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10 Things Your Equipment Operators Can Do Today to Improve Reliability

by Doug Plucknette

There’s no denying that the equipment that makes your products and the operators who operate it are the most valuable assets an organization has. So unless you are actually manufacturing product and putting it out the door, you are overhead. From the janitorial services to the CEO, you are just another additional cost that has to be included in the cost of the product.

So why, then, do our most valuable assets receive so little training, are swapped around like poker chips in Vegas, and are often expected to do little more than push a button and babysit the machine? Given this prevalent management philosophy, we then struggle to understand why our continuous improvement efforts fail to take hold and come to the conclusion that the equipment we purchased is junk and/or our people don’t know how to operate it.

Well folks, it’s time to wake up. Here are 10 things your operators can do today to improve the reliability of your equipment.


There’s a mountain of data that supports the fact that clean machines run significantly better. We need to give our manufacturing equipment operators time to clean their equipment and perform routine operator care tasks during each shift. These tasks need to be clearly identified with qualitative descriptions that give specifics regarding what type of cleaning agent, what type of cloth and what the area should look like when the task is complete. If this sounds a bit excessive, try this on one of your critical assets. In three months, you will definitely see a return on investment in increased productivity and reduced maintenance costs.


Trained equipment operators understand how their equipment works, know the performance standards they need to maintain so equipment operates properly, and know how to troubleshoot and address any problem they might encounter with their machine. Those without training fumble through the day; they know where three buttons are on the operator screen: stop, start and reset. They shut their machine down and contact maintenance for simple problems, and they struggle with product changes. If you are an equipment operator, you have to insist on formal training. Watching someone else run a machine for a couple of hours or days IS NOT formal training. Chances are, that person was never formally trained either. Insist for your own safety, because you love your parents, spouse, children, or friends. Operators who are not formally trained are much more likely to suffer a severe injury or fatality on the job.


The theory that we need to train all our operators to run every piece of equipment continues to cycle through the manufacturing community every few years. To any manager who believes in this foolish concept, here’s a challenge: Put on some work clothes, take a month out of your busy schedule and try this out yourself. See what you can learn in a few days on each machine and decide for yourself if you feel confident in what you are being paid to do. Having your operators change machines on a regular basis makes about as much sense as it would to have NASCAR drivers drive someone else’s car in the race each Sunday. It doesn’t work well and, once again, it’s not safe! As proof, operators should begin taking data regarding how effectively the machines run when we change operators. In the same way that automated equipment doesn’t like to stop and start, operators are less effective in their work when they are required to change to a new machine. It’s understandable to have a few people who can operate more than one or two machines, but these people are called team or line leaders.


The next step beyond learning how to operate your machine is learning when to make adjustments based on operating and product parameters. SPC is a very powerful tool used mostly by the folks who work in product quality, but it can be just as powerful, if not more so, when put into the hands of operators who are looking at learning more about the machine or process they operate.


RCA has been getting a bad name lately, with experienced operators using a simple 5 Why process and doing two or three RCAs a week, but nothing ever comes of them. In most cases, RCA is ineffective because the triggers are set way too low or people rush through the process and look for a single solution. Your lead operators or team leaders should be leading your RCAs and if you didn’t find the correct solution, it’s because you didn’t identify all of the causes.


More than half of organizations report struggling with product changes. Even stranger than this, the companies that do the most product changes tend to struggle the most. One would think if performing product changes was a daily part of your work schedule, you would naturally become good at them. However, the reality is that while we expect our machines to perform precision work, we rarely apply precision techniques to our machines when it comes time to perform a product change. Managers have somehow come to believe that using a permanent marker to make a black mark that is nearly one-fourth inches in width on a piece of sheet metal will result in a tremendously accurate product change. Make six other marks in different colors, don’t label any of them and do this in six or eight different stations, then sit back in your office and wonder why your operators struggle at each product change. Operators should be vocal about bringing precision techniques into each product change; the use of jigs and blanks will go a long way in reducing the cycle time for product change and improve the precision to a point of one and done.


If you are really interested in how your machine was designed and how it was intended to be operated and maintained, volunteer to become part of a reliability centered maintenance (RCM) or total productive maintenance (TPM) team. Both of these tools take operators to the next level. For example, operators who have participated in RCM analyses for critical machines report having a better understanding about how the equipment was designed to work and why it was critical to inspect and record things like pressures, temperatures and flows on each machine.


For some reason, those who work in the operations and maintenance departments believe if they complain long enough and loud enough about the problems their machines are having, then someone in management will finally do something about it. The reality is this thinking could not be further from the truth. If you want to see changes, you need to bring data to the table. In your job, you are surrounded by useful data. Each day you record useful data, but chances are that very little is done with that data. Learn the art of business by driving change through data supported decisions.


While some believe reliability and safety go hand in hand, the reality is reliability depends on safety. If your equipment is not safe, then it cannot be reliable. On the other hand, at plants where reliability is a big issue, the pressure is on operators to keep equipment up and running. This can result in operators cutting corners with safety to maintain throughput. It is important for everyone to understand that in order to have safe and reliable equipment, everyone has to do the right things when it comes to safety. Cutting corners on safety to keep equipment running doesn’t help anyone and puts personal health and safety at risk. If you have been cutting corners on safety at your plant, do the right thing starting today – shut it off and demand that someone make it right.


If your job is to operate a piece of equipment – it doesn’t matter if it is a Boeing 747, a chemical reactor, paper machine, steam turbine, or flour mill – you should be using a detailed checklist to start up the machine, shut it down, make sure it is fit for use, or perform a product change. The checklist wasn’t created because someone thinks they are smarter than you or that equipment operators are dummies; the checklist was created to ensure we do our jobs in the correct order and sequence to guarantee safety and reliability. If you are still skeptical, think for a moment about how much training the average commercial airline pilot has to go through to become certified to pilot or co-pilot an aircraft. Does anyone doubt their intelligence? Yet each and every flight, the pilots go through a detailed checklist to ensure the aircraft they are operating is fit for use.

The best equipment operators enjoy their work, see the value in what they do and, quite often, have some great ideas on how to improve both processes and equipment. And they do this while working rotating shifts, often scheduled to work while their children and families get on school buses, or play in ballgames and concerts. Yet, when something goes wrong in the middle of the night, while engineers and managers are home sleeping, they are the first people we seek to blame for the upset.

These top 10 items for equipment operators will improve the lives of everyone who work at a manufacturing facility. And for those who question the important work of operators and maintenance people, then perhaps they should try working at least three months of back-to-back rotating shifts to truly appreciate the sacrifices these people make to keep things running.

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Douglas Plucknette

Doug Plucknette is the founder of Reliability Solutions, Inc., and has worked with large industrial companies worldwide, helping them improve their reliability and operational performance. He is the author of the books, “Reliability Centered Maintenance Using RCM Blitz™” and “Clean, Green and Reliable,” and has published over 60 articles. He has been a featured speaker at numerous industry conferences.

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