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How small changes grow reliability successes

Jan. 12, 2022
In this installment of Reliable Reading, be prepared to embrace a continuous process, with some selling, to achieve results in the field.

In this first book review, I’ll be talking about Zero to Hero: How to Jumpstart Your Reliability Journey Given Today’s Business Challenges by Joe Kuhn. We hope this to be the first of many book reviews. If you have written or have suggestions on good books related to maintenance and reliability, please contact me at [email protected].

The author’s background and experience are important to the process and perspectives that he presents. Joe Kuhn retired in 2019, after 32 years in plant management at the same company. He started as an engineer and was quickly called to supervision, and he says four of his roles at Alcoa, a Fortune 200 aluminum company, were critical to the lessons in his book: plant manager at an aerospace manufacturer (1,000 employees), a power generation plant (150 employees), an aluminum smelting and rolling complex (2,000 employees), and the global director for reliability and maintenance, overseeing 31 locations in eight countries). Kuhn isn’t spouting theory he learned in another book somewhere. His advice and practices are rooted in many great theories, but also through the lens of his years of experience in plants.

The current economic environment and the persistent pandemic have certainly challenged and changed the way businesses make decisions and investments, but Kuhn says, in his book, slow changes over the last few decades have also greatly influenced the decision-making process at most factories. In 1987, when he began his career, “decisions and investments were always made with a long-term view,” he says. Now, plants scrutinize quarter-over-quarter results, while competing for capital with sister plants, and requiring two-year return on investment (ROI) for approvals. The approval process went from weeks to months or years. “We did make better decisions, but we were making very few of them and missing dozens of opportunities,” Kuhn says. He also suggests a similar diverging happened with reliability and maintenance programs. In the 1980s, several leading companies started huge reliability programs with great upfront investment and ROI up to 10 years. Many have seen great success with these programs, but Kuhn argues that for many of the plants out there, those big programs don’t solve the challenges of the plant manager. “Simply put, most reliability professionals are selling something the plant manager just can’t buy,” Kuhn says.

Kuhn’s book takes you on the reliability journey of a fictional company, CoatCo. You’ll have to read his book to see how they identified five problem areas with actions that saved $845,000 dollars per year at an annual investment of $78,000, plus a $140,500 year-one investment. Here, I’ll identify my top ten takeaways from the book. For the full recipe to his secret sauce, you can find the book on Amazon.

1.  Earn credibility with a reliability jumpstart

Major investments and big reliability programs can be successful, no doubt, but there is another way. It’s becoming more and more difficult to justify those big expenditures with long ROIs, but Kuhn says you can also start small. “From success, you earn creditability; from creditability, you earn future investment,” he says. “Once you get the flywheel of a reliability culture moving, best practices become easy to justify as only a portion of the dollars already saved. This solves the challenge of the plant manager – quarter-over-quarter results.”

2.  The reliability journey is a continuous process

Toyota was the first to use the A3 structured procedure for problem solving. It has origins in continuous improvement and lean practices. The name A3 comes from the size of paper originally used when A3s were hand written. The rigid process guides a logical problem-solving sequence with five distinct sections: Business Case, Current State, Target State, Actions, and Measures. In his example, Kuhn said the entire A3 process at CoatCo would take two and a half weeks. This full process should also be repeated every six to 12 months as a continuous process. “Do not install solutions in search of problems, but rather craft solutions to known problems,” Kuhn says.

3.  Search for systemic waste and inefficiencies

The first step in the A3 process is defining the business case. For CoatCo, that was done in a two-hour introductory meeting. Team leaders were asked to bring data and opinions, and they identified five areas where reliability and maintenance performance could improve bottom line business results. “Understanding the Business Case is critical to calibrating your senses to look for systemic waste and inefficiencies,” Kuhn says. After detailing the business case, next is understanding reality on the plant floor, or the current state. Kuhn has a six-part processes for identifying current state, but at the core, each step is in search of waste.

4.  Identification of waste is fundamental to lean manufacturing

Kuhn says he was highly trained in two tools that are critical to seeing the real current state: Seven forms of waste and Rules-in-use. The seven forms of waste are transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-production, over-processing, and defects (TIM WOOD). Kuhn says some also include an 8th waste: skills (TIM WOODS).

In a paper titled, “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System,” Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen attempted to break down the culture that exists in a lean plant, simplifying lean to four rules: the work of one (highly specified tasks), connections (rules for working together and transfers), fixed flow (one right way), and improvement (everyone knows the system).

5.  Nothing can replace real-time observation

The main method for observing these different forms of waste is through Chalk Circle Observations. Defined originally by Toyota, the chalk circle refers to an imaginary circle drawn around the factory floor in which the observer stays for at least four hours. Kuhn believes these observations are the most critical part to the entire process, and it is often skipped or rushed. In general, he says, you’ll want to spend more time than you feel is necessary, and observe all lines and shifts. The tools for observation are simple: paper and a writing utensil. Leave the stop watches at home, Kuhn says, and use your watch to record time. For the CoatCo example, he observed two different lines for 18 hours each day over a total four days.

The first five minutes of an observation period are critical and involve meeting the participants and reassuring them of your purpose. While some might be skeptical about management observing or flustered by watchers, a few reassuring words about the process can go a long way. Tell those you’re observing that you’re here to fix things that frustrate them. “It is always the system in which they are forced to work that holds 99.9% of the waste,” Kuhn says. Also, don’t discount something you observe because someone tells you this never happens.

6.  One size can fit all

Kuhn says this book is written for newcomers and experts, those struggling to start a reliability program, those getting mediocre results from their current system, or those who want to take it to the next level. The concepts and techniques for finding and eliminating waste are scalable at any size or location. Note: with larger locations, you’ll need teams of observers for chalk circle observations.

7.  It’s a 90-day experiment

Through chalk circle observations, Kuhn has determined the current state of CoatCo and identified the five top issues and new actions to solve them, which become the target state. What happens if the team can’t agree on new actions? “Consider selling it as a 90-day experiment. The word ‘experiment’ implies we intend to learn and adapt our actions from the new insights. An experiment will only become permanent if successful. I’ve sold a lot of changes with this qualifier,” Kuhn says.

8.  Operations owns reliability

Kuhn says this may be a controversial view among R&M professionals, but no matter what, operations has a critical role. “Operations makes the decision on how equipment is run, when outages take place, where resources are assigned, and often how much money we spend on equipment. These facts make operations the owner of the equipment and thus the owner of reliability,” Kuhn says.

9.  All that work is for naught without communication and reinforcement

All this work at zeroing in on waste and instituting actions to be more efficient will never succeed without buy-in from the employees and management. Clearly communicate changes to employees upfront with timelines and expectations, and reinforce with regular meetings or written communication. Reinforce the changes when you’ve reached milestones with meals, t-shirts or gift cards, and personal handwritten notes to top performers are cheap and meaningful.

10.  You have to continuously sell reliability

“If you are in reliability and maintenance – and especially if you are driving any change – congratulations, you have been appointed an honorary sales manager,” Kuhn says. He dedicated an entire chapter in the book to selling reliability, and he says reliability is an exceptional leverage point for every factory because of its ability to impact so many different results: output, cost, quality, attrition, safety, and employee morale. “But reliability does not sell itself,” Kuhn says. “There are too many distractions in our lives to just assume the decision-makers and employees know the impact reliability is having in the plant.” Education about reliability business impacts is best when it comes frequently and from many different sources, such as weekly email blasts, monthly newsletters and quarterly live meetings. Find a way to bring reliability into every meeting. “Since reliability touches every facet of the business, this should not be difficult,” Kuhn says.

This story originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Anna Townshend
Anna Townshend has been a writer and journalist for almost 20 years. Previously, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and was International Dredging Review, until she joined Putman Media in June 2020. She is the managing editor of Control Design and Plant Services.
About the Author

Anna Townshend | managing editor

Anna Townshend has been a journalist and editor for almost 20 years. She joined Control Design and Plant Services as managing editor in June 2020. Previously, for more than 10 years, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review. In addition to writing and editing thousands of articles in her career, she has been an active speaker on industry panels and presentations, as well as host for the Tool Belt and Control Intelligence podcasts. Email her at [email protected].

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