buy a bunch of equipment and keep trying to cut costs.” So, why is that your intention? Right?

You go to these little towns and you see some of them have these really cute downtowns and shops and people go there, and then you see these other ones that are run down. The difference is they both had a planning commission, they both had a “this is what we want.” The difference was who was disciplined enough to keep to it, who allowed zoning to change the intention of something and suddenly there's buildings you don't want in the downtown existing there. It's a discipline game. It's no different in your business. It's a discipline game. You understand that you have to put in the work to get the value out of your asset. That takes an investment. And your intention of a business is to get the value out of the equipment. It's not to have the equipment exist. To get the value, it takes an investment, and that's the hard part.

I think from a proactive perspective, as we go down the path over the next several episodes, for me, my intent or what I think is the intent is for us to provide people with an understanding of how they impact and create the value from their assets.

PS: Well I think you and Joe have mapped out some really good territory in these first two episodes, first, with the understanding reactivity, talking about knowing the kinds of work you're doing, the kinds of work that matter the most. And now, George, as you just said with this one where you're mapping out what is the value of the work and how can we get more value out of more proactive work in the assets matter the most. Well, the next episode, everyone, is going to be Circle Of Fire, and I can't wait to hear what's going to come up in episode three. Thanks for staying with us in these first two, and thanks to Joe and George for being with us for this discussion on proactivity.

About the Author

Assets Anonymous | Assets Anonymous

Assets Anonymous is a 12-step podcast series designed to help you get grounded in reliability basics and create a culture of continuous improvement with your team. This series will feature interviews with George Williams and Joe Anderson of ReliabilityX, which aims to bridge the gap between operations and maintenance through holistic reliability focused on plant performance.

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