The faces on the group that showed up for my training today look rough, weathered and exhausted. As they walk into the classroom wearing the standard deep blue version of the maintenance uniform with their name over the pocket, each is carrying a cup of co­ffee and their emergency lifeline: the walkie-talkie. As we make our way through introductions, I let them know I started my career as a tradesperson, went through an apprenticeship program and worked as a journeyman while going to night school for reliability engineering.

I let them know I have walked in their shoes, but I was lucky enough to work with a group of young guys who were driven to change and improve the way we did maintenance reliability on our equipment.

"We could have left things just the way they were when we started at the site, but no one really wants to work on the same failures over and over again. So, we started taking some time to figure out why things failed and some extra time to make sure we installed things correctly," I explain to the group.

Randy (I know this is his name because it's on his shirt) points a finger at me and says, "Well, you never worked here. We don't have any extra time to think about why things fail and we have even less time to play around with precision alignment and torque wrenches. From the time I put my lock on a piece of equipment, I have an operations supervisor tapping me on the shoulder asking me when I am going to be done."

Randy is the oldest in the group and he isn't at all angry as he shares what life is like in their world. He is simply stating the facts.

He goes on to say, "We have tried almost anything and everything you can talk to us about in the 32 years I have worked here and while some things worked for a short time, as soon as we get something good going, they give us a new manager or supervisor who has his own thoughts on how things should be done. We've just learned to go along for the ride; they pay us by the hour and we work lots of ‘em."

I smile, look him in the eye, and ask, "And you like this, working lots of hours and overtime?"

Randy leans back in his chair, takes a sip of his coffee and replies, "We are worn out. Most of us have grandkids, sore knees, sore backs and plenty of things to do at home. If you got a better way, share the secret because we want to learn it."

The secret to changing Randy's work culture isn't a technology, like vibration analysis or airborne ultrasound, and it isn't a tool, like failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA), reliability centered maintenance (RCM), or root cause analysis (RCA). It's called a business case. While these technologies and tools work, what causes them to fail is that very few people take the time to show the business case for change.

It's the only way to drive change and it's the only way to sustain change because the data/numbers you use to help drive the change and the data/numbers you use to show that the change was a solid business decision will help sustain the change.

So, if Randy's team wants things to change, they have to get into the game and start using facts and figures to drive change. I have been in this business myself for going on 35 years and I can honestly tell you that I have yet to meet a single manager who changed anything because the maintenance guys were complaining about it.

Let's use airborne ultrasound as an example. If I was a maintenance technician and I thought our plant should be using airborne ultrasound as a technology to detect potential failures, I would take the time to build a business case that detailed where I thought the technology could provide a return on investment. You don't have to spend five days doing this, simply look through your maintenance history.

  • How many air leaks have you repaired in the last year?
  • How many pneumatic instruments have you repaired/replaced year to year over the past three years?
  • How many work orders and how much money have you spent on the compressed air system year to year over the past three years?
  • How much has the plant, building, or site spent on energy year to year over the last three years?

Put a simple two or three page business case together with these facts, along with other uses for airborne ultrasound. Show management the potential cost savings and who you think might be best suited for training to use it.

Now here comes the big secret, the one everyone really needs to learn and hang on to because this is where most people mess it up.

Once you have the new ultrasound tool - and remember this works for everything you want to change and sustain - measure the success of the change. For example, you now have airborne ultrasound and because you have the technology, you have identified and repaired 342 air leaks over the last six months. As a result, utility bills have gone down an average of $4,124 per month over the last four months, the number of pneumatic instrument failures is down seven percent, and you are now using the technology to identify bearing failures and to detect corona, tracking and arcing on electrical panels. Continue to do this and show the business advantage for having the tool and you will continue to use it.

It works on everything. Bring in a new manager who wants to change things and you now have a very clear before and after shot of why you need to continue to do this. I have used it to justify torque wrenches, precision alignment tools and three different technologies, and even to stop one of our young engineers from making programming changes to our programmable logic controller (PLC). You want to change the program, show the business case and prove it.

As class ends on the first day and Randy is leaving the classroom, he stops to shake my hand and says, "I can't wait to go home and tell my wife the most important tool I have is math I was taught in grade school. She's a teacher who's been telling me for years that I work too hard."

The business case is, indeed, the most important tool in the box.

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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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