Ego is the enemy of plant efficiency and optimization

Ego is the enemy of plant efficiency and optimization

Feb. 28, 2024
Joe Kuhn says don't let busy work blind you to the truth on the ground at your plant.

A common discussion topic for reliability and maintenance consultants in the hallways at a conference is, “Why are best practices not in place in every plant? Best practices have been known for decades. We are teaching the same practices and results over and over again.”

My current hypothesis is one word: “Ego.” 

Epictetus the well-known Greek stoic philosopher proclaimed, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” The title of this article is a quote credited to Ryan Holiday, an author, speaker, and modern-day stoic. This absence of best practices drives up costs, restricts output, reduces quality and increases safety and environmental risks. The business case could not be clearer. 

Most plant leaders will claim to have tried “the reliability thing;” it failed. The story is nearly always the same: leadership orders the deployment of best practices without addressing culture. They fail to recognize that much of this culture is set by the decision making of the leadership. These decisions are based on incomplete and incorrect data, and not inspired by the wisdom of others who have solved similar problems in the past. 

Consequently, nearly all change efforts fail for these two reasons: (1) reluctance to seek outside help, and (2) failure to know reality on the factory floor. It is no wonder best practices remain a panacea. Leaders are forced to conclude, “We must be different.” I have seen this tendency in 100% of the plants (42 in eight countries) that I have worked in or with in my 37-year career. I can say with conviction, you are not different.

For most of my own career I wanted to project control and confidence; I needed no help. “I got this,” was my mantra. Outside experts had nothing to offer my team because we knew our plant best and our challenges were unique. Any outside expert forced on me was placated for a time and shown the door. We got back to business after the annoying distraction. My team and I were the smartest in the room; we knew the challenges and the levers to improve. 

In fact, this path taken did result in several points of recognition: new reliability records, improved cost performance, and production records. I believed these “press clippings” and loved telling the stories of our team’s successes. Sound familiar? 

With the benefit of hindsight and life wisdom, I can clearly see my ego was hindering growth and the speed of change. I was the obstacle. The biggest regret of my career is the fact that I rarely had a mentor. I restricted my growth, ideas, and lessons learned to my direct experience. While I read a lot, I chose not to learn from others to accelerate our team results as well as my career. 

Ego. We all have biases, blind spots, and weaknesses. Acting like I did not was a plow I chose to pull during my journey. Armed with false confidence and under the guise of being more productive I would spend my days in the office, in conference rooms and reading and sending emails, getting things done.

Unfortunately, I am not special. Now older and wiser, I have discovered less than 50% of the current state performance of a plant can be surmised with key performance indicators (KPIs), opinion, and experience. The remaining 50% is only known through intense observation on the shop floor via a process called “Chalk Circle Observation,” a term pioneered by Toichi Ohno of Toyota. The new understanding from observation unleashes simple and free action items you can complete in just days for rapid and sustainable results. Ego blocks us from learning from observation and, worse, encourages us to take action armed with 50% of the data. What can go wrong?

What actions can you take on Monday to accelerate your journey to a culture of reliability by conquering the ego:

  1. Get a mentor for yourself and your team members. This can be inside or outside of your organization. Seek someone that can not only sponsor your career, but also challenge you to see your gaps, blind spots, and biases. Note: you can have more than one mentor.
  2. Get an internal or external expert on lean and have them train your leadership team on how to see waste in your plant through observation. Under the guidance of this coach, perform observations to demonstrate competence. Lastly, have the expert highlight and discuss how every reliability and maintenance best practice targets a plant waste. 
  3. Schedule eight straight hours on the shop floor next week to observe current state on a critical issue at your plant. This can be a bottleneck production center, a poor reliability asset, or targeting understanding of technician efficiency or lack of precision. I highly recommend adding observation time to your standard work each month. Expect to be shocked with new insights. Further, expect your career to accelerate given this new skill.
  4. Keep a monthly journal of what you have learned from others. This can be from books, magazines, podcasts, YouTube, your mentor, peers, or an expert. Read the full list each month to reinforce your value of continuous learning from others. 
  5. In that same monthly journal, keep track of your professional failures. Remember: Failure equals learning. Failure also keeps you humble and in search of solutions. Often that solution has been discovered by others in decades past. 

Culture changes one experience at a time; create at least one every week. Go forth and do great things – you've got this. 

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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