How To Help The Operations Department Step Up And Take Responsibility

How to help the operations department step up and take responsibility

Feb. 2, 2023
In this episode of Assets Anonymous, George Williams and Joe Anderson explain the role of operations and how maintenance can work with them to see measurable results.

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. In this episode, George and Joe explore how to partner with operations to improve plant efficiency and increase everyone's peace of mind. 

PS: The past two years with the pandemic has shifted a lot of efforts towards what can people do (in terms of maintenance and reliability) with the staff they've got, especially all the retirements are complicating bringing new people on board. Today's podcast focuses specifically on what the operators can do. You know, Joe, let me ask the first question to you. You wrote us a story, it's a cover story from our January 2022 issue, on operator based care. Tell us a little bit about what you're seeing operators step up and do, either what they were doing before the pandemic or, or the special tasks you're seeing them take on, especially since this hit.

JA: To be honest there, you're not really taking on anything. We're coming in and helping them take on things, but I guess more of a question of theory as to what they should be doing, it's kind of what we're going to get into today. I wish more organizations were doing this, but they're just not. If anything, they're just struggling to run and keep their volumes up based on demand. So a lot of these companies are seeing huge demand swings, and don't have staff to fulfill the needs. And on top of that, they're not running even close to rate, so it drives overtime and other things. So, I wish it was better.

GW: It's a chicken and egg effect, isn't it, Joe? We have too much demand and we're not running at rate, so we can't pause to take care of the equipment from an operations perspective. We can't clean it. We can't inspect it. We can't inspect gaps and tolerances of what should be happening, or suction cups. We don't have time to do any of that stuff because we have to run at the crappy rate we have because we don't inspect that stuff. And so there's this vicious circle of “we can't pause because we're too busy, we're too busy because we don't pause and run faster” and so the cycle just continues.

JA: Yep, That's exactly it.

PS: And yet, I heard a great quote from Klaus Blache at the 2022 Marcon event, which was virtual. He mentioned that when he was judging the Emerson Reliability Program of the Year Award, he said that almost without fail, the first five slides of all the winner's presentations would be some variation of, “well, maintenance and operations figured it out.” Somehow they broke through that vicious cycle and either one person took one step or the other side persuaded the one side to do it. Do you see a pattern towards who sort of breaks the habit first and reaches out?

JA: In my experience, it was through the maintenance department. But that's kind of what I did, is I realized that no matter how good my maintenance department was, we still weren't seeing throughput improvements. And that's when I really realized that operations is key to this whole thing, and making sure that we work together to drive out all the major losses in the facility.

The problem is, in most organizations, they don't have their losses identified. They just put it in the common two buckets of planned or unplanned, and then if it's unplanned, the majority of that falls in the lap of maintenance (which isn't true if you break down what your losses actually are). I think that's where the biggest problem lies, is that they don't define them because if you don't define them, you don't have anything to focus on. Unplanned is this huge thing, right? And so it's hard to understand what needs to be focused on to actually get real results. And so in my experience, we did it through maintenance.

GW: The easy answer to this is, when operations is struggling, whose phone rings? They call maintenance. Maintenance comes over and in a vast majority of times there's no broken component, which means they do the operator's job of getting the line set properly. That means they have the expertise to set the standards, they have to work with operations to do that.

But maintenance, you know, it's time to step up, be a leader, and go coach the operations team and put standards in place because if operations knew how to do it, your phone wouldn't ring simply for setups. Your phone would only ring when components break. But that's a minute fraction of what maintenance is doing when they respond to the line.

And because of that, they have the expertise to get it up and running properly. They can be coaching and training the operators, or developing the training to how to solve these problems at the line instead of calling maintenance. And if you get the setup right the first time, hopefully you don't even have to solve the problem, because the setup's right the first time. But maintenance has the expertise to do it because they get the in-depth training. The issue is they then go back into their silo and they wait for stuff to break, and they continue to respond to the same simple adjustment settings.

Maintenance has to take a stand that they're going to help part of operations. They have to understand that their job is not maintenance, their job is good, high quality product out the door at the lowest cost, just like everybody else in the organization. And then on the operations side, they've got to take a stand as well, that operating like that is no longer acceptable. And that may be the hardest hurdle to overcome that they have to draw a line in the sand that taking care of the equipment appropriately produces higher volumes.

JA: The biggest sell for me has been the quality of life. I mean, you sit out there and you watch them run. They're running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They're stressed out. Everyone's bickering at everyone because they all want to do well. We come in every day to work and we want to do well. We don't want to deal with all of this. You know? You just see it and see it and see it.

As a leader in the maintenance department, I would go to them and say, “listen, what if I could make it to where you didn't have to do this stuff all day? What if my goal for you was to sit on your butt at this machine and read a book while it's just generating widgets and, and going and going and going? What if I can take away all that stress? What if I can make life good? What if I can make it predictable that when you walk in in the morning, the machine's already set up and running and going, and all you got to do is sit down and watch it run?”

Versus the chicken with your head cutoff syndrome and all the stress and bickering.

The majority of the people, they want that. It gives them peace and they can go home feeling like they accomplished something, which gives them fulfillment in their job because they're actually hitting numbers.

GW: Joe and I worked with a client at a line two years ago and about three months into the work, leadership came to us and asked why we slowed the line down. They got that feedback by going to the line and talking to the operators, and the operators who had broken English told them the line was slower. But what they meant was they're not running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They thought the line was actually running slower, when in fact it was running 15 units a minute faster. But they were no longer going crazy.

JA: It was a 12 unit per minute average when we got there, by the time they were complaining we were at like 35 units a minute, so it was almost three times what they were doing before. But there were no issue. It just ran and ran and ran, but they thought it was running slower because their life was good.

GW: No jams, no pile ups. No picking the product up off the floor. When that disappears, the quality of life for the operator is significantly higher. And in addition to that, it gives them more time to spot defects, to hear the heartbeat of the machine because before the rhythm never lasted longer than a minute or two, and then there was a crash or something else went haywire. You're too busy reacting to the asset that you're unable to feel its pulse, and when they're feeling the pulse, they can immediately determine when a defect arises because the pulse changes.

PS: They know these machines. They know how they're supposed to feel and look and sound.

JA: And the excitement changes too, cuz then they're going, Man, we did a hundred pallets today. We've never done a hundred pallets in a shift. That type of stuff where, yeah, their life is boring, but at the same time they're producing record numbers. I mean it, it's an awesome thing.

PS: I've heard two practical points there where operations can take more responsibility in this area: better job doing set up on the machine, when it starts, and also better able to spot defects. You know, Joe, the story you wrote for Plant Services focused also a lot on preventative care, a lot on keeping the machine clean. Can you talk a little bit about even those mundane tasks and how they contribute towards quality product and asset reliability?

JA: That's the main point, right? Defect elimination. starts with cleaning. You clean to inspect. It's kind of like having, a dirty engine in your car and you have an oil leak. You have no idea where that oil leak's coming from. You just know that it's leaking. Where if I had a clean engine, I had a piece of my head gasket missing, I would know immediately where that piece of the head gasket was missing due to the oil leak. And it allows you to get a little deeper into where the issue is occurring.

The other piece is that cleaning prevents breakdowns. And this is what people don't understand. I always give an example of a motor. A motor has a fan on the back of it and all of these fins, and that fan actually blows air over the fins to cool the motor so that you keep it at a certain temperature so that you don't start destroying the insulation. Well, they say one 10th of an inch of dust on a motor reduces its life by half, which is next to nothing when it comes to dirt, and yet all we have to do is take our little sham-wow and wipe it off every now and then, and we can extend the life of the motor.

Picture in some of these facilities how filthy some of this equipment is, and you want to know why your motors are going out every three months or every six months, why your bearings are contaminated and destroyed all the time, right? All that starts with cleanliness, and that prevents the further events from occurring. It prevents a lot of the little minor stops that happen. A lot of the minor stops happen due to adjustments, which is right, they need to center line and set the machines up correctly. But some of them are caused by being dirty.

You have a little chute, and this little chute drives down a pack of whatever it is you're making. But that chute gets dirty and now the pack starts sticking, and now you start lumping two or three packs on top of each other and it doesn't go through the line that way. Or your robots on the packaging end can't pick them up and place them correctly or whatever, and that ends up shutting the line down because of dirt.

The principles and practices are very simple. This isn't super complex. It's very easy. The complexity comes in, in that people thinking that there's no way it could be this easy, so we overthink things, we over-engineer things and we over-complicate things through a series of red tape and all this other things, and get away from the simple basics that need to take place.

GW: It's also a discipline and time thing. You've got to be provided the time to execute it appropriately, realizing that your run time will be shorter, but your per minute output will be greater. The other thing is stop using compressed air to clean your equipment. You are not doing it any justice. It is probably the, the one habit I wish I could break globally, using the closest airline to blow out your equipment and push corrugate dust everywhere. You're not helping, you're clogging all kinds of things – vacuum breakers, you know, vacuum generators – you're just doing it a complete disservice by using compressed air.

JA: You’re actually adding defects to your system by doing that.

PS: I was told that dust moves to a different dimension.

GW: That it doesn't land anywhere?

PS: No, it just sort of goes away, it's not your problem anymore. If you can't see it doesn't exist.

JA: The solution is a Shop-Vac. You get a Shop-Vac out there and you have them vacuum things, or if you have a vacuum system in your plant, you use that.

GW: Or those backpacks, they're perfect. But not compressed air. They drop these lines and I see all kinds of homemade metal wands, tube wands and all kinds of stuff. You know, “I’ve got to get into crevices and blow it out everywhere else” and cause even more problems, like lines we've tapped out, and just piles and piles of corrugate dust.

PS: And hopefully that dust goes right in the bearing, so the oil can trap it and keep it from going anywhere else.

JA: Well, that's the thing, right? That's why you have the combination of clean, inspect and lube, because you want people to have that knowledge of at least basic lubrication fundamentals And understanding that you realize the dust you can see is too big to do damage to a lot of things. It's 1- to 5-micron particles getting into your bearing, you can't even see it, and how many millions of those are you pushing around in the air that you can't even see that are getting into your bearings and contaminating them.

That's why operations should own a piece of lubrication, or at least have an understanding of lubrication fundamentals so they understand what some of their behaviors lead to and what the consequences to those actions are. If you want your life to get good, don't contaminate everything in the plant, you know?

Listen to the entire interview

PS: Is this the kind of thing where you'd refer operations teams to a webinar somewhere for an hour, they can get an appreciation? Or is that the kind of thing where you've seen teams engage in full short courses?

JA: I sent them to four day classes and would try to get them their MLT-I certification. At least have some champions, right, like your main operators. I would at least have them sit through. What I would do is, every quarter I would hold an onsite training course and I would put as many operators that I can in it.

GW: They are the most critical piece in the manufacturing process, and the one we invest the least in. Think that in a little. We buy a brand new piece of equipment, we give them like four hours of training on a complex piece of equipment with a PLC and thousands of settings. And we go, this is recipe one, two, and three and that's it, have a nice day, just push the button and run. And that's the level of training they get!

They don't understand the product flow, they don't understand the automation internal to a piece of equipment, and what the exact process steps that are happening are in order to make the end product. They get no full understanding of that in many cases. They just get, “push this button, hit that, that's the stop. Here's the e-stop. Have a nice day.” And not only is that not enough to operate the equipment, it sure as heck isn't enough to understand that lube doesn't come last so you can push the dirt back out of the seal.

JA: Picture buying a Lamborghini and you're 15 years old and never been taught to drive. You have this $250,000 asset, they go, “hit this button to unlock the doors and push this button to start it” and then walk away, right? We hand these people $250,000 assets and say, push the button, and that's it. That's crazy. And then you're not even taught basic how to take care of your own car. Just the basics: How to fill windshield wiper fluid. How to check your oil. How to check your tire pressure. You know, there's all these operator tasks that have to be done in order to care for your vehicle. And now, because we've created a generation of button pushers, when you say that you need to do some level of maintenance, they're like, that's not my job. What do you mean here? Just because it has the word “maintenance” in it doesn't mean it's Maintenance’s responsibility.

Just like quality or safety or reliability or any of these other terms that we use. It's everyone's responsibility. It just kills me. One of the places George and I worked, they spent $120 million to build a line. Most plants are built for $40 million or less, you know? They built just one line for $120 million. And they just hand these assets over and go push the button and have a nice day. It's just crazy to me.

GW: To me, the other side of that coin is just as dangerous. The other side of that coin is, no one trusts the operator to do anything or believes that they are incapable of learning, and so they require the operator to call maintenance for any issue, and that is just as bad. That creates massive amounts of downtime in plants all over this country because either there's a language barrier and somehow we believe the language you speak equates to intelligence, which clearly that's not the case, or they for whatever reason don't want to invest in training those folks. Or the third option is just a hoarding mentality: it's maintenance, it requires some level of skill, so you can't do it because it's my job. All that equates to additional unnecessary downtime where we're not operating.

PS: You're bringing up a great point, as, as we move towards the close, which is, what are some of the mindsets on the maintenance side which get in the way of helping operations. I remember a story, and this is six, seven years old now, but there was a chemical plant operator who was sort of one of the heroes of the plant. He was the most productive, he had the most output, but he also had a lot of problems on the machine. And so maintenance would be called on every quarter or so to root out a plug in one of the pipes where the chemicals had not blended properly and so, and it would cause a plug in the whole system.

Maintenance had to go out there and remove and replace the pipe. It turned out this operator was starting the machine too quickly and not doing the steps in the way the machine was designed, and so what was happening was the heating process for some of the chemicals wasn't heating a chemical thoroughly enough, during a startup, and eventually it would just get clogged with the other chemicals along the way. So it's a long way to go to say, the maintenance team, once they identified the problem and could actually talk to this person about it (since he was considered a rockstar operator) to help the maintenance team themselves avoid all that rework once per quarter, like rebuilding that part of the machine, rebuilding that part of the system. That's what else is in it for maintenance too, is not just reduce unplanned downtime, but get these chronic problems off of your caseload, right?

GW: Yeah, especially repeat issues. I can't tell you how many plants have quality holds for simple things, like we didn't change the date on the printer, and so all their cases have the wrong date for something that expires, and so quality puts it on hold. Or a lot number wasn't updated. Those are a hundred percent avoidable issues with a checklist and taking your time. And then we go to other plants and they've got literally a clock, a timer on the wall for changeover. Think of the pressure the operator feels in trying to beat the clock versus making sure the print is right.

JA: That's what I was going to say is, the pressure to run all the time leads people to taking shortcuts and even the ones that know better, because they have to produce, have to produce. It ends up causing so many other issues that in the long term you're not producing anymore than you thought you were. You're causing so many other stops.

GW: If we had to boil this down, Joe, what can operations do?

JA: One is, I think it starts in maintenance. They've got to reach a hand out. I think you said it well in that they have the skills to help them with the center linings and the setups and those types of things.

Two, if I was an operations manager, my goal would be to do about 15 minutes per shift of your CILs. You want to start with an initial clean first, which requires some major downtime to really get the thing clean, identify all the defects, restore those defects. Then I typically prefer them to do their CIL at the end of the shift with one goal in mind: set up the next shift for success. The next shift should walk in, the machine's running, and they don't have to do anything. Then at the end of their shift, they do the same thing. They shut it down, they clean everything up, they make sure everything is good, everything's adjusted correctly, and they set the next shift up for success. But I think that starts with maintenance getting center lines corrected, and helping operators learn those tasks that can help out maintenance, like cleaning the machine, inspecting for defects. Identifying all the little trouble areas that have become a part of the picture. All the little one and two minute jams, corrugate jams, bag jams, all this other stuff that kills them.

It's the chronic issues that are killing plants, but we focus on sporadic events thinking that that's where the money's at. Because we had a one hour breakdown in maintenance, we've got to do a root cause. We've got to get a whole team together to sit in the office and talk about it, which never actually results in anything and they never go to the problem anyway. They focus on that one thing and it happens once a week, and yet you have 6 trillion minor stops at one minute a piece, and it's eating away at 50, 60% of your capacity and nothing's ever done about it. Those are the issues. And the way to overcome those is cleaning, inspection, and lubrication.

PS: Let me ask one final question and I hopefully it's a quicker one. We've positioned this episode as number 11 of 12 and clearly you guys are talking about things that are not rocket surgery, so to speak, this is not advanced work. This is work that can be done really any point in the process. Would you say that people would require sort of the knowledge of the previous 10 episodes to get this done? Or is this in position number 11 of 12 because it is something which should come sort of at the end of this longer process of getting away from reactivity? Is this something people can start on right away if they want to? They don't have to wait to master things like criticality analyses, and that sort of thing.

GW: Absolutely immediate. The thing we do when we come into a plant after the initial assessment, when we are engaged to say, turn a line around or turn a plant around, the very first step we take is clean the equipment.

PS: That's something I was curious about. I mean, it didn't feel like people had to wait, but since we are episode 11 of 12, I wanted to ask the question out loud.

JA: We started with the premise of reactive maintenance, and how to basically get out of that reactive mindset.

GW: And not everybody's a manufacturing plant, right? There's a lot of value to folks that are in the service side of things or in industrial energy supply side of things, where there's not necessarily a widget.

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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