Podcast: Moving beyond wrench time — How to improve productivity with fewer workers

Podcast: Moving beyond wrench time — How to improve productivity with fewer workers

Dec. 7, 2023
In this episode of Ask a Plant Manager, Joe Kuhn says rather than focus on a specific wrench time goal or number, use it to improve your specific plant.

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 starting your reliability journey and achieving financial independence. In our new podcast series, Ask a Plant Manager, Joe considers a commonplace scenario facing the industry and offers his advice, as well as actions that you can take to get on track tomorrow. This episode offers insight on how to best measure productivity.

PS: Today, we're talking about a very specific KPI—wrench time. So in this case, management wants me to improve wrench time. But Joe, I also just lost five mechanics who are getting harder and harder to replace. So how do I find the right number of mechanics? What's the right wrench time standard? And is that the best standard for measuring productivity?

JK: Great question. Wrench time in most plants is taboo. They don’t want to talk about it because on the surface, it seems confrontational. With wrench time, a lot of people look at that and say, ‘Well, that's my craft people, my technicians being lazy.’ And I have never ever found that to be the case. 

So it's a great question. It is a symptom of a problem of inefficiency in your plant. Now, wrench time, you'll hear numbers like 50% is good, but there's so much that determines, your potential for wrench time. 30% could be good, if you're working at elevation, for example, or you have long distances to travel, or you need significant safety instruction to conduct work. So really comparing your plant to another doesn't make any sense. Comparing your plant today to your plant next month, that's the key. That's where you need to focus. 

So don't worry about best practices. Worry about how you can get better. I think your question was great. Hey, you know, we’ve got five people that are going away. Our backlog is growing now. So what do we do? I always start with observation. Why is the system working as it is today? What are the people doing? You'd be shocked at what I find is the most common problem I see at plants with wrench time is too many people assigned to the job. There'll be a job that takes two people that they will assign three to it. There'll be a job that takes four hours that they assign it eight, just in case something happens with air quotes. So, if you assign people an eight-hour job, they get it done in four, they'll just come back to the supervisor or planner and ask for more work. Well, that never happens. Okay, so you're assigning people to a eight-hour job, but it really takes four, you’re assigning three people to a two person job. It’s very common. I see that. 

Another common problem that I see going through observation is we send our technicians out to find the supplies, find the parts. So an action I put in place at every plant that I worked is to, even when you're short of staff, to assign somebody to be a kitter/stager. These are people that go in and put together all the supplies all the parts, your gears, your motor, your pump, your shim stock, your gloves, any specialty tools you need for the job. If you need an aerial lift, if you need a fork truck, they put that together and put it out at the job site within 10 feet of the job site before the work is being executed. So often we've seen two mechanics out on the job to change a pump out. They walk out to the job, they look at the job, then they go back to the shop. And they can't find a fork truck to move the pump out there. And somebody else has the fork trucks, so they're using the fork truck and they're waiting an hour for the fork truck. Then, they're looking for some shim stock, then they're looking for some key stock, then they're looking for whatever to execute that job. They go back and forth to the shop because the job wasn't planned. Some people believe a planned job, say we're changing out a pump, is just to put the pump on a skid in the shop. Okay, do they need anything else to execute that job? What about a new coupling? What about a new piece of key stock? What about a place to keep the small parts as they're dismantling the motor pump assembly? Do they have a little place to keep those parts so they don't lose a bolt, so they don't lose the key and it gets kicked into some sump? Those are waste inefficiencies that happen on a job that don't make it into the conference room, and they just look like low wrench time. Okay, assigning too many people to a job and fully kitting and fully staging in a job. Those are huge things you can do to get wrench time improvements. I've seen adding a kitter or stager take somebody from 20% wrench time to 30% wrench time within a month. That is huge. 

Once you see life as a technician, and what they have to put up with— bad lock out/tagout instructions, not enough fork trucks at the beginning of the shift to get part staged. Those are huge. So put yourself in their shoes through observation, you'll see some very easy things to fix. Rarely, have I walked into a plant that didn't have significant waste in their system, not associated with the work ethic of the craftsperson. This situation happens to me all the time. 

Your question, we're five people short, we got five more people getting ready to retire at the end of the year, we got a problem hiring people. What are we going to do? Within a couple of weeks, I've convinced the leadership team, we may have too many people. We may have to think about how we're going to deploy these people on problem solving and getting better very quickly by doing some of these basic best practices based on observation.

PS: Great, good advice, Joe. Don't let wrench time be taboo and use it to help you find waste like that. Excellent. Thank you. Well, thanks for being here today. Again, to our listeners, if you guys have any burning questions, feel free to send those in to me, and we will try to have Joe answer those. 

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].

About the Author

Anna Townshend | managing editor

Anna Townshend has been a journalist and editor for almost 20 years. She joined Control Design and Plant Services as managing editor in June 2020. Previously, for more than 10 years, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review. In addition to writing and editing thousands of articles in her career, she has been an active speaker on industry panels and presentations, as well as host for the Tool Belt and Control Intelligence podcasts. Email her at [email protected].

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