Make Maintenance Your Competitive Advantage To Take Your Company From Good To Great

Make maintenance your competitive advantage to take your company from good to great

Feb. 16, 2023
Doc Palmer says maintenance is not a necessary evil. It is an investment in production.

Believing that “maintenance” is all about fixing things when they break (and really fast) places our company at a huge competitive disadvantage. By thinking maintenance is fixing things to restore order and function, we have actually failed in maintenance.

In contrast, maintenance, by definition, is keeping things in working order. Loss of function means loss of profits. We make profits when things work, remember? Think of the extra profit from an extra 1%, 5%, or 10% yearly production increase. Maintenance is not a necessary evil. It is an investment in production. The more we invest, the more we profit.

But you say, “Nothing lasts forever. Things do break, right? And we are a profitable company.” The whole problem here is that we are indeed a good company. We do some preventive maintenance and we are good at fixing things. But we want to go beyond being good and become a great company making much more profit.

Listen to world-renown management gurus Jim Collins1, W. Edwards Deming2, and Peter Drucker3:

  • Collins: “To go from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence.”
  • Deming: “The big problems are where people don't realize they have one in the first place.”
  • Drucker: “Management by objective works - if you know the objectives. Ninety percent of the time you don't.”

Collins, Deming, and Drucker confirm that good companies have wonderful, but hidden, opportunities to become great competitive market leaders; however, those opportunities require astute leadership to intelligently recognize correct objectives for change. Because the maintenance opportunity is hidden to most companies, we have a wonderful opportunity for competitive advantage. But leadership (boat rocking) is required. Otherwise, we will just do preventive maintenance oil and filter changes, then fix things when they break.

Proper maintenance involves top-down leadership and strategies for preventive maintenance, predictive maintenance, project work, spare parts, craft skills, supervision, and both maintenance planning and scheduling. Let’s look at each area.

Preventive maintenance (PM) routinely services equipment and also includes low-tech inspections using our senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. An example is measuring chain thickness for wear. PM routines help prevent failures and creates work orders to head off failures. We should not simply accept asset manufacturer PM recommendations. We should design and constantly update our PMs to mitigate the common failures we experience from happening in the future.

Predictive maintenance (PdM) uses technology such as vibration analysis, infrared, ultrasound, dye penetrant testing, and boroscoping to inspect assets for abnormal conditions. Work orders from these inspections to head off failures are more timely than PM inspections. PdM technology is exploding with new techniques.

Beyond PM and PdM, project work to replace or modify inherently unreliable equipment vastly improves production. Work orders help us analyze where our biggest problems are. Root cause analysis (RCA) after certain triggers helps keep failures from happening again. RCA leads to better PMs and PdMs, but also to projects; then project ranking guides scarce capital money to projects with the biggest returns.

Huge opportunities also await in spare parts and craft tools. The 20% carrying cost for spare parts means a $10 million dollar inventory costs a highly visible $2 million annually. The common misguided inventory strategy is to keep cutting spare parts inventory until maintenance complains. But instead of complaining, the crafts scramble to do jobs with alternate (i.e., inferior) parts. Just think, by taking twice as long to do a job, we have precluded ourselves from doing any extra proactive work (a not so highly visible cost). And so, we lose our production capability. The same need for effectiveness before efficiency goes for craft tools. We need to arm our craftspersons with hand tools and tool rooms for larger tools. Parts and tools are an investment in production.

All of these systems require people. Leadership must hire, train, and retain craftspersons, supervisors, planners, schedulers, reliability engineers, managers, and administrative staff. Maintenance requires skilled craftspersons. Best practice for supervisors being in the field is 75% of their time. (Did you know that?) We need reliability engineers for root cause analysis, management of change, and work order analysis. Nothing works without the right people.

Nevertheless, having the systems in place to generate proactive work orders does not mean we will do them. Recently, the maintenance manager at a metals facility handed me a wonderful PdM work order. Lube oil analysis had predicted a certain gear box was likely to fail in a couple of months. Delightedly, I said “That’s great! We had two months to work on it before it actually failed!” Disgustedly, the manager relied, “Nope. That paper work order sat right here on the corner of my desk for six weeks because we had our hands full of other stuff. But yesterday, the gear box failed and shut down a significant portion of production. And today we seem to have time to work it.” The crux of the problem is proactive maintenance (work to keep things from breaking) dies in the backlog because we honestly have our hands full of reactive maintenance (work to recover from breakdowns) which is actually by definition, not “maintenance” at all! Proper planning and scheduling help remedy this problem.

Most companies make planning and scheduling way over-complicated and ineffective. They think planning makes jobs more efficient by having all the parts and instructions ready so craftspersons can execute more work. They also think advance weekly scheduling sets production daily and hourly windows to have equipment ready for maintenance. But in real life, planners cannot make perfect plans with all instructions and parts (no one is perfect). Craftspersons complain all parts are not ready and resent being “told how to do stuff.” And real life has a lot of “churn” with operator calls and jobs running shorter or longer than anticipated, so windows are always shifting.

Instead, proper planning simply runs a Deming Cycle of continuous improvement and proper scheduling simply provides a backlog research function to focus supervisors. These approaches improve execution quality over the years and provide an incredible productivity boost. Planners create job plans as “head starts” for skilled craftspersons and improve them over the years with more helpful instructions and better selections of parts. Schedulers create simple weekly buckets as a focusing device for the crew supervisors.

In a normal plant with the churn in a normal maintenance week, most supervisors develop a focus of taking care of operations when they call and otherwise keeping craftspersons busy. But with the scheduler matching the ready backlog to the available craft hours for the next week in a simple list, the focus changes. The supervisor focus becomes trying to complete a certain amount of work, but breaking the schedule to take care of operations when they call.

This focus of trying to complete a certain amount of work gives an incredible 50% increase in work order completion rates. We succeed in having the extra craft capacity to do proactive work even though we had our hands full of reactive work. The surprising key to planning and scheduling is allowing failure. It’s okay if the plan isn’t perfect. How can we improve it? It’s okay to break a fully loaded schedule. Our objective was to complete more work than normal, not to compete the schedule. (Remember Drucker, management by objective?)

Finally, let’s not forget the production staff. First, operators operating equipment incorrectly contributes to equipment carnage. Second, operators might perform some maintenance. Operator maintenance is called by different names including total productive maintenance, operator care, and autonomous maintenance. Some of the keys are tasks of short duration and not requiring special tools. The facility technology, operator skills, and people culture determine if operator maintenance might help. Third, operators will report more little problems and symptoms if they know their requests won’t die in the backlog. Otherwise, they will just wait until something breaks. Operators play a critical role in supporting maintenance.

We make a profit by having reliable production and maintenance is an investment in higher production. Yet modern maintenance is a key competitive advantage because, surprisingly, most companies do not know that maintenance is all about keeping things from breaking in the first place. Don’t settle for being good. Be a great company! Leadership required.

(1) Collins, Jim   accessed 14 June, 2015.
(2) Deming, W. Edwards   accessed 14 June, 2015.
(3) Dr. Peter F. Drucker, Peter F.   accessed 14 June, 2015.

About the Author

Doc Palmer | PE, MBA, CMRP

Doc Palmer, PE, MBA, CMRP is the author of McGraw-Hill’s Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook and as managing partner of Richard Palmer and Associates helps companies worldwide with planning and scheduling success. For more information including online help and currently scheduled public workshops, visit or email Doc at [email protected]. Also visit and subscribe to

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