How to avoid an emergency maintenance culture

How to avoid an emergency maintenance culture

May 2, 2024
Joe Kuhn outlines a step-by-step guide to move from a reactive to planned maintenance culture.

Last week I received an email from a maintenance manager; let us call him Mike. He was bursting with enthusiasm about a change made at his plant. A year ago, Mike was seeking help for his plant that was essentially 100% reactive maintenance. The plant had 21 maintenance technicians. They had great PMs and even a condition monitoring team; however, every day was a new crisis requiring all resources to get involved to “survive the day.”

Mike began with observation to clearly understand current state. His finding: Every work crew would be assigned a planned task(s) and then regularly get pulled off the job to complete an emergency job. Most often the planned work was not completed; best case scenario: the job was rushed and lacked precision. One of Mike’s key actions was to separate work crews into planned and unplanned work. He did the same for technical support.

For confidentiality, I cannot share actual results; but typical improvements I see 12 months from such an intervention are: 

  1. 50% reduction in unplanned downtime
  2. production increase of 10% (limited by sales)
  3. quality excursions down 20%
  4. costs reduced by 15%
  5. overtime reduced by 30%
  6. dramatically increased employee job satisfaction and enthusiasm. 

While Mike led several changes during the year, he credited the separation of work crews to be the “breakthrough” they needed; the change moved the culture from hopeless to hopeful. The upfront cost of the change? Zero dollars. No personnel added; and they actually lost two to attrition and have no plans to replace.

Mike’s plant results are more common than you might think. We all know best practices, but many are drowning in the daily chaos of a reactive plant. Know this: you are not alone. Have you ever heard, “Once we get caught up on all this unplanned work, we can make progress on PM compliance and make permanent repairs to equipment.?”

The major difference between your plant and “reliability excellence” is embracing this simple truth: the only way to reduce unplanned downtime is to execute more planned work. You will never emerge from the death vortex of emergency work without doing more proactive work.

Top management, managers, supervisors, and technicians are drawn to the drama of the daily emergency like moths to a flame. The hero emerges on the white horse to save the day. The following day these heroes are publicly recognized for the hard work, creativity, and unwillingness to accept failure. Sound like your culture? Are these the real maintenance heroes?

Do you think your plant is better than Mike’s? Perhaps your KPIs have you at 60% planned work or even 80%. Are you just a couple of tweaks away from best in class? There’s an excellent chance your KPIs are greatly inflated (and by “excellent chance” I mean 99% chance) by the reward system and reality of your culture.

Example 1: Your four condition monitoring technicians are assigned 40 hours a week to do diagnostic routes, analyze data, and problem solve. Observation reveals that these technicians are routinely pulled into unplanned work. In fact, they average just eight hours per week doing their planned job! Nevertheless, all 40 hours are credited to planned work.

Example 2: Your planner assigns two hours of planned work to a technician for this Wednesday. Since she knows the technician will be pulled off the job several times to perform unplanned work, she inflates the time required to eight hours. All eight hours are recorded as planned work. 
Knowing the reality of your plant from observation, as well as the truth detailed above regarding the only remedy to unplanned work being planned work, is 80% of the mindset change needed at your plant.

Too simplistic you think? Let us walk through a solution with this new foundation.

  1. Get your leadership team to brainstorm the critical reliability challenges you face historically year over year. For example: every year lubrication failures are the number 1 or number 2 downtime root cause; precision maintenance rebuilding pumps is always a top 5 root cause; electric motor maintenance is always a top 5 failure. These challenges will become the focus of planned work crews. Narrow the list to four or less items. Example of focus: you may only have 10% total PM compliance, but you are 95% lube PM compliance. 
  2. Separate your craft technicians into planned and unplanned work crews. You can begin with just one person assigned to planned work. I recommend you take more risk and strive for 20% of your resources. 
  3. Separate your technical support staff (example: engineers) into planned and unplanned support.
  4. Focus these planned resources on the priorities established in number 1.
  5. Require plant manager approval by phone to take resources off planned work – 24/7. Setting priorities, overtime, and contractor support are to be exhausted first. Amazingly, my experience is that the plant manager will receive zero requests.
  6. In your morning meetings, reward and recognize the work of planned crews. Example: we completed 10 PMs yesterday or we are running at 95% lubrication PM compliance. To a far lesser degree, mention the unplanned crew’s accomplishments. This will be hard. Winning by planned work is the culture you are reinforcing.
  7. Monitor unplanned downtime events and duration. Celebrate this progress in your morning and monthly meetings. Leadership should connect the dots of planned work and new plant results.
  8. Monthly, evaluate your planned work staffing; can you add one person to planned work? How about two? Secondly, discuss adding more areas of focus for planned work due to new resources.

These actions cost no money and require no more resources. If you are short staffed at present, do not wait. What is missing at plants is understanding of current state through observation, recognition of the truth that the only solution is planned work, and bold leadership. What is stopping you from taking this step on Monday?

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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