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Communications and expectations with vendor/contractor management

March 17, 2021
A series of simple questions can set the foundation for successful supplier relationships.

In the old credit card commercial, the gentleman at the end always asks, “What’s in your wallet?”

In this article, I think maybe it is time to tell you what’s in mine.

First of all growing up through the ranks, I have found out from painful experiences, too many to count, that a little prep in the before saves a lot of headache in the after.

When I introduce myself to my new support team, humility is the first key. They have been there, in some cases, for more than 40 years of service, while the facility could be up to 175 years old and might have a pre-set notion on how the past likely influences the future. I’m coming on-site to a new position in a matter of minutes, and they have decades of experiences and knowledge to make your life easier. It is always highly recommended that you tap into that, politely.

My first concern, same as many of you, is to reduce downtime, increase uptime, extend the budget, and make quality/safety a priority along with continued job security in these trying times. That is the main reason I came up through the ranks to become a SME planner/scheduler in mechanical maintenance and reliability. 

So let’s start on this journey like always with a pre/post outlook and viewpoint.

I have a standard checklist when I introduce myself to the vendors/contractors, and I set the expectations in the first meeting. That is the main reason the company chose me for this spot that I am filling, and someone needs to do so with the thought toward lean and continuous improvement.

A few of my deal breaking basic questions are as follows.

Are your sales staff technically minded so they understand the product to assist in a common sense approach, based on an extremely long-term and “first call” option, or are they only interested in making a sale and then moving on to the next customer?

Yes, my suppliers also know that I have been known to spot-check prices with two to three competitors during the year randomly. The main reason for doing these checks is that I did a spot-check one day on a replacement “plug’n’play” OEM motor between “first call” and two other suppliers that I did not call on in recent times. Needless to say, first call was value enhanced at true cost on the exact OEM replacement motor based on exact name-tag request, whereas Competitor B set a $500 internal price bump and Competitor C was $3,000 higher than everyone else.  

My expectations are 24/7/365 call-out service with no-cost hand delivery from their warehouse in a two hour or less window. They also have to be able to train and certify my staff with CEUs (Continuing Education Requirements) or Certificates of Achievement with breakfast or a lunch and learn. I require this for a number of reasons: mainly personal development of the techs, and a certain feeling of trust that the job will be done satisfactorily the first time without a premature failure. This makes HR and the auditors happy at year-end for wage increases and ISO requirements.

With that being said, I still prefer to use my “alphas” in their field of expertise, but it is very relaxing when you make up that week’s schedule in advance knowing that you have a reliable backup plan if your favorite tech is sick or enjoying a much needed vacation.

Should you always purchase OEM parts vs. aftermarket replacements, and how does that affect your budget and optimization/s?

Naturally, purchasing/sales make their numbers/quotas by providing the “cheapest cost part” the quickest. Unfortunately, I have found out that cheapest does not always mean the best practices for your plant. For instance, is it cheaper to change inferior pillow block bearings on a shortened run-to-fail theory and usually when you are not expecting it, mainly during production times incurred as unplanned downtime? Or is it better to spend more in the beginning for a robust USA-made OEM upgrade that can be rebuilt in the field for 10% of the OEM cost of an exact replacement and that lasts multiple times over reducing your storeroom costs and inventory control?

It’s even better for a win/win situation, when:

  • The technical sales rep comes in and trains my staff, and does the breakfast and lunch and learn.
  • The OEM team offers to do the rebuilding on his own time in my shop to ensure the highest level of customer service.
  • The services come with a written guarantee that his rebuilds/upgrades will perform the OEM parts with the cost savings of 90% in the beginning and the only thing you need to change is the grease fitting, seal, and internal bearing itself – the outside casing is the same.

This took a bit of out-of-the-box planning and scheduling, but I saved 40K+ on this job alone, which improved my budget and got more work planned/scheduled and optimized for the future.

Are you open minded to coloring outside the lines using common sense and current technology up to specs/or exceeded, and is it written record verified?

With that being said, can we look at some very simple low hanging fruit to exploit? Sure, let’s start with something simple, such as having the jobber pre-filter our most common lubricants to a standard at OEM level if not 2 places clean, with the work documented in writing and laboratory verified at no additional cost to me. In short, the data has shown that asset lifetime can be increased four times as much if not more with that request in the beginning, which means you have simplified the repair, gained the hidden production output potential of the plant, and increased MTBF/MTTR, which frees up A LOT of time in your schedule going forth.

For example, a modified filter cart is a great place to start. Quick disconnects on your filter carts to your machine’s system is a big help here. Consider running the PM cycles on downtime/lunchtime with the lead setup people and managers, so you do not interfere with production and yet you still get your PM/PdM work done in a timely basis, thereby making continuous improvement and keeping executive leadership happy. This takes a bit of good old fashioned face-to-face conversation/negotiation and pre-planning in the beginning.

Personally, I have watched and I recommend a four-stage filtering process each done five times per cycle: water separation, 25 micron filtering, 10 micron filtering, and finally 2-5 micron filtering. Make sure you account for the processing time up front, and then request an upgrade one or two steps in advance (you will thank me later for this advice). My OEM hydraulic oil was a medium amber to start with and by the end result was vodka/gin clear and we more than exceeded the 4x replacement change out. As an additional maintenance upgrade we added delta-P gauges to reference the maximum output/efficiency of the filters and machines, and added in breathers, tank temperature gauges, and oil level gauges at the same time. A lot of work, yes, but better than downtime/capital machine replacement on a 24/7/365 operation that overloaded its equipment due to customer requirements.

Was I understood and popular when I put in the request for 100 extra filters of each type the first time, at the cost of $400 per machine for 25 machines on that particular route for initial and repair, plus $10,000 for one spare? Envision villagers at Baron Von Frankenstein’s Castle in my office. Did MTBF plummet downwards? Absolutely it did.         

Can we train vendors/contractors according to our plant safety requirements in the first week of the year and in a group setting?

My theory is this: If I need a group of planned contractors to support my “surge maintenance and special projects” above and beyond what my staff can do due to time and training – that is what I have to do at that time. I would much prefer to train in a group for 30 minutes in the first week of January, get everyone to sign off and get their yearly sticker for the hard hat in the beginning proactively. The option of training this particular one nested contractor resulted in 26 hours of saved downtime, compared to previous years.

Are my contractors knowledge/skilled/attitude/tool/safety-equipped and properly documented and trained for the jobs that I have planned/kitted/scheduled in advance? Did I get all of the “oops” out of the way first? Can I get the same alphas assigned to me with advance notice?

More often than not this is an “as you go” discovery. I have worked with premium cost contractors before who bring in breakfast and lunch for the entire crew and in addition are fully equipped to handle any unforeseen issue that comes up from the Downtime Dragon, regarding “as found” work with great and relative ease because they come in with trucks full of tools and supplies, and they also have extra people “empowered” to deal with unforeseen issues arising including expediting and after events meetings.

I have also had the learning curve of a “fully trained and equipped contractor crew” that came in with a pair of 10-inch adjustable pliers and 10-inch adjustable wrench for each contractor without any extra tooling or supplies, as shown in the pre-supplied job plan. I also have had to courier expedite PM and repair parts in for the portable welders on downtime, along with safety cans for refueling purposes, and scramble for oxygen/fuel tanks/cutting tips for the cutting torches. We did lose five hours of downtime involving eight craftsmen that day at $10,000/minute downtime on that particular job — that cost about $24 million extra on that job. Oops.

Now the solution to that fiasco was an outdoor meeting with my head of maintenance/reliability as an after-action meeting the first day. Then, I made up a simple checklist done by either the area mechanics the day before or by me — repair plus one spare on the tool cart/burn buggy, fully filled safety fuel cans and fuel topped off in the welder/s, fresh tanks for cutting torches, and extra consumables (welding rods, torch tips, fuel funnel for the safety can, three grinders with hard rock, wire brush, and cutoff wheel) in the locked job-box. Please note, we did finally get to a win-win agreement but it did take a while to get everything streamlined with the additional modifications/requests resulting from the after-action meetings to the contractor owner and staff in order to get to where I wanted to be.  

Can I alter/modify the job plan in the interest of continuous improvement, common sense, and safety?

This one is a bit unorthodox and takes a level of boldness that most people have never contemplated or ever mentioned.

Coming from the trades, OSHA requires mandatory fall protection for any distance above 4 feet or 48 inches, and this is non-negotiable. I was in charge of a time-study/job optimization on a particular job that required scaffolding above 48 inches and harnesses required for the techs. After the first day of watching them clip/unclip between five techs got me to thinking outside the box. That afternoon I placed a call to personally meet my corporate legal and plant safety officers, asking the question, “IF we erect the scaffolding below 48 inches and independently documented, measured, and photographed it, would that be acceptable to all parties concerned?”

The next morning I was invited to a round table discussion with the contractors, corporate legal, and the plant safety personnel, and with a bit of dedicated research from that night, it was decided that a trial run was in order. In short, not only did we save an additional eight hours with five men involved with morale greatly improved, we also did the job safely, came in way under budget/time constraints, and were able to do more work in the time required.    

Can I employ recycling/janitorial and additional lean budget measures?

I realized in my career that when the “prophet” said that “profit” is not a bad word, he might be on to something. Everyone has bills and expenses and wants to maintain a certain quality of life, which there is nothing wrong with, and with my personal belief and a little common sense thinking, it would turn into a win-win situation.

For example, if I have 72 threaded fasteners that are M24 × 300mm long or 1-inch × 12-inch SAE, I have found through multiple time studies that it takes me 18 minutes (0.3 hour) per fastener to hand-wrench, disassemble, clean, and reinstall each, not knowing if I am introducing premature failure while trying to save my budget. I also know that with my blue-tip wrench, I can cut off the same fastener, and replace it with a new fastener/two washers/new nut with correct calibrated torque wrench adding thread locker/nickel anti-seize, in only 6 minutes (0.1 hour) per fastener. The main reason is that with older techs/untrained techs, if they have the “sugar shakes,” the washer will act as a “burn sleeve” and will not gouge out your parts on separation —  this is the cheapest insurance there is.

I also put a water trough below the cutting area for additional fire-watch safety, and the cuttings dropped into the water, thereby saving janitorial cleanup and avoiding the risk of stepping on heated metal. The recycling part comes in at the end of the job, when instead of just disposing of the old/worn parts, they are sent back to the local salvage area to earn $0.06/pound for scrap – much more on copper/brass/motors. You would be surprised on the end year budget savings doing that small part.

Upgrading to a shop air powered vacuum cleaner with a 55-gallon tank that is pallet loaded 4/per is a timesaver as well, and preprinted labels are wonderful invention. The initial cost is eye-opening, but when you start removing all of the industrial accumulated dirt around the jobsite, this is a whole lot better than a broom and a dustpan.

My favorite consumables are lemon/orange degreasers, penetrating oils, rust paints/primers, nickel anti-seize, lubricants, shop rags, and shop sweeping compound. I buy in bulk for cost savings, and vendor trials/free samples are a great thing. I even use my sawdust from my woodworking projects as a floor sweeping compound at no additional cost.

Well, what did we learn today?

As the saying goes, “what you do not measure, you cannot control.”

  • Thinking outside the box with common sense will give you the continuous improvement that your budget and plant are looking for.
  • You have to start somewhere, and it will be a small victory in the beginning until you have proven yourself. It’s ok to celebrate with group lunch for your staff.
  • Be prepared for a lot of face-to-face time on the floor, and it’s ok to think out of the box and use common sense.
  • Learn your allies and use them to your advantage and use their strengths/wisdom to the betterment of all.
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of extra time in the beginning, the end result/financial bonus in your paycheck and job stability are more than worth it.
  • Use technology and upgrades available to your plant’s processes and maintenance department’s advancement – it really is ok.

If you are fortunate to have a fully staffed crew/team to help you, please do utilize them as much as possible to their strengths. I have worn many hats simultaneously over the years under the title of planner/scheduler et al., and my outlook/presentation can be a bit difficult to understand at first. However, my intention is always sincere and respectful with a desire for a win-win in the end.

Until next time, True Believers.

About the Author: Steven J. Tuttle

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