10 reliability and maintenance truths

10 reliability and maintenance truths

Jan. 2, 2024
Joe Kuhn shares the lessons he learned during his 32 years in manufacturing.

I worked in manufacturing plants for 32 years. Not as a consultant, but rather in assignments where I was accountable for results. My roles included maintenance engineer, maintenance manager, operations manager, plant manager and director of global reliability and maintenance. I retired to consult and transfer my lessons learned via failure and success to the next generation. As you make plans and take action in 2024, I challenge you to understand and evaluate my 10 Reliability and Maintenance Truths, which I have discovered on my journey.  

  1. Operations owns reliability.
  2. Every reliability and maintenance best practice eliminates waste.
  3. The only way to know the wastes in your plant is through intense observation.
  4. Knowing the wastes that exist in your plant dictates your action plan.
  5. Every technician came to work today wanting to take pride in performing their work.
  6. Culture changes one experience at a time.
  7. The only path to reducing reactive maintenance is to execute planned maintenance.
  8. Your plant is neither different nor special.
  9. Reliability assessments are of little value.
  10. You are in sales and marketing

I have a long story of failing and learning to go with each discovered truth. It is humbling to state that early in my career I believed the opposite of these truths. Perhaps you are reading one or more now with similar skepticism. Let me help you understand these conclusions.

1. Operations owns reliability.

Who owns the reliability of your personal car? The mechanic at the shop or you the operator? Obviously, you do. The operator decides when to take the car into the shop then approves and pays for all work performed. Operators are accountable to drive the car within design specifications, note sensory abnormalities (example: engine noise), and perform minor maintenance (example: filling tires with air).   The mechanic is responsible for technical expertise, selling you on recommended actions, and efficient execution of work. Both are involved in reliability, but clearly the owner is the “decider,” and the mechanic is the “advisor.” At plants, the role of owner goes to operations, and the role of advisor goes to maintenance and engineering. Failure to accept this truth will greatly limit results.

2.  Every reliability and maintenance best practice eliminates waste.

Why do you perform preventative maintenance on equipment? To extend the mean time between failure? To maintain run rate? To ensure quality product? Yes, yes, and yes. Each of these is a manufacturing waste. Why do we plan work? Answer: to improve worker safety, efficiency, and precision to name just three; again, all wastes. This is true for all best practices. This truth has the benefit of aligning the organization around an infectious mantra of waste elimination as opposed to draconian cost cutting mandates.

3.  The only way to know the wastes in your plant is through intense observation.

There is a massive gap between what you believe to be true in a conference room through KPIs and opinion and the reality on the shop floor. Opinion and KPIs should direct your observations, but do not fall into the overconfidence trap of discounting observation. By “intense,” I recommend at least eight hours of observation. For example: If you are looking at efficiency of planned work, I would suggest getting three teams of two persons to observe three different planned jobs for a full shift (one job per team). I would repeat this for three consecutive days. This process will not only detail existing wastes, but also reveal several free, rapid, and impactful actions that you can take in under 30 days. Rapid results are thus ensured.

4.  Knowing the wastes in your plant dictates your action plan.

Randomly implementing best practices without intimately knowing the wastes that exist in your plant is insane. You will not get results in a timely manner, which will discourage your sponsors and organization.  Rapid, sustainable, and scalable results come from applying the right tool with precision to a prioritized problem impacting your plant. This delivers sustained sponsorship and organizational enthusiasm.  

5.  Every technician came to work today wanting to take pride in performing their work.

A common observation at plants is to see maintenance people standing or driving around the plant not performing work; a huge waste, right? Are they lazy? For years, I tried to implement systems on the work crews to improve these inefficiencies. When I performed intense observation alongside the crews, effectively walking a mile in their shoes, I realized the problem was me. The technicians were not the problem; it was the system in which I expected them to work that was restraining them. A thought experiment: what would you do differently at your plant if you truly believed everyone wanted to do a good job today?

6.  Culture changes one experience at a time.

Few things strike more fear in leaders than expectations to change a culture. Years ago, in a training class I learned that culture stems from our experiences that drive our beliefs that lead to our actions. These actions produce results. Consequently, culture is changed by simply creating new experiences. My challenge is to create these experiences on purpose each week. I have found this to be very empowering.

7.  The only path to reducing reactive maintenance is to execute planned maintenance.

The biggest lie maintenance managers tell themselves is, “We will begin to implement best practices as soon as we get caught up on unplanned maintenance.” Unfortunately, next week, next month and next quarter are going to be worse. Every leader must find a way to begin planned work today. If your plant is 100% reactive maintenance, start next week with 5% planned work and then increase this percentage over the coming weeks. Reactive maintenance will always be prioritized over unplanned work without leadership intervention (the squeaky wheel). Consider assigning two people (full crew size: 20) to planned work next week. Tell the crew supervisor that these two persons cannot be pulled into reactive maintenance without plant manager approval. Insight: the supervisor will find other ways to get the work completed without pulling the planned work technicians. This may include prioritizing work and overtime. Preservation of planned work must be a priority. 

8.  Your plant is neither different nor special.

I spent a lot of time with consultants and company leadership arguing that best practices may not all work in my plant because of our unique situation—our equipment is worn out; we have a powerful union; we are understaffed; we are making a commodity product; now is not a good time since we have a corporate audit; we have no money, etc. Everyone has these issues. Once you accept that every reliability and maintenance best practice targets wastes, this excuse falls away for every process has wastes. I believe this excuse has emerged because of misguided corporate mandates to deploy best practices in an arbitrary manner and hoping results follow. This always fails.

9.  Reliability assessments are of little value.

Often the start of a reliability journey is an assessment by an expert. The plant pays $50,000 for a firm to come in an tell it a score on its 29 essential elements of a reliability culture. The plant receives a low score and a proposal for elevating the score over the next three years for a much larger fee. I have found several fatal flaws in this path:

  • I have never experienced these assessments to be rooted in intense observation to understand plant wastes but rather opinion, KPIs experience, and an insignificant amount of observation. 
  • I should not delegate my responsibility to know where opportunity exists. I should know this myself through observation and knowing the best practices. Delegation is an indication of the lack of commitment needed for a culture change.
  • Assessments do not detail the priority to implement best practices. Simple, free, and impactful actions to address wastes are not identified. This is critical to achieving quick wins leading to organizational enthusiasm and continued sponsorship.
  • $50,000 can be more effectively utilized by implementing 10 or more solutions from your observations. For example: lubrication point labeling, sight glasses, desiccant breathers and leak repairs.
  • Most organizations are seeking a quick fix and take no action beyond the expensive assessment.  The hope pre-assessment: what can we buy to take us from 100% reactive maintenance to 90% planned maintenance in six months without the leadership doing anything different? You are embarking upon a culture change, which cannot be purchased.

Experts do have a role in your journey, but it should not be discovery of a problem, but rather expert training on best practices on the waste(s) you select. Unfortunately, out of ignorance, assessments are a very popular request from plants, and consultants have adapted to comply with demand.

10.  You are in sales and marketing.

If you are in maintenance and reliability, you must make marketing and selling your actions and results a top priority. As an example: If you do problem solving and take lubrication failures on motor/pump systems reducing failures from 25 to 10 in a year, how are people to know? I like to say, “Nobody knows the failures you don’t have.” Take credit for the 15-failure reduction, connect it with the actions taken, and calculate a savings of time, materials, and production. At my last plant, we targeted two success stories a week to go out via email to the organization. The email included a picture of the equipment, the people involved, the action taken, and the impact. Sales may seem like “tooting your own horn” but will become invaluable during the inevitable downturns in the business when management is looking to make cuts. Marketing reliability will encourage cuts elsewhere.

These 10 Truths have served me well, and I could only imagine the results that I could have achieved if I had known and accepted them early in my career. Consider accepting these 10 Truths for your career New Year’s Resolution for 2024. Specifically, ask to have a discussion of these Truths in your next leadership team meeting. Happy New Year. 

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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