Food for thought: Avoid tunnel vision in the plant

Jeff Shiver, People and Processes
Tags: lean manufacturing, continuous improvement, maintenance and reliability, business management

I was being driven around a particular site by an engineer recently when I noticed an anomaly. Something just didn’t look right with a cable tray mounted to a pipe rack. It appeared the cable tray was sagging and had broken loose from its mounting. I asked the engineer if he noticed it and he said “no”. So, I asked him to turn around and make another pass. Sure enough, the tray had broken loose.

Often times, we become complacent in our surroundings and we simply don’t notice things that are changing all around us. It’s like we are wearing blinders, suffering from tunnel vision. We only look straight ahead or, worse, hang our head down when we move through the site in our travels. I bet you would really be surprised at the number of people that never look up at the ceiling. Are you one of those, too?

When I’m at a site, I’m looking everywhere because it’s all new to me. Make your site “new” to you, too. Take the time to look up at the ceiling, at pipe supports, and to the side. Make an effort to find things that are not in their place or not normal. From a maintenance and reliability perspective, we want to inspect to find things in the act of failing and repair them from a proactive point of view before the failure occurs. Separately, 5-S is a great process to find things out of place, but what about chains rubbing on guards or, worse, rubbing through conduits? What about hydraulic and other fluid leaks? I can assure you that you would never believe some of the things I have seen people walk by every day at sites and never notice –  things that kill equipment reliability.

Maybe I’m more conditioned to this approach as I had a manager (read mentor) who used to take me on walks throughout the site (inside and out) looking for items in need of repair or just sprucing up before a VIP tour. We looked for the simplest things like missing conduit covers, lights out or water on the floor. Why? Because finding and fixing the little things helped to ensure they didn’t become bigger and more costly things later – like a slip and fall from the water on the floor.

When was the last time you walked the floor with your people looking for the littlest things to improve? Sure, we all have bigger fish to fry, like planned work activities. But don’t you see, this is another way to create a culture of continuous improvement. Open their eyes and create an expectation that even the little things matter. Strive to be the best. Make it a contest with your group to see how many “little” things they can find on your walks … and then, fix them. See if you can find even more on the next walk two weeks later. Repeat that again in two weeks. Notice that you are starting to create a trend here, a “culture” of continuous improvement and setting an expectation? So, what are you waiting for? Let’s go.

What are some techniques like this that you use to drive continuous improvement?

About the author:
As managing principal for People and Processes, Jeff Shiver helps organizations implement best practices for maintenance and operations. Prior to this post, Jeff was a practitioner who worked 25 years in manufacturing and facilities with companies such as Procter and Gamble, IBM and Mars North America, where Jeff spent the bulk of his career. His experience includes maintenance and reliability, project and controls engineering, information technology and operations in manufacturing and corporate management roles. Contact Jeff at