Are reliability woes keeping you up at night?

June 10, 2021
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Peter Christian shares his thoughts on the many shades of maintenance in the post-COVID age.

Peter Christian’s resume includes working as executive director at the Crayola Corporation, and he’s also worked as founding partner and president at the business consulting firm, Enterprise Systems Partners, Inc.

His current focus is on why businesses and managers succeed or fail, and he has written two books on this topic, ‘"What About the Vermin Problem?’’ and ‘’Influences and Influencers,’’ both of which are available at and on Plant Services chief editor Thomas Wilk had the chance in May to connect with Pete to discuss his thoughts on success and failure in leadership and maintenance and reliability, as well as what is happening to Lean programs in the post-COVID age.

PS: When we talked before the podcast on our pre-call, you talked a lot about what kept you up at night, especially at Crayola. A lot of our maintenance and reliability people, that's what they live on the job, worrying about what machines might go down, how to design reliability into the machines. Could you talk about some of the things that kept you up at night, especially when you were at Crayola?

PC: Sure, I'd love to. I actually wasn't responsible for the ongoing operation of the machines. I was in the engineering side, which was to look at replacement of the machines or to get capital to repair machines when some heavy-duty maintenance work was required. But I was tightly tied in with the operation folks and with mechanics, so if problems did crop up, then we would talk about it and provide assistance if needed.

Since we were a support function, we didn't get involved in production; when something happened with production, we needed to be there to make sure that production kept running. I always got in early each day and mechanics were there. One day the head mechanic came in, and I could tell it was serious because he was not smiling. He said, ''We have a problem.'' Yes, we did. What happened?

Crayola had automated the molding of crayons probably 15 years before I joined the company, maybe even 20, and that basically put a lot of competition out of business or they decided to go out of business because of that. We were far and above everybody else in producing crayons, but we also had the only equipment in town to do that. The equipment got regular maintenance, but unfortunately they missed a piece, and that was very important and what caused the issue.

What happened was, as the maintenance force was cleaning one of the machines, it literally collapsed. It was the mold’s table top, and the top collapsed. It was now a flat piece of machinery that couldn't make anything anymore. And it was like, "Well, what happened?"

The story was that when the equipment was designed and manufactured, at that time carbon steel was the way to go for heat transfer, so the entire machine was made out of carbon steel. Well,  over a period of time due to water corrosion and minerals running through it, the internals had corroded, and what was basically holding the machine up was rust on the inside. When they flushed the machine and washed the rust away, there went the insides, and that's why it collapsed.

We had a number of those machines and figured that if one went and failed that there are good chances that the others were not too far behind. The first thing was to say, "Stop cleaning the insides of the machines, just leave them alone for now because we can't afford to have that happen.” The second was, “What do we do about it?"

It was quick to get a plan together, and it was costly to do it, it wasn't a cheap thing. We had to get vendors and so forth, and it was basically about a two- to three-year proposition to do that. When I got all the information together and came up with the cost (and it was not just me, but working with other folks), the executive management decided not to give us all the funding at one time but to allow us to do four or five machines at a time. People would constantly come in and say, "Well, if we can only do this, if we can only..." and I'd say, "I know, I know, I know, but we've got limitations. We've got to work around them."

Between trying to get the design done, trying to get the money for it, trying to make them happen as quickly as possible before we had more machine failures – because there was no other place to go, it was our equipment and our equipment only, it all had to be made and fabricated for us, and it took time – I had a lot of sleepless nights praying to God, "Dear God, please let these machines keep functioning until we get them all modified and repaired and going again," which did happen. But, it led for a lot of sleepless nights, to say the least.

A lot of people that I deal with in the consulting world, when I go to visit them, that's kind of an opening statement: What keeps you awake at night? It's a good opening because they will tell you. There are a lot of things that keep a lot of people awake, and that was one big one that happened with me, for sure.

PS: Did the PMs change for those machines over this as part of this process, such as revised rounds to make, and what to measure in terms of maintaining them?

PC: Well, absolutely because one of the things that was missed – we had to develop our own PM program, since there were no instructions and we weren't buying (the machines) from anybody, we had developed them ourselves – so one of the things they missed was to open up the machine and look at the internals and see what was going on. They never did that. It was a closed machine, so while everything looked good on the surface, underneath the cover it wasn't so good. If they had realized that, the engineers that had originally done the design and construction, then they probably could have started to make modifications to it.

But they didn't. It was something that was missed. It certainly was added to the regular maintenance, although with the equipment we started to use stainless steel then, and we used a cladding process where carbon steel was necessary. Whatever came in contact with the water was stainless, and that pretty well alleviated the corrosion problem, but you still had to look internally and make sure that you did a full inspection of the equipment, which wasn't happening at that point. We learned a very painful lesson, a very expensive lesson, and a very scary lesson.

PS: With the realities of working in this field, I'm sure a lot of our listeners are going to have your story resonate with them on knowing the work that has to be done, but knowing the limitations (especially budget that you're provided) to get it done. With management, it's their responsibility in the end to take the financial equations and take the gambles they decide to take as long as this doesn't compromise safety. Did you ever feel that safety was an issue with this kind of thing?

PC: No, it wasn't where anybody was in danger of getting injured because they weren't getting their hands in the way or anything like that. It was purely from a production functioning standpoint and the fact that if all of the molding machines went out of business, then we were out of business because there was no place to go to get the kind of production that we required.

PS: Were your teams or the maintenance teams at Crayola engaged in proactive maintenance, where you would have preventive rounds and PMs in addition to maybe some predictive work, or was the idea of introducing regular PMs something that was new at that point?

PC: They were good with stuff that they understood and had dealt with for a period of time. There were other areas, like, when I was in charge of engineering, we did a lot of vertical integration. We brought a lot of our injection molding inside, and we were adding machines and injection molds, that we hadn't used before. They weren't doing such a good job with that, and we had to put a pretty intensive program in, in order to make that happen, because they would kind of do superficial stuff, particularly with the molds to get them back into operation. And anybody who's familiar with injection molding, you've got to do some fairly extensive work on molds over time. You can't just wipe them down and hope for the best. You've got to take them apart, and you've got to check to make sure that everything is okay.

There were a lot of times where they would start to lose cavitation. We had multi-cavity molds, and all of a sudden, we'd be down 25%, 30% in cavitation. Well, first of all, you're losing that production. Secondly, it's putting a strain on the molds themselves. It was a learning process there as well. We also found out that some of our external molding companies weren't doing the proper maintenance either, so it was a learning process there as well.

We learned, and we pushed it. But by and large, they did a pretty good job because, again, a lot of this stuff was proprietary to us. If we didn't take care of it, there was no place to turn when it failed.

PS: Right, no standard procedure, no OEM with guidance to offer. This was Crayola's proprietary equipment.

PC: Yes. If we didn't take care of it, we would pay a price for it, and that's what companies have to realize, is they've got to take care of those assets – they don't take care of themselves, and they do wear over time, and you will get failure at the worst possible time when you need it the most. If you handle the stuff properly, and take care of the maintenance, you've got a lot better shot at not having a problem when you can least afford it or least expect it.

My biggest problem was dealing with some of the scheduling folks as they wanted to run the equipment all the time and didn't want us to take it down ever. And I'd say, ''Well, what happens when it fails?'' And they'd go, ''Well, that's your problem?'' Well, there's a lot of teamwork! We'd have some definite fights and arguments over that. The maintenance folks were on my side because they didn't want to have to deal with failures and having to explain to the plant management and operations folks why they couldn't produce. But the scheduling people, they were a little bit different breed, unfortunately.

That should be important. For anybody who has a scheduling department, that should be taken into account. There should be regularly scheduled maintenance. They should know when it is. They shouldn't be avoiding it or putting it off. Kicking the can down the road doesn't help anybody. So it's important that you maintain whatever you've developed and do it well.

You can skate maybe for a couple of days or a week, but past that you better be doing what you need to do. It's like your automobile. If you don't have that properly maintenanced, do you know what happens? You're going to be standing on the side of the road, either calling AAA or having your thumb out hitching a ride. So you don't want that to happen.

PS: In my family, my parents were well known for running cars to fail. And the most spectacular failure was a 1973 orange Vega hatchback owned by my father, driving it along I-90 in Chicago when something in the engine blew, and the hood flipped up right in front of his windshield. Somehow he made it over to the side of the highway and made it out safely, but it was dramatic.

PC: Yeah. That's scary too. That could be injurious to somebody.

Listen to the entire interview

PS: Let me throw some other wrinkles into our conversation because something you specialize in is Lean and supply chain issues. I've read a lot lately about supply chain being a challenge in the age of COVID, where everyone's experiencing the challenge of overcoming sick-outs with their people, losing people here and there. Those kind of situations on plants which manufacture the smaller parts can have a rollover effect when everything comes together at the larger plants. You have a really interesting take on how and why Lean changed back in 2008, and then how you see it now evolving post-COVID. So can I ask you first, what was your experience with Lean best practices right around 2008? And how did it change?

PC: As everybody's familiar, that was a big financial crisis year. It started in the mortgage industry, but it really rolled over to any kind of business and industry because banks started to get stricter on lending. Companies couldn't get their hands on money as quickly. There was some business suffering because of that. What happened manufacturing-wise was that companies started to cut down on the amount of inventory they were carrying, because that's all dollars, and it became tougher and tougher to get your hands on materials by calling up and expecting to get the delivery the next day or within a week. It might take several weeks or even months to get it now.

That was a big change because now you had to plan better. You couldn't wait to the last minute and expect to get that emergency delivery unless the stars all aligned and you happened to be really, really lucky. That was a big change for industry because, up to then, there was lots of inventory that was being carried, and you could get your hands on stuff fairly quickly unless it was something that was really special to you.

(Over time) money did start to become more available, banks started to loosen up some, and so forth. But then when 2019 came with the pandemic, it started all over again, especially when basically the (United States) got shut down for two or three months. First of all, companies weren't making anything. And then when they started again, they were scared just like they had been in 2008 about building inventories.

Plus there was a demand now, there was pent-up demand, so anything they were making was going out as fast as they were making it. Toilet paper, especially down where I live, was really few and far between for quite a while because as fast as it hit the shelves, people were snagging it and hoarding it. That was just a consumer good, so you can imagine industrially what was happening as well.

Once financial situations happen, companies get very scared and get extremely conservative, ultra conservative, about what they're doing to the point where it becomes a problem, and that was what was experienced when Lean first started. If you remember, Lean was “get rid of all your inventory and just make what you need.” Well, we're not that adept that we can afford to do that. You don't get rid of all the inventory. You get rid of the stuff you don't need, that you're never going to sell.

One of my clients was Day-Timers. They used to carry 600 items for every item they sold. Well, that's going a little bit overboard with inventory, so I worked with them to get it more in line. You don't want to take everything out of the system; you want to leave enough where you're getting a little uncomfortable, but you can still survive pretty well. Too many companies panicked and went ultra conservative, and that caused a problem.

It's starting to open up some, but now you're seeing with particularly the construction trade that materials are getting scarce again, and they're getting very expensive. That's the other thing that happens. When things get scarce, things get expensive, and we have to pay more for them. There's some real adverse influences that happen when things like this occur.

PS: I think it will be interesting too, because as you point out, we've had two major business disruptions in the past 15 years, the sort of 100-year-type disruption, but suddenly we've got two in two decades. What should be done regarding Lean? Are we moving to what I keep hearing called, instead of “Just In Time” now it's being called “Just In Case,” where there's always some cushion on the shelves?

PC: It's always a balancing act. A lot of work has been done by me with companies on safety stocks, doing good forecasting so that you had a good idea as to what was going to come in, in terms of sales requirements and so forth. You don't want to wait until you get the order before you start making it, because that can be too late, so you want to have some inventory. And, again, it's prudency – you're never going to be 100% correct. Nobody ever is. Forecasts just aren't. They're the best guesses and estimates that you have.

Some items, you have a pretty good track record of, and you can see what you're doing unless there's some major program or impact that occurs where all of a sudden you get overwhelmed with demand. Otherwise you kind of see a steady state, so you can pretty well predict those, and you try to keep a reserve of inventory. Inventory by itself isn't bad. It's too much inventory that  is bad or the wrong inventory is bad, and you have to pay attention to that and adjust accordingly to it.

We're coming into the summer season now, so what are people going to be buying? They're going to be buying things for the summer. They're going to be buying the sodas and the beers and barbecue sauce. Well, once that period is over, you don't need as much of that, so then you start to cut back on it. You're not going to make as much. You're not going to carry the inventory of that.

I had that when I worked with Kraft Foods, and they would have extra warehouses that they would be storing all this extra product, and they weren't going to be selling it. We got them on a program of better forecasting and realizing what to make in what seasons, because when the seasons change and people's tastes change and they're doing more inside stuff instead of outside stuff. Then, they're making different items and things that they weren't making so much during the summer season. Through my work they were able to eliminate four external warehouses.

The same goes true in other industries. Auto sales happen at particular times, and then they slough off. You don't want to have auto manufacturers making a gazillion cars when nobody is buying them, nor do you want to have a big excess inventory of them. You want to have that available when people are buying.

PS: I hear you, as someone who was looking for quotes on a new wooden fence, I think I'm resigned to going to get a nail gun and some plywood for the moment. I'm putting off the wooden fence at least until this time next year.

PC: I just saw somebody who posted on LinkedIn. They had a sheet of plywood, and they were ready to trade it for anybody's Mercedes and maybe a couple of dollars on top of it. So the value of plywood has gone up considerably.

PS: Let me close with a question about your business books, because I would love to hear more about both of them, ''Influences and Influencers'' and especially a book called ''What About the Vermin Problem?'' I'm a guy who fought mice in this house two years ago during an extremely cold winter in Chicago. Could you tell us about what those books are covering?

PC: Sure. The first one I wrote was ''What About the Vermin Problem?'' The genesis for that was, through my consulting career, as I worked with different companies and with different people, my colleagues and I have some odd instances, and we would say, "You know, someday that needs to be in a book,". I just kind of cataloged that away in my head. Well, when I “retired,” and I put that term in quotes, because I've probably been as busy if not busier in retirement than I was when I was working full time, I decided to write a book and to put those happenings out.

The book covers things that I saw companies and people do that were either very good, not so good, or very bad, and I put them into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly. (My pardon to Clint Eastwood on appropriating the term of one of his famous movies.) It wasn't so much that the good could always be good. It could also be bad, or it could be ugly if you did the wrong things or if you made the wrong decisions. I categorized by the stories that I wanted to tell, and I found four that were good, and four that were bad. Bad wasn't where it was life-threatening to the company but where it could have an adverse influence and cause them time and effort and maybe even money to clean up, the headaches that would be ongoing.

Ugly was ugly. In a couple of instances, we had companies that actually closed down because even with the best work and information and recommendations that were made, they did silly things, ugly things, and it caused their businesses to close. We had one where they wanted to put an automated warehousing and retrieval system in. Well, they couldn't afford to do that, nor did they need to. They didn't have that kind of volume, but they were bound and determined to.

About two years after we got done working with them, they couldn't afford to do it and wound up selling the business to a competitor, so they're not in business anymore. The competitor still uses the brand name because it's a very strong name, and the owner got money. But he had so much debt that it all went to his debt, and he basically sold his company for nothing.

Writing the book was an educational experience. It is my way of working with people and saying, "If you make the right choices, you'll be successful. If you make the wrong choices, you could either cause yourself some problems or you could basically wind up costing yourself your business. The choices are up to you. Here are some stories about companies, and what they did right or what they did wrong. Learn from that."

Then the person I was working with to get the book out told me, "Well, nobody ever writes just one book." She convinced me to write a second book, which was not in the game plan, and I thought, "Well, what would be a good sequel to this?" The first book dealt with companies and business practices, so I turned more to individuals in ''Influences and Influencers.'' I started to look back at my career, even before I started working when I was in school, to tell about the people who had an impact on me. These were people who either I looked up to and I learned from them and wanted to be like them, or people who I didn't look up to, who I didn't want to be like them because I wasn't happy with the way they acted and treated folks.

I wrote the book about that. It was more directed towards thinking about the good people you have in your life, people who want to see you succeed, who are encouraging you or are helping you. Particularly helping you when you're down and out or you're having some trouble, and they're there to provide the guidance that you need, the good advice that they can give you, and maybe even physically helping you to a degree, and how they shape how you think and how you act. You can learn as much from the not so good people as from the good people as to, this is not the way you want to conduct yourself, this isn't the way you want to see things.

I've worked with a lot of students on projects with companies, and they would come to me and say, ''Pete, why do they do that?'' And I'd say, “if I knew that, I'd be a very, very, very wealthy man. But someday you're going to be in those positions. And when you are, look back at what you just asked me, look back at what you're thinking, and don't do the same thing. You have a chance to do it differently."

Too many people get into positions of authority, and then they do the same things that they complained about what people were doing to them. And you're saying, ''Why are you doing that? You didn't learn anything from that. You have the ability to make that change, so do it.''

That's what ''Influences and Influencers'' is about. It is to go back and look at the people that you're dealing with, how they treat you, how you treat them, how you want to deal with individuals, and how you want to deal with business. It's my experiences, my advice, and it's amazing how as people read the book, they will say, ''You know, I know somebody who's just like that. I had that kind of experience.''

It's universal. It's just that we don't talk about it as much as we should. I had one guy who said, "If I had only known that years ago when I was in business, I would have done things differently." Well, my hope is that young people will pick that up and read it and then never have that statement come out, because they will have had the opportunity to have somebody share it with them.

PS: This reminds me of the saying, "The best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago, and the second best time is now." So for those who want to plant trees right now, go ahead and seek these books out. They are at And that link is in the podcast notes. Pete, thank you so much for covering such ground with us. I appreciate your perspective today.

PC: Well, thank you very much. Again, thank you for having me. And I hope that I've helped to shape some people's thoughts and be an influence on them. They can also go on the website and get in touch with me if they ever want to chat about something. I'm happy to share my experiences and work with them if need be.

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