The multi-skill effort for maintenance

Michael H. Bos, New Standard Institute
Tags: maintenance and reliability

Nothing has affected industry more than the invention of the induction motor. Invented by Nicola Tesla at the end of the last century, the induction motor provided a very effective conversion of AC electrical power to rotating energy. Prior to its emergence, the use of water wheels and steam engines limited the size and complexity of factories. The induction motor allowed large manufacturing and processing centers to be built.

Along with this quantum leap in factory size came an accompanying leap in complexity. Mechanical equipment grew larger and ran faster. Electrical distribution systems got much bigger to fill increasing energy needs. Further developments in electronics allowed more complex process control instrumentation. This equipment allowed processes to be more under control at higher temperatures and pressures.

All of these changes forced the specialization of skills. Many of the operators of equipment could no longer repair it. Master mechanic trades and utilities trades began to spring up in factories. This specialization continued, creating further separation into machinist, millwright, pipe fitting, welding, electrical and instrument trades. More recently, an electronics technician trade was developed from the instrument and electrical trades. During this burgeoning growth, the average industrial worker was educated through the elementary grades. The creation of specific craft lines seemed to be the only practical way to match complex machinery needs with the limited knowledge and training of those available to build and repair it. In the first half of this century these craft distinctions became almost inviolate.

In today’s age, craft lines do not need to remain so clearly drawn. The average industrial worker usually has a full high school education, with many continuing on to further their knowledge with college level and trade enhancement courses. Many of these individuals even feel stifled by distinct craft lines.

Productivity – A Need for Today
Businesses today have to be ready to compete. Improved transportation and communication has shrunk the world. The talk is now of “global pressures” and “world market requirements”. Multi-national companies now blur the boundaries of industries. Single nations can no longer protect their industries, products and workers from the downward pressure on prices and wages.

American industry distinctly feels this pressure. As former third-world nations enter the global market with cheap labor, American products are often unable to compete. Rather than cut wages, move out of the country or go out of business, most American companies have decided to reduce costs by improving productivity.

The food industry has historically built its business around brand-name familiarity. Marketing strategies are built around the brand concept with the hope that increased share will be gained by imprinting the product name even deeper into the consumer’s consciousness. But even brand loyalty has its bounds. Competitors are now lowering prices or selling through discount houses with pricing attractive enough to lure even the most faithful to possibly consider substituting their regular brand. Again, the only alternative left for this industry is to improve productivity so that the brand can remain competitive.

One opportunity being implemented by many North American as a real means of improving productivity is that of multi-skilling efforts.

Multi-skilling Defined
Multi-skilling is the process of training maintenance employees in specific skills that cross the traditional trade or craft lines, and then ensuring that the work is performed. The advantage of multi-skilling is that particular jobs which historically require more than one craft – not necessarily more than one individual – are now performed by just one person.

A typical example is the change out of a small motor. Traditionally, a change-out could require an electrician to disconnect the motor leads and a millwright or mechanic to disconnect the coupling, physically replace the motor, and perform the alignment. The electrician would then return to the job, reconnect the motor leads, check and possibly change rotation. The mechanic or millwright would, at this point, be able to connect the coupling halves to complete the job.

In fact, no more than one individual should be required on this job at any time, but trade distinctions often require the close scheduling of appropriate crafts. If the loss of this motor created downtime, both individuals would remain at the job site, performing only their particular job functions as needed. In trade craft dominated work environments, this situation may be even further complicated. The requirement for an operating engineer to physically remove and replace the motor may also exist.

In multi-skilling, individuals would receive additional training, beyond the normal skills required for their craft. The mechanic or millwright would be trained in the proper disconnecting and reconnecting of the motor leads, as well as how to change motor rotation. The electrician, in turn, would be trained in coupling disassembly and reassembly, as well as alignment methods. After this training, either individual would be qualified to perform the entire job alone.

The advantage to the company in multi-skilling comes with the ease of scheduling work which, in the past, required two or more crafts or skill distinctions. The advantage to the worker is usually an incremental increase in pay for the additional skills learned and used.

Multi-skilling Pitfalls
Many multi-skilling efforts have not worked as desired. They usually fail for one or several of the following

Unrealistic expectations
When company management and the hourly workforce begin to discuss the possibilities of multi-skilling, both parties usually enter into this dialogue with the following expectations.

  • The company, feeling hampered by the requirement to send out two people on many one-person jobs, or frustrated over the effectiveness of tight scheduling of multi-skilled work, envisions the development of a race of “super mechanics” – individuals that can do anything and everything.

  • The hourly workforce, after hearing the company’s expectations, dreams of a new day in which their paychecks will be bursting at the seams from a new pay scale – the end result of having been trained in all the craft areas instead of just one.

Neither expectation is realistic. Although there may be one or two exceptional individuals who can learn and retain many skills, most will not attain this level. In addition, the ability to retain a skill is dependent on being able to use the skill on a regular basis. Ensuring that all workers trained with many skills will regularly exercise those skills could be more of a scheduling nightmare than the original problem.

For the hourly worker, a multiple wage scale is unrealistic for economic reasons. While they may be able to realize some increase in pay scales because of the higher productivity benefit to the company of multi-skilling, there will be a ceiling to that increase after which the cost of extra pay will cancel any productivity savings.

Vague goals or commitments
Many multi-skilling efforts begin without clear goals or understandings by the company of what they expect to gain. In turn, there is no commitment exacted from the workforce of what will be expected once the training has been accomplished. The end result is that after the training has been finished, the manner in which maintenance work is scheduled and performed remains the same as it was before the training effort was begun.

Inadequate definition of multi-skilling
Even if there has been an attempt to define the goals of multi-skilling and the workforce is committed to the end result, the training must adequately fit the goals. Inadequate definition of the training effort itself can leave the goal unclear in everyone’s minds as to when and how the effort will be accomplished. Again, the end result is that the scheduling and performance of maintenance remains relatively unchanged.

Failure to implement
Strange as it may seem, many companies, after negotiating an agreement for multi-skilling, have failed to quickly follow through with the plan or failed to communicate the goals, definition and work changesin the multi-skill agreement. As a result, the new level of productivity that was initially desired is not achieved and the advertised benefits are never realized.

A process of multi-skilling must be developed and begun prior to the negotiations for the program.

Successful Multi-skilling Programs
It may be evident that a successful multi-skilling effort must be well-defined from the very beginning. The company and its employees need to be of one mind with respect to:

  • What training will be required for the effort?

  • What skills will be involved?

  • What work will be covered?

  • How and when the work will be executed?

  • What specific benefits will be expected?

Answering these questions begins the process of multi-skill development. Many of the requirements of multi-skilling can be determined by identifying the frictionareas.

Identifying Friction Areas and Multi-skill Opportunities
In plants or facilities where strong craft line distinctions exist, it is imperative to identify the skills to be included in the program. The most productive areas to be considered are those which involve jobs where two or more crafts are required to complete a job, but only one or two individuals are required to do the work. These are best identified as friction areas– jobs that are causing friction in the productive deployment of personnel. These friction areas can be identified through several means.

  1. Review completed work history records. Work histories will often indicate jobs which require more skills than people normally have.

  2. Brainstorming sessions. Include first line supervision to identify potential multi-skilling areas.

  3. Structured group interviews. This group interaction tool allows for positive input and prioritization of that input for a group of people not normally involved in brainstorming sessions. Instructions for conducting a structured group interview is included.

  4. Multi-skill survey. Using a questionnaire completed by all management and effected hourly personnel, a survey is designed to poll individuals on their willingness to cross train, ideas for multi-skill opportunities and perceived problems with a multi-skill implementation.

Potential Friction Areas
Although the friction areas where multi-skilling will be considered can vary greatly from location to location, the following areas are commonly considered when multi-skilling is being looked at as a productivity improvement area:

  • Jobs combining electrical and mechanical skills (motor change-outs, some instrument

  • Jobs requiring electrical/mechanical and simple welding skills (installing conduit/pipe supports
    and running conduit/pipe)

  • Pipefitting work (pipefitter and welder are a separate craft skills)

  • Minor insulation removal and replacement (insulation work associated with piping or leak

  • Fork lift operation (assuming that fork lift driver is a bid position)

  • Minor rigging and cherry picker operation

  • Minor machining operations (turning down, reaming, broaching)

  • Oxyacetylene operations (cutting, trimming, heating)

  • Machine lubrication (refilling after rework)

Identifying Potential Gains
Once the possible training areas have been identified, the company can determine the potential productivity and financial savings to be achieved from the multi-skilling effort. The financial savings can be shared with craft employees through negotiated wage increases. This effort takes the following form (in order):

  1. Interviews are conducted with supervisors to identify friction areas.

  2. Completed work history is reviewed for friction areas and these jobs are tabulated.

  3. A study is conducted as to how these jobs could be performed under a multi-skill arrangement.

  4. Estimates are made for the hours which could have been saved through a multi-skill effort on specific jobs. A calculation of labor cost savings is performed.

  5. Tabulation is made of any productivity improvements due to reduced clock hours of downtime. The cost of lost production is calculated.

Possible wage increases can now be determined by examining all information accumulated and negotiations with workforce representatives can begin.

Defining the Training
Defining the multi-skill training is the most important step in the effort. The training must equip workers with the specific skills they will need to safely perform the duties formerly accomplished by another craft. As with all maintenance training, the curriculum of the multi-skill training effort must include the following elements:

  1. Coverage of technical aspects of the training topic.

  2. Coverage of safety aspects of the training topic.

  3. Hands-on performance of the training topic, with appropriate assessment and correction.

  4. Performance acceptance, where trained employees are given the chance to demonstrate new skills.

In many cases this training will take the form of spot training, designed to equip an employee with a critical skill; i.e., alignment, motor connection, welding and cutting.

In addition to multi-skill training, a training progression programcan be developed. It is unlikely that skilled individuals, hired from the outside would have all the combined skills required in a multi-skill environment. Also, individuals promoted to maintenance from operations or the labor pool may not be equipped with many of the skills required. A training progression program designed to bring an employee to the full multi-skill level can assure continuation of the effort in years to come.

Negotiating the Multi-skilling Program
At some point in the development of the multi-skilling effort, the company and workers will have to sit down and negotiate the benefits to both sides. This process is made much easier when there has been a clear definition of the specific areas where multi-skilling will occur. The process itself varies depending on the working relationship between the company and workers, but usually covers the following areas:

  1. General definition of areas where multi-skill training will be performed.

  2. Definition of the demonstration of performance when training has been completed.

  3. Incremental pay increases which will accompany the training effort.

  4. Grand-fathering, if necessary, of any workers currently in the maintenance workforce who simply cannot learn another craft skill. This number must be controlled to a minimum to assure the multi-skill approach works.

Implementing the Skills
Although it would almost seem intuitive, it is important to identify exactly when and how the multi-skilling skills will be incorporated into the actual scheduling and work performance. Failure to do this has often short circuited the entire effort, with the company incurring the cost but never realizing the benefit.

Multi-skilling – A Win-Win Effort
Companies and the maintenance personnel that work in them have the potential for a win-win situation. Multi-skilling offers real productivity gains for any company, and job enrichment for maintenance personnel. However, successful efforts are cognizant of the potential pitfalls and are designed to avoid those problems.

About the author:
This article was written by Michael H. Bos, a consultant from New Standard Institute Inc. For other articles on maintenance-related subjects, visit, e-mail or call 203-783-1582 to discuss the subject with one of the company’s consultants.

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