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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Maintenance Organizations

Covey first published his book in 1990.  More than 14 million copies have since been sold and it’s been translated into over a dozen languages.  In his book, Dr. Steven Covey breaks success in life down to the everyday practice of these seven habits:

      Habit 1 – Be Proactive
      Habit 2 – Begin with the end in mind
      Habit 3 – Put first things first
      Habit 4 – Seek Win/Win
      Habit 5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood
      Habit 6 – Synergize
      Habit 7 – Sharpen the Saw

These Habits not only apply to personal productivity, but to organizational productivity as well.

Each of these—and how they relate to maintenance organizations—are covered in detail in this article.  Here is the “Seven Habits” story and how it can be applied to any Maintenance Organization:

In his teachings, Dr. Covey  strongly encourages his students to go out and teach what they’ve learned as soon as possible after learning his material.  There are three reasons for this.  One, it reinforces the concepts for the person putting the teaching together.  Next, it spreads these concepts to others who might not be familiar with them, and third, it’s likely that many people hearing these ideas will be interested enough in what’s taught to pursue their education in these matters more fully.

The above scenario is what Covey refers to as a “win/win,” which is Habit 4.  The idea is you don’t stop here.  Reading or listening to these concepts once is great, but for them to really become “Habits” one must revisit the material over and over again—i.e. buy the book.  As more people in your maintenance department, and throughout your organization, adopt these habits, the culture will transform from the inside out.  Reliability based maintenance, and all the benefits that come with it, can become a way of life.

Habit 1 – Be Proactive

Being proactive is the ability to control one’s own environment, rather than have it control you.  It’s self determination.  It’s  choice.  It’s the power to decide your response to stimulus, conditions, and circumstances.

The title of the first habit, and our frequent use of the same term in the maintenance and reliability field, is what originally drew my attention to the correlation between Dr. Covey’s 7 Habits and successful maintenance organizations.  Reactive maintenance organizations have a tendency to jump or react when a piece of equipment fails. Proactive organizations respond based on a predetermined strategy.

 MaintMgmt_Figure 1

Embracing Habit 1 means you are in the driver’s seat, and you can decide which  actions to take.

Take Charge: In a ranked list of companies in any industry, there is one at the top and one at the bottom.  Your organization is likely somewhere in-between.  Companies move up that list when they realize that doing things the way they have always been done continually yields the same results.  Organizations have the power to make the necessary changes to move up the ranks by choosing to take initiative, and embrace proactive change.

Realize That We Are Responsible: Being responsible is often viewed as being the person who should accept the blame when something goes wrong.  Accepting that, we can then identify all the necessary things that should be done to ensure that things don’t go wrong.  In other words, create the steps for success.

Step Down the Path of the Effective Organization: The organizations at the top of that list we mentioned have come to these realizations.  They’ve decided what works in their organization, and they have learned and reinforced the habits of doing it effectively.

Rule Your Equipment: When you are proactive you rule your equipment, it doesn’t rule you.  Successful organizations have found that the best way to do this is by moving up the F/PF (Failure/Potential Failure) Curve.  That move is accomplished primarily through the use of predictive methodologies (PdM) and quantifiable PMs integrated with good Planning and Scheduling.

Decide to Make a Plan: Then, do it.  Successful organizations design and build highly effective maintenance departments.  You have the power!  Deciding to make a plan segues us to Habit 2…

Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind

This is the habit of leadership—both personal and organizational—and leading yourself and the organization toward your goals.  Dr. Covey professes that everything is created twice—once in the mental realm and then a second time in the physical realm.  By first developing a clear mental vision of our desired results, we will be able to create the necessary steps to achieve that vision.  Habit two is all about creating that vision.

Effective maintenance organizations have taken the time to create strategy plans for various aspects of their organizations.  They make sure to include a good cross representation of the stakeholders in the formation of these plans.  The output is always a document that can then be referred to and adhered to.  Here are some  areas in which strategy plans should be created and questions that should be asked:

Maintenance Strategy:  Does a run-to-failure or a reactive strategy make sense to your organization?  Do you want your jobs planned and scheduled in advance?  Who in your organization should  decide which equipment gets repaired first?  What should the decision be based on—criticality of the equipment and job priority, or the squeaky wheel supervisor?

Reliability Strategy:  Are you going to use predictive methodologies on all of your equipment to which it applies?  Or, are you going to apply it only to certain systems?  Will you use on-line monitoring, or route-based monitoring?  Are quantitative PMs being utilized now, and if not, do you plan to apply the resources to scrub your PMs and make them better?  Do you use/will you use reliability engineers?

Material Strategy:  Will you have a lean storeroom, or a storeroom that never suffers stock outs?  What will you base that decision on?  Will you enter bill-of-material (BOM) data into your computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) ahead of time, or as you make entries for  equipment as it’s repaired?  Who’ll enter that data? What about kitting, or vendor managed inventories (VMI)? 

Employee Strategy: Have you identified the skills your employees need to perform their jobs well?  Do you know which employees have those skills and which don’t? Are you going to hire for new skills, use contractors, or train your existing employees in the new skills they need?  It’s obvious that having the answers to these questions in advance, can head off major  issues in the future.

MaintMgmt_Figure 2

In the graph shown in Figure 2, the top line is representative of companies that don’t have an end in mind.  They adopt reliability tools and strategies on an ad-hoc basis without ever reaping the synergistic benefits of a good reliability program.  Without a plan, you’re planning to fail.  When you begin with the end in mind—an end that entails an efficient and effective maintenance organization, that utilizes its CMMS to the fullest, that plans and schedules jobs in advance, and engineers the root cause of failures out of their equipment—you will see the earliest rewards for your efforts and investments.  Keep in mind, those rewards are not only financial as shown by the green line in the graph, but are also quality-of-life issues,  i.e., no more calls in the middle of the night on a weekend.  A well run Maintenance department should be boring. 

Habit 3 – Put First Things First

This is the habit of personal management.  But, it applies to organizations as well.  It’s about organizing and implementing activities in line with the aims established in Habit 2.  If Habit 2 is the first, or mental creation of a vision, then Habit 3 is the second, or physical creation of that vision via the creation of, and adherence to, an organized implementation plan. 

Having a documented plan allows important activities (urgent or not) to never be at the mercy of the unimportant activities (urgent or not).

The steps of a successful  organization’s implementation plan are  determined through the assessment of their maintenance and reliability practices.  This is usually best accomplished when done by an outside, or objective, set of eyes.  The improvement steps resulting from these assessments include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

Business Processes:

   - Instituting a cultural change management program
   - Developing key performance indicators (KPIs)
   - Developing workflows for all key processes

Foundational Elements:
   -  Verifying/scrubbing of the Master Equipment List (MEL)
   -  Criticality ranking of equipment

 Inventory Strategy:
   -  Standardization of inventory content/taxonomy
   -  BOM development
   -  Storeroom design & kitting integration
   -  Stock optimization

   -  Determination of PdM baseline
   -  Performance of RCM and FMEA on applicable systems and equipment
   -  Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCMA)
   -  Application of appropriate PdM
   -  PM development and/or optimization

   -  Skills needs analysis
   -  Skills assessments
   -  Training Plan & Schedule

Steps should be included to ensure the plans are tracked, measured, adjusted if necessary, and adhered to.

Focus Efforts Where They Count:  In Dr. Covey’s words, “Is your ladder against the right wall?”  I’ve often asked maintenance organizations,  “If two pieces of equipment go down at the same time, and you only have one crew to repair them, which one do you send the crew to first?  Some of the answers are amazing.  There should be no hesitation.  Crews should be assigned according to equipment criticality and job priority.   Following the seven habits  eliminates this dilemma because during Habit 2, such rules were constructed with input from the appropriate parties.  Everyone is aware of the strategy,  and is on the same page.

Using Dr. Covey’s time management matrix, reproduced in Figure 3, allows us to identify where our time is being spent.

 MaintMngmt_Figure 3

Quadrant I is where reactive organizations spend most of their time.  Emergency breakdowns and fire fighting take place in Quadrant I.  These are things that are usually both  important and urgent.

Quadrant II  is where activities that are important, but not urgent, take place.  It’s activities in this quadrant  that keep us out of Quadrant I.   Reactive organizations have not yet made this realization.

In our personal life, these are activities such as exercising, eating right, and going for medical and dental checkups.  Maintenance-related Quadrant II activities include:  equipment inspections, quantitative PMs, implementing and using predictive methodologies, creation of workflows, training to workflows, and entering foundational data into the Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS).  By living in Quadrant II, we proactively head off the causes that have us work in Quadrant I.  Remember, Quadrant I activities are more expensive because they are unplanned, and unplanned activities are always more expensive than planned activities.

Habit 4 – Think Win-Win

Dr. Covey calls this the habit of interpersonal leadership, necessary because achievements are largely dependent on cooperative efforts with others.  He says that win-win is based on the assumption that there is plenty for everyone, and that success follows a cooperative approach more naturally than the confrontation of win/lose situations.

When a successful organization finds a solution to a situation they always ask, “How is this going to affect the processes before and after this one?”  If it’s going to help one area but hurt another, then in the long run it’s not going to work.  All solutions have to help all the parties concerned.  Some groups to consider:  finance, purchasing, operations, marketing,  human resources, employees, stockholders, the neighboring community,  even the local business owner down the street.  We’re all on the same team.

An example of a win/win can be found in organizations that practice full integration between maintenance and operations.  Communicating with operations to schedule planned maintenance activities within a reasonable timeframe allows both parties to better utilize their resources and adhere to their schedules.

Habit 5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

One of the great maxims of the modern age, this is Covey’s habit of communication, and it’s extremely powerful.  Covey helps to explain this in his simple analogy “diagnose before you prescribe”, which is simple,  effective, and essential for developing and maintaining positive relationships in all aspects.  Habit 5 is about communication and listening to the customer—in this case operations, employees, and management.

What do they mean when they say no?  In presentations, I’ve often used the story of a production supervisor who refused to let a maintenance department have a piece of equipment for as long as they said they needed it.

What did the supervisor really mean when he said they couldn’t have the equipment for eight hours?   Did he mean that if maintenance had the equipment for eight hours he wouldn’t make his production for the month?  Did he mean he believed the equipment may be down longer?   Maybe he felt that if it was down eight hours he’d have to go over his overtime targets for the month.  Did he mean he’d rather have the job done partially or incorrectly?  It’s possible that any or all of the first three may be true, but it’s highly unlikely that he’d want the job done partially or incorrectly only to have it fail again later, especially if that meant he wouldn’t make his targets under any possible recovery plan.  Until we know what exactly his concerns are, how do we know how to find the win-win in that situation?

In dealing with any party, a highly effective maintenance organization should seek to find out what the concerns of the party are before formulating a response.

“If you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me, you first need to
understand me” – Steven Covey

Habit 6 – Synergy

Covey says this is the habit of creative cooperation.  The principle is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which implicitly lays down the challenge to see the benefits and potential in another person’s contribution.

In our example earlier, operations didn’t want to have the machine down at all, and maintenance felt they needed it for a full eight hours to repair the equipment properly.  What if they compromised and agreed to repairing the equipment in four hours?  In that case, neither party would get what they wanted.  In reality, that’s a lose-lose situation, the worst of the four possible outcomes in Habit 4.

Compromise should be a red flag that things aren’t right.  Instead, to find the win-win, one must proactively seek first to understand what it is that operations really needs.  It might turn out that it’s just not a good time for the equipment to be down.   It’s possible that it wasn’t a good time for maintenance either.  Maybe maintenance needed eight hours  because the welder was out, or a necessary part wasn’t in-house, so a part would have to be fabricated.  During the conversation, it may be discovered that a combination of a temporary repair and a reduced load would allow operations to get their production out and allow maintenance to order the part and align all the necessary resources to fix the job right.

Now, instead of a lose-lose, there is a win-win.  Seeking to understand the other group’s needs is key in establishing trust between departments.  Some common activities during which synergy takes place in highly successful organizations are: Reliability Centered Maintenance Analysis (RCMA) sessions, Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA), Criticality  Ranking sessions, and through Planner’s reviews of feedback forms completed by craftsmen at the close of Planned Maintenance activities.

Habit 7 – Sharpen the Saw

Habit 7 is the law of continuous improvement.  It’s about personal development and the development of personnel.  We read articles like this one and attend seminars and conferences because we want to develop our skills, and that’s very admirable.  Part of our employee strategy mentioned in Habit 2 may revolve around training or Sharpening the Saw.  Effective organizations recognize that employees can’t be held responsible to do something in a certain way, if they haven’t been properly trained.  They commonly use workflows as the preferred method of mapping out organizational activities that can then be easily followed and adhered to.  They also recognize that precision maintenance skills and predictive maintenance skills are not always skills craftspeople bring to the company with them. 

When companies proactively train personnel, they must first establish the end goal.  For example, an end goal might be for employees to perform the tasks as outlined in the job plans.  Some necessary first steps would be to find out what skills are needed to accomplish that and what skills they already possess.  Doing so allows for targeted training, which is less expensive than blanket training and is also more palatable to the student—another win/win.  Learning additional skills often leads to job enhancement, which usually leads to job enrichment for the employee.


This is an extremely high overview of the 7 Habits and how they apply to successful maintenance organizations.  Dr. Covey is listed as one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People for good reason.  Practicing the 7 Habits has increased the productivity and quality of life of countless people.  Read and re-read these 7 Habits looking for more ways in which they can apply in your life and in your organization.   Research the topic more by  reading or listening to the original works by Dr. Steven Covey or by contacting the author of this article.

Paul Swatkowski, CMRP, is a management/training consultant with 29 years of manufacturing, processing, and consulting experience.  Paul has a background as a Trainer at United Technologies’ Corporate University, and worked as a Quality Manager and Quality Engineer in the Aviation Industry.  He has extensive experience which includes world-wide delivery of; Corporate Gap Analysis Assessments, Total Productive Manufacturing, One Piece Flow, Kanban, 5S-Space consolidation, Value Stream Mapping, Root Cause Analysis, Mistake Proofing, Lean Manufacturing, Inventory Reduction, Reliability Centered Maintenance Analysis, Failure Modes & Effects Analysis, Workflow Development, and Maintenance Planning and Scheduling.  A proven problem solver, Paul is highly effective at conveying the necessary information to foster change.  He defines, develops, and delivers world-class training in maintenance and reliability best-practices to external MRG customers as well as internal employees.  Paul has direct hands-on experience with instructional design methods  and has led delivery of over 100 formal customer training courses in both on-site and public venues internationally.  He can be reached at

Maintenance and Steven Covey.pdf

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