Don't miss MaximoWorld 2024, the premier conference on AI for asset management!

Experience the future of asset management with cutting-edge AI at MaximoWorld 2024.

Sign Up

Please use your business email address if applicable

The Tao of Reliability: Applying Eastern Philosophy to Maintenance Operations

The Tao of Reliability: Applying Eastern Philosophy to Maintenance Operations


Theoretical physicist Dr. Fritjof Capra explores the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism in “The Tao of Physics”. Inspired by his work, explore the core principles of Taoism and their practical applications for elevating reliability in maintenance practices. Balance yin and yang energies by integrating passive and feminine techniques into maintenance strategy. Embrace the concept of Wu Wei, the Taoist notion of "effortless action," and aim to bring ease and efficiency to maintenance operations.

Understanding the Principles of Taoism:

Tao, the central concept of Taoist philosophy, is defined by Oxford as “the absolute principle underlying the universe,” a “code of behavior that is in harmony with the natural order.” Tao is living in harmony with the laws of nature, even those unbeknownst. Tao brings natural order, which occurs when natural flow and cycles are honored. Working in alignment with natural order would facilitate smooth operation and minimize energy expenditure.

Aligning your maintenance department with Tao would be working with the laws of nature by honoring the natural life cycle of equipment. Act mindfully and with intention. Concepts like mindfulness, intentionality, and purposeful action are familiar concepts for maintenance strategists and reliability experts.

Later sections will explore two concepts: yin and yang, complementary opposites seen naturally, and Wu Wei or “effortless action”, but the Taoism/reliability overlap spreads beyond these concepts. Continuous improvement and optimization align with Taoist philosophy when mindfully applied.

Unity is another Taoist concept overlapping reliability. It is the idea that all things are interconnected. A strong maintenance department will recognize unity. All people, machines, processes, systems, and departments are interconnected and part of the bigger whole. Failures are systematic, and are never isolated to the specific location of the failure itself.

Yin and Yang in Maintenance:

Yin and yang are complementary opposites, describing the polar nature of reality: dark and light, passive and active, feminine and masculine. According to Taoism, natural order requires a balance of yin and yang.

Yin is passive, receptive, nurturing, reflective, and ultimately associated with femineity. Yang is active, assertive, hard, and associated with masculinity. Maintenance and engineering are traditionally masculine, both in workforce and approach.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF) data in 2019, women comprised about 15.7% of the engineering workforce in the United States. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2020, women represented about 3.4% of the workforce in the "Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations" category.

Yin and yang are not as simple as female and male; they are feminine and masculine energy. One concept of yin and yang is that nothing exists wholly isolated from its opposite. While I look forward to seeing the rate of women in engineering and maintenance continue to grow, there are other ways to increase the yin in your maintenance department.

  • Integrate passive techniques, like condition monitoring.
  • Be strategic with your passivity.
  • Be soft and nurturing with your people, equipment, and processes.
  • Be receptive to information and reflective with your learnings.
  • Be mindful with strategy and execution. Stay planned, yet flexible.

Wu Wei in Maintenance:

Wu Wei is “effortless action” or “non-action." This fundamental principle of Taoism combines yin and yang energy and can be applied to bring ease to maintenance operations. Wu Wei is not complete inaction but rather acting in harmony with nature; Wu Wei is acting with ease.

A Wu Wei-based maintenance strategy would vary depending on teams and processes, as it would appease the strengths and tend to the weaknesses of each of your employees, processes, and resources. Ways to incorporate a Wu Wei maintenance strategy include:

The Pareto Principle/The 80-20 Rule

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Applied to operations, a significant portion of the results are driven by a minority of the efforts. The Pareto Principle highlights the importance of focusing on the most critical factors that yield the most significant impact. It is used to work strategically; work smarter, not harder. Identify the critical 20% of assets that cause 80% of issues and focus your efforts there.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

Data-driven decision-making is working with nature. Work with your history and evidence of what is happening in the present. At the same time, respect the intuition and experience of your team. Knowledgeable feedback from stakeholders is data. Lean into the strengths of your team.

Just like Taoism, reliability is paradoxical. A reliability paradox that supports a Wu Wei-based maintenance strategy is infant mortality, the increased likelihood of equipment failure after maintenance. Perform maintenance only when dictated by data or experience and avoid unnecessary maintenance.

Strategic Continuous Improvement

Focusing on impactful improvements based on data and feedback from your technicians and operators will facilitate continuous improvement. Optimize your process where it counts, based on the data and feedback from your team. Focus on bottlenecks in your processes and frequent failure points.

Empowering your team is the easiest way to improve continuously. Listen to your team. Allow for experimentation. While this may sometimes result in mistakes, there is always something learned. Vow to never reduce your team in response to their improvement efforts. Instead, refocus obsolete roles to leadership and future improvement projects, allowing your improvements to compound.


Incorporating Taoist philosophy into maintenance fosters a harmonious, reliable approach. Guided by mindfulness and intention, embrace yin and nurture equipment with passive techniques. Through the Pareto Principle, data-driven decision-making, and continuous improvement, focus on critical elements that yield significant results to embrace a Wu Wei strategy.

Reliability's paradoxical nature benefits from proactive yet restrained, intuitive yet data-driven approaches. No strategy can stand without the support of the team. Empowering our team members and allowing them space for growth and learning is at the heart of the Wu Wei approach. By listening, observing, and supporting their endeavors, we cultivate an environment where effortless action naturally unfolds.

Mindful of the interconnectedness in our maintenance departments. Together, we can elevate our operations to new heights. Find enduring reliability through Tao.

Rebecca Nolan

Rebecca Nolan is a highly experienced maintenance professional with over 9 years of experience in the field. She specializes in maintenance strategy, reliability, and operations improvement, with a particular focus on vibration analysis and condition monitoring. Throughout her career, Nolan has worked with a variety of industries, including manufacturing, new construction, and facility operations. Her manufacturing experience spans multiple product types, including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, gypsum, cosmetics, and tooling. Her work has helped organizations to optimize their maintenance programs, minimize downtime, and improve overall equipment effectiveness. She currently manages her own business, where she helps organizations to develop and implement effective maintenance strategies. In addition to her work in maintenance, Nolan is an accomplished educator. She teaches engineering courses at ECPI and NJIT, sharing her expertise with the next generation of maintenance professionals. Nolan is deeply passionate about making a difference in the maintenance field. She believes that strong maintenance practices are essential to ensuring safe, efficient, and reliable operations across industries. Nolan is committed to continuous improvement and improving organizational outcomes through innovative and effective strategies.

ChatGPT with
Find Your Answers Fast