To be truly reliable, an organization must demonstrate sustainable competence in reliability. This means the organization, as a whole, routinely makes decisions and takes actions that support asset reliability. The reliability culture is the way it does business. It is considered the most effective and efficient mode of operation; it is the cultural norm.

On the surface it sounds easy, but few organizations reach that state and even fewer sustain it over the years. The reason may be that a work culture has been trained to question and push against the status quo. They are skeptical of “that’s the way we do things here” and push for change, sometimes just for the sake of change without identified benefit.

In the 1970s, Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International, developed the Conscious Competence Ladder. There are four stages of competency and they were originally developed to help people understand their thoughts and emotions during a difficult learning process. The four stages are defined as:

  1. Unconscious incompetence;
  2. Conscious incompetence;
  3. Conscious competence;
  4. Unconscious competence.

However, these stages also can be applied to organizations in the context of reliability. The biggest leap for an organization is between stages two and three. It is difficult to admit incompetence when working hard on something. For example, few individuals become star athletes even though thousands, maybe millions, have that goal at some point in their life. The good news is there is no limit to how many organizations can be reliability stars.

Therefore, it is in the best interest of every organization to strive for reliability competence. It is a skill that is difficult to learn. It is even more difficult to sustain, because, when done right – nothing happens. It’s like that old joke: there aren’t any elephants, so my scare tactics must work. So, if nothing happens, our reliability program must be working.

However, reliability can be measured. Asset reliability can be measured by mean time between failures (MTBF), total cost of ownership (TCO), expected lifespan and many other factors. If reliability can, in fact, be measured, then competence in reliability must be a real thing. Competent organizations use these metrics to drive reliability into every asset decision. So, what is organizational competency?

Let’s examine the four stages of competency and how they look in a typical organization.

Figure 1: The four stages of the conscious competence ladder

Stage 1

The first stage is unconscious incompetence. In this stage, you don’t even know there is anything wrong. The organization does not realize it is unreliable or it does not value reliability as a competitive advantage.

The unconscious incompetent organization seeks to save money today without considering long-term implications. Examples might include not changing oil or other wear items until there is evidence of machine complications. These organizations do not make the connection between symptoms, warning signs and the eventual failure until after the failure occurs.

Stage 2

An organization that has incurred significant failure may enter into the conscious incompetence stage. This organization realizes its past actions have negatively affected reliability. However, it is not sure what actions to take to ensure reliability nor how reliability impacts the total cost of ownership. These organizations are actually the ones at the biggest risk of failure when it comes to reliability. That’s because they are aware of a problem, they just don’t know how to fix it.

These organizations often institute reliability programs or offices without the full realization that the entire organization needs to change. There needs to be a fundamental mind-set change at all levels of organizational leadership. The process and metrics must be put in place to drive asset reliability into all decision-making.

This is where reliability leaders must take a stand, declare the new future, and implement action to make that new future. The Uptime® Elements and the ISO55000 series are enablers to helping organizations understand the breadth of the change that needs to take place. Indicators of conscious incompetence include:

  • Having a preventive maintenance program, but not evaluating its effectiveness;
  • Starting an operator maintenance program, but not providing management support to review findings of operators;
  • Identifying engineering changes, but not implementing them because they would cause project delay or cost overrun;
  • Instituting condition monitoring programs, but not using them to drive repairs until the repair is obvious.

Organizations that are in conscious incompetence may use the phrase, “we tried that and it didn’t work.” It is hard to change. Think of changing a golf swing or learning a new language. You should not expect results as soon as you start any program. Discipline in following the program (e.g., sticking with the new swing or practicing the language) needs to stay in place until the conscious competence emerges. Accept that failures in your reliability program will occur and that they do not negate the value of the program overall.

Taking equipment from an unhealthy state to base condition costs money and takes time. The conscious incompetence phase is the most expensive stage of reliability. When you go looking for defects, you will find them. Consciously instituting reliability initiatives is expensive and can be more disheartening than the unconscious incompetence phase. New techniques and involvement of the whole organization create a large list of maintenance repairs that need to be prioritized and funded.

The conscious incompetence phase, unfortunately, is where most organizations sit. It is difficult to recognize incompetence. An inward focus and a tendency to excuse or explain away unreliability characterizes these organizations.

When in doubt, assume your organization is incompetent. Work toward developing processes that drive long-term reliability decisions. Use key metrics that drive reliability into the decision-making of all organizational levels and asset lifecycle stages. Empower the workforce to question why failures occur and develop solutions to prevent or mitigate defects.

The move from incompetent to competent is evident when asset health is routinely greater than 90 percent and costs are predictable. Asset health is defined as the percent of assets that are evaluated by any preventive maintenance program that do not have an identified defect.

Stage 3

If an organization can make the leap from conscious incompetent to conscious competent, then it has made it over the valley of despair and is effective at reliability. These organizations are successful at reliability, but they must continually and consciously work at it. They regularly consult their processes and make sure they are following them.

These organizations may revert back to conscious incompetence, but their awareness of what good looks like should drive them back onto the path of reliability competence. Good metrics will help to drive them back to competency. Indicators of these organizations include:

  • Project phase gates with all departments represented and having an equal voice (total cost of ownership and reliability targets are embedded in project deliverables);
  • Rigorous failure analysis programs, with systemic and latent root causes identified and funding justified to make sustainable improvements;
  • Operating systems that are understood by all departments;
  • Costs are predictable;
  • The price of both reliability and unreliability are evaluated to determine lowest total cost.

The conscious competent organization has a culture without fear. Colleagues are not afraid to question why or make suggestions for reliability. This questioning and suggesting process is good for business, but requires that team members understand their boundaries and how decisions are made.

Not every suggestion is a good one and sometimes the answers to questions are not available for confidentiality or other reasons. As long as team members feel they are being treated fairly and given information they need to know, these boundaries can be managed. Conscious competence takes strong leaders who are willing to delegate properly, but also take responsibility appropriately. This strong leadership is what is needed to keep the organization from slipping back into conscious incompetence. Reliability competence requires understanding long-term implications.

Stage 4

Those rare organizations that make the transition to unconscious competence have practiced the conscious so long that they innately become unconscious. New employees and visitors may make them realize what they have accomplished. Indicators of these organizations expand those of the conscious competence to include:

  • Asset health metric >90 percent and understood at all organizational levels;
  • Cost decisions driven to the lowest level;
  • Standard work practiced and driving continuous improvement;
  • Line of sight from decisions and actions to results.

The Cycle

Because reliability is a journey, not an end state, organizations must continue to practice and learn. This means that while unconscious competence may be the major state of these rarefied organizations, they must continually work in the conscious zone to adapt and keep pace with the latest technologies and innovations. Just as athletes continue to train and be challenged by others in their field, organizations must seek, learn and adapt new techniques to remain reliable and continue to satisfy their stakeholders.

Kate Kerrigan

Kate Kerrigan, is a Reliability and Operations Excellence Engineer, Certified Reliability Leader and coach. Kate specializes in maintenance and reliability management and has in-depth experience implementing total productive maintenance (TPM) and lean manufacturing. Mitigating risks and maximizing company assets is her mission.

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