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Is Your Maintenance Lean or Lean?

Low cost per unit of output (e.g., ton, barrel, car, etc.) is the goal, not low cost. You want to reduce waste in all its forms. Although cost savings are often a by-product of the process, that’s not all. Less waste translates into energy savings, more efficient and effective use of labor and materials, fewer accident risks, fewer environmental risks and working smarter not harder. Lean maintenance means no wasted effort, motion, materials, consumables, excessive inventories, or other expensive resources.

Accounting systems are overly simplistic and the easiest way to higher profits in the short term (another driver of destructive behavior) is to cut costs. You can cut maintenance all together, but you’ll stop producing very soon afterwards – that extreme is well understood. But how do you know if your maintenance is too lean?

Look at measures used for your maintenance performance for guidance. I really like “schedule compliance” or “schedule success,” a far more positive way to look at it. Thank you to Doc Palmer for teaching me that one. You cannot achieve a high level of schedule success without having a number of other things working well. Breakdowns won’t be running your schedule for you. That means your proactive work, such as preventive maintenance (PM), predictive maintenance (PdM) and detective maintenance (DM), are all working well. You get them done on schedule and you follow up in a timely manner on problems that are revealed. This implies you’ve got effective PMs, PdMs and DMs defined, and perhaps you’ve invested in reliability centered maintenance (RCM) already. Sticking to a schedule suggests that there is a schedule, therefore, you successfully schedule planned work.

Your planning must be effective as well. You can’t get work done without needed materials, parts, tools and support equipment as defined in your plans. Your supply chain must be supporting you in a timely manner with the right materials at the right time and in the right place.

All of these processes must be working; measure them and make sure you are not optimizing one at the expense of the other. Getting all these processes working efficiently and effectively indicates that they are mutually supportive processes and not mutually exclusive. Do your performance measures encourage mutual support or are they designed as if each process operates in its own isolated silo?

Make sure your performance rewards system is not encouraging the wrong behaviors. Punishments are the biggest no-no. Punish a mistake and the behavior (which actually may be positive) that resulted in the mistake will stop. Mistakes happen no matter how well-intentioned your actions. I mess up every day as owner of my own business, but I certainly don’t intend to do it – it just happens. If I beat myself up for each mistake that costs me money, I’d be out of business long ago. It’s okay to make a mistake if you learn from it. The second time the mistake happens, it shows you didn’t learn and that is bad behavior. Encourage learning; you want to see changes and you want to reward the changes that make a positive impact.

It’s difficult to discourage wrong behaviors. Just look at our legal systems and you’ll see plenty of evidence that doesn’t work well. The behaviors continue and punishment doesn’t make a dent in them. We end up spending more incarcerating our failures as a society. Isn’t that what we do by punishing for mistakes in maintenance (or anywhere in business for that matter)? Fire the guy who just learned an important (and usually expensive) lesson and you are destined to repeat it. That’s not lean.

Stop encouraging the wrong behaviors. They are often habits – bad ones. We don’t break habits easily either. Do you reward the crews who put in herculean efforts to bring you back online after a major breakdown? If so, you are rewarding the wrong behavior and encouraging the habit. Why did the crew or management system allow the breakdown in the first place? That sort of breakdown should have been found and avoided; that’s our job in maintenance. We are being paid to keep things running, not to allow them to break so we can waste money fixing them. There is always a lesson in a breakdown, but what is it? Are you doing root cause failure analysis to identify the technical, human and systemic events and conditions that allowed the failure to progress to breakdown? That sort of analysis takes time away from repairs, but it leads to lean results. Change the conditions that lead to the failures; your processes and management practices will probably change, too. Replace the old (bad) habits with new ones. That takes effort. On average, it takes about 21 days to ensure a new practice becomes a new habit. New (good) habits will replace old (bad) ones, but don’t expect it to happen without a lot of dedication to the new habit in those first few weeks.

Can you do all this on your own as a lowly maintenance manager? Not a chance. Maintenance is one of those business functions that impacts and interacts (sometimes indirectly) with almost every other functional area of the business – human resources, payroll, benefits, IT/IM, supply chain, security, public relations, unions/employee associations, production, operations, engineering, projects, finance, accounting, inbound and outbound logistics, vehicle pools, etc. If you want to change, you will have an impact on one or more of those other areas under someone else’s management. You are doomed if you attempt to make any change that has any impact outside of maintenance on your own. You need collaboration and a lean mind-set throughout the organization. You won’t get that without top level buy in and sponsorship.

If your lean efforts consist of annual budget slashing, denial of budgeted courses when they are requested and periodic calls for cost reductions, then you’ll never get there. Your business will probably become sick if it isn’t there already. If you are already there, then your efforts to change the way of thinking in the minds of those who hold the purse strings have probably already been met with defeat. You need help getting the business message across. Lean requires effort and a changed mind-set. As Einstein put it so well, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.” That shift in mind-set requires a new approach, new perspectives. The effort will cost your business something in the short term, but it does not have to be a high cost unless there’s a lot of resistance, which usually comes from the middle management ranks. If you can successfully spot the low-hanging fruit that is undoubtedly there, you’ll be able to pay for much, if not all, of the effort in that area alone.

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