Prioritize Root Cause Problem Solving To Improve Performance At Your Facility 6541ac3c46247

Prioritize root cause problem solving to improve performance at your facility

Nov. 2, 2023
Joe Kuhn says improve plant reliability by adding problem solving and focusing on condition monitoring.

In 2003, I was introduced to the work of Ron Moore; a legend in reliability circles. If you do not know Ron, you should. His book, Making Common Sense Common Practice, jumpstarted a generation and became my field manual for creating a reliability culture and unlocking staggering results. I have read this book at least a dozen times over the years to find direction, inspiration, and solutions.

Old company, new attitude

As the engineering and maintenance manager of a 50-year-old large aluminum complex in Indiana, maintenance cost and equipment reliability were paramount to success. Our culture was overwhelmingly reactive with our limited planned maintenance being almost entirely time-based. Luckily, I had a reliability expert on the staff, Mark, who provided excellent training, counsel, and inspiration. I also had great leaders hidden in the system that I was able to promote to formal leadership roles (Levi, Bill, Joseph, and Larry). Knowledge of best practices was not a problem; yet, creating real change on the factory floor proved elusive.

We did have several “islands of excellence” we were proud to highlight on visits by corporate leaders: planning meetings, a kitting area, and a reliability lead team with a clear vision. We tracked all the key performance indicators (KPIs) and even had a two-person condition monitoring crew (vibration and Infrared). We had an external best practice audit in which we scored very high.

Nevertheless, our cost, downtime, and organizational frustration all continued to worsen. We reflected, “Is this reality in an old plant? Is this what best practices look like with assets that have been abused for 50 years?” The culture was not improving and there was no way to put a positive spin on employee attitudes. Tensions were high and fingers of blame were pointing.

Focus on root cause problem solving

At this point in time, I had read Ron’s book just once. I loved it and was following the concepts; or so I thought. After some reflection, I concluded I must be missing something, so I read the book a second time; then later a third. On this third reading, I took special notice of page 220 (copyright 2002, revised and updated version). The page detailed a case study of a chemical company with several locations. The leadership studied each location’s reliability performance and best practice deployment. They quickly were able to separate the plants into four categories:

  • Category 1: Plants with strong planning and scheduling systems and culture. Planned work, preventative maintenance and scheduling were prized and rewarded values.
  • Category 2: Plants that employed the latest predictive technologies (i.e.: vibration, infrared, lubrication, ultrasonic emissions). In their enthusiasm, they discounted other best practices like planning and scheduling due to limited resources.
  • Category 3: Plants that combined strong planning and scheduling, time-based maintenance, and predictive tools. These locations recognized all have their value and work in unison to create a system.
  • Category 4: Plants that combined all the best practices of category 3 plants but added problem solving systems. They used data, events, expertise, and innovation to improve. They looked for trends to change equipment design, operating conditions, and equipment maintenance plans. They had a culture to be better on Friday than they were on Monday, guided by root cause problem solving.

Using equipment uptime as the KPI, the performance of each category of plant was tabulated and compared. The results were:

  • Category 1: strong planning and scheduling plants: 0.8% improvement
  • Category 2: primary focus on condition monitoring technologies: -2.4% decline
  • Category 3: combining best practices of planning, scheduling, and condition monitoring: 5% improvement
  • Category 4: adding problem solving to best practices of planning, scheduling, and condition monitoring: 15% improvement.

Realign priorities

Nearly all our efforts to date were to become a strong category 1 plant, and then grow to a category 3 plant once we showed results. This case study indicated we could get 20 times the results by adding problem solving and focusing on condition monitoring. This was just what I was looking for; how did I miss this?

With great enthusiasm, I gathered the team to discuss the finding. It is not entirely accurate that we were doing no problem solving at our plant, but it was not a top five focus. Our unwritten priorities were:

  1. restoring flow by excelling at emergency work
  2. cost control, overtime, and headcount reduction
  3. production requests (whatever they may be)
  4. leadership requests (whatever they may be)
  5. planned work completion (example: PM compliance)
  6. condition monitoring
  7. root cause problem solving

The hours dedicated to each of these priorities dramatically decreased the further on the list you progressed. Reading page 220 and this priority listing made our problem and solution obvious.

With this new knowledge, our leadership made strategic changes to greatly increase our priority on root cause and condition monitoring.

  1. We created OEE Teams (overall equipment effectiveness) in each major area. These groups focused on solving historical problems and trends with data.
  2. Engineering was reorganized to create two full-time reliability engineers.
  3. We increased the size of our condition monitoring team immediately from 2 to 4 and later to 6 and finally 8. These were highly skilled and high motivated technicians already thinking about root cause through early detection of defects. Further, these resources were not allowed to be pulled into emergency work without plant manager approval. Observation revealed they were only spending 30% of their time on planned condition monitoring work.
  4. We separated work crews into planned and unplanned work teams. These planned teams were able to focus not only on completing the planned work, but on how to improve equipment maintenance plans and work efficiency.
  5. We created a recognition system for technicians who offered improvement ideas. This ranged from celebration meals to gift cards to handwritten cards to employees’ homes detailing the impact of their ideas and skills. The latter was a massive motivator.

Note: These changes were made without adding headcount and spending dollars.

Within few months our results were quietly beginning to materialize. We went from 500 unplanned work orders a week to 400, then 300 and even down to 200. Everyone knew something was different. We moved from a weekly crisis to biweekly and then monthly. Within a year every department realized giant leaps in performance with the bottleneck asset improving from 37% uptime to 78% (that is an improvement of 111%). Plantwide costs dropped by 42% in year three. Employee engagement catapulted from 37% to 89%, which was the highest in the company. Safety also improved due to marked decrease in unplanned work. (Note: Due to the continuous process of smelting aluminum, no production volume improvement was possible.)

Actions you can take on Monday

  1. Buy Ron Moore’s book. Read and understand page 220. 
  2. Assemble your leadership team and have a candid discussion about the priorities in your plant.
    i.    Are the daily actions of the team aligned with a category 4 plant? Use data from the last month to prove your case. (Note: I do not recommend a progression through category 1, 2, then 3 plants. This will take too much time and sponsorship will be lost.)
    ii.    Do you have a problem-solving system that involves everyone?
    iii.    Excuse 1: Are you waiting to get caught up on unplanned work to progress to a category 4 plant? Take it from me, this will never happen without planned work and problem solving. Start now.
    iv.    Excuse 2: Are you waiting for get fully staffed to begin your transformation to a category 4 plant? Again, this will never happen. Start now.
    v.    Excuse 3: Money – what actions can you take with zero investment? 
  3. Make the necessary changes.
About the Author

Joe Kuhn | CMRP

Joe Kuhn, CMRP, former plant manager, engineer, and global reliability consultant, is now president of Lean Driven Reliability LLC. He is the author of the book “Zero to Hero: How to Jumpstart Your Reliability Journey Given Today’s Business Challenges” and the creator of the Joe Kuhn YouTube Channel, which offers content on creating a reliability culture as well as financial independence to help you retire early. Contact Joe Kuhn at [email protected].

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