Rethinking maintenance’s plant-floor role: Think like a pit crew, not like a fire department

Oct. 21, 2019
A shift in mindset can drive maintenance efficiency and effectiveness.

It’s a sad state of affairs that is blunting the vast potential for innovation and growth in American manufacturing. On the plant floors of many manufacturers there exists a great divide between maintenance and operations.

And it has to be addressed. As Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Fortunately, there is a simple solution – a change in priorities and mindset that can lift any manufacturing company to new heights. But to understand the solution, we must first understand the problem.

Getting everyone on the same team

Today, on many of the plant floors that I visit on a regular basis, operations is correctly focused on production performance. Their goal is to produce products as quickly and efficiently as possible. By comparison, maintenance is focused on, and judged on, equipment downtime.

However, dividing the goals between operations and maintenance actually does a disservice to both. It puts them at odds with each other. Operations wants to keep the plant floor running. They want repairs done quickly; they have no patience for preventive maintenance.

The maintenance team lives in a world of frustration because they know that putting out fires is much, much harder than preventing the fires from ever happening. Yet operations won’t give them the downtime they need to prevent machines and technology from being pushed to failure. To operations, it doesn’t make sense to turn a perfectly running machine off to perform maintenance on it so it won’t fail.

Maintenance team members, however, are being judged by executives on maintaining an 80/20 model for planned downtime and unplanned downtime (repairs). There is no incentive to look for ways to bring down the time allotted to planned maintenance.

In this equation, operations looks at maintenance as firemen who simply need to extinguish problems while maintenance team members want to be physicians who prevent patients from ever getting sick. 

Both are in the wrong, but both are entrenched. The problem comes from equating uptime and downtime in terms of manufacturing profitability. In reality, the goal is to have a profitable finished product. Again, nothing is more important than having an end product that has been produced so efficiently that it is profitable for the company. 

And that means operations and maintenance must work together. Let’s consider a new analogy: Production is a race. All that matters is winning that race. The operations department is the racecar; operators are the drivers; and the maintenance team is the pit crew. If we look at the plant floor in this way, it is clear that the real job is to make sure the car wins the race. 

Now we begin to see why the current plant-floor model fails. When maintenance wants to do preventive work on the equipment, operations says: “No way, we’re running a race out here.” Operations knows that if maintenance takes too long, they risk losing the race anyway. Yet maintenance has to do preventive work.

Here is a suggestion: Maintenance needs to act like a pit crew. That simple mindset can change the game on the plant floor. Suddenly, there is no planned vs. unplanned downtime; there’s just downtime.

The goal should be to minimize the downtime – to get in and out of planned maintenance as soon as possible. 

How to prepare to win

This is about maintenance becoming centered on operations. Instead of pushing for a two-hour stoppage to do preventive maintenance, consider doing work when operations is on lunch, between shifts, or taking a break.

I was fortunate to be trained by Toyota. The Toyota team taught us that preventive maintenance is critical – the most important work that maintenance can engage in for operations. That’s intuitive and obvious. Preventive maintenance is critical. In fact, it’s the most important thing maintenance can do for the organization. 

However, they also taught us that the goal is not to do more preventive maintenance. The goal is to do only what’s needed, when it’s needed, and to do so as efficiently as possible.

Here’s how maintenance can become more efficient: First, determine what maintenance can be done without shutting production down. Separate external and internal tasks to understand what has to be done while the machine is down versus what can be done while the machine is running. If it can be done during uptime, do it.

About the Author: Bob Argyle

Bob Argyle is chief customer officer at Leading2Lean, a Wellington, NV-based provider of cloud solutions for manufacturers and other industrial organizations seeking to implement lean culture.

If you are doing preventive work during a 30-minute break, be prepared. Plan every movement; have all needed parts on hand; work on procedures and practice them in advance. If work tasks can be combined or performed simultaneously, do this. You will be surprised what can be accomplished in 15 or 30 minutes.

Take an honest look at what the real failure points are and tap into your engineering knowledge to understand how often you really need to perform certain maintenance activities. Ask yourself, where is the edge of the cliff? Going through this process will allow you to identify the right things to do at the absolute right frequency.

Preassemble replacement parts and have them ready to go. Look to see if you can modify equipment to make maintenance more accessible or easier to perform. 

Make sure your operations and maintenance software is production-focused and offers transparency to every worksite so that problems can be anticipated and acted upon before situations get critical. This isn’t just about having more sensors; it’s about having software that allows data to be reviewed in real time across the entire plant floor, not just a single piece of machinery. Remember, the best companies, the most successful ones, look at the finished product as the goal.

Remember what a pit stop looks like in an open-wheel race. Create a sense of urgency around preventive maintenance and calm determination around repair work. This is the opposite of the current model. Changing the model will bring more satisfaction to the maintenance team, sharpen maintenance performance, and close the divide with operations.

There is great opportunity for companies that start to rethink this relationship between operations and maintenance. Right now, few companies are focused on driving these types of improvements.

Time and time again in my career I’ve seen great innovation and efficiency at companies that understand that winning the race means focusing on efficiency.
A few examples: One company had a seal on a machine that needed to be changed on a weekly basis, which usually took more than 30 minutes each time.

By making some minor changes to the equipment, we were able to bring that procedure down to less than five minutes. We also found a better seal that allowed us to need to change it only once per month.

Another company had a technician who designed an oil cart to drain and refill vacuum pumps automatically. This brought the time to change the oil in the pumps down to a fraction of the original time.

In any business endeavor, winning is always the goal. In manufacturing, rethinking maintenance’s plant-floor role and encouraging innovation in maintenance procedures is the best way to win.

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