The consequences of forgetting

Jim Fitch

In this installment of Reliability Forum, Noria chairman Jim Fitch provides his insights on the topic of machinery lubrication. He writes:

Lubrication requires constant attention. Vigilance is perhaps a better word. It's easy to forget the things we are not motivated to do. Yet, rarely do we forget those activities we are passionate about and desire to do. We are all driven by instincts to seek out the things that we enjoy or which give us a gratifying reward.

Because it's hard to find happiness in performing most routine maintenance tasks, it is not uncommon for many of them to become periodically forgotten or perpetually postponed. Much of this is actually conscious forgetfulness, similar to procrastinating. Most likely, this occurs due to a lack of rigor, which is due to a lack of structure, measurement and incentive.

Delinquent preventive maintenance (PM) tasks can become habit-forming, leading to even more delinquency and a general cavalier attitude among maintenance workers toward punctuality and work quality. This "mañana mentality", or constant procrastination, can lead to a destructive downward spiral. Common symptoms relating to lubrication include:


  • Widely fluctuating oil levels

  • Inspections that don't get performed or reported

  • Filters and breathers that don't get changed on time

  • Oil samples that never get taken or are collected improperly

  • Oil that is not changed on time

  • Bearings that don't get a timely shot of fresh grease


Periodically forgetting to perform "the five rights of lubrication" (the right oil [or grease] at the right place at the right time with the right contamination control and at the right operating temperature) is equivalent to periodically accepting preventable failures. We can and should do better.


When we perform root cause analysis after a production-stopping machine failure, we often find an unperformed routine maintenance activity to be the heart of the problem. While fingers can be pointed at maintenance workers, the core of the problem is often more fundamental - relating to business culture, lack of structure, ignorance and behavior issues. In many cases, the opportunities available from long-term commitment (investment) in machine reliability are sacrificed in favor of short-term expedience driven by management's quarterly financial goals.


Maintenance tasks that target sustained reliability must be aspiration-driven, not crisis-driven. Reliability is a long-term strategy by definition. The activities of maintenance workers enable this, but they must be motivated to excel at their jobs by having the tools, education, metrics and reward structure to provide such excellence. Much of this can be achieved by simple programmatic changes that are not in place or not consistently used. Often effective are routine exception reports or alerts that direct urgency and resources at non-conforming conditions.

Education is critical, as well. Of course, we need to teach the specifics of how tasks need to be performed, but greater value often comes from understanding why. The mere fact that education is being provided drives home much of the message of "why". People have a basic human need to rationalize the purpose of their jobs. We are more likely to embrace (accept) what we understand and shrug off what we don't.


I started this article by stating that people don't forget to do the things that are important to them. If you're interested in football, it's unlikely you'll forget to watch the Super Bowl. On that premise, how can we build similar motivational urges for maintenance workers who have responsibility not to forget many production-critical tasks on a daily basis? We could penalize for forgetfulness, but behavior experts tell us that negative reinforcement is a generally ineffective strategy.


We've already discussed many important elements to achieving this, but we have yet to talk about a proper reward structure. Rather than only stockholders benefiting from machine reliability, how about those who are charged with the responsibility of periodically not forgetting?

Most of us are aware that overtime pay is often viewed as a counter-incentive to reliability; that is, the more reliability, the less overtime pay. However, we could flip this around to achieve a novel proactive OT strategy. This is how it goes:

At the start of the work year, maintenance workers get 500 hours of proactive overtime pay. The workers get paid for the overtime regardless; however, there's an interesting catch. They have to work the 500 extra hours only if needed to keep machines operating. They now are stakeholders (like stockholders) in reliability and are motivated to do everything possible to keep machines running so they don't have to work the OT. The company benefits from high asset utilization and lower repair bills. The maintenance workers benefit from pay for hours they don't actually have to work.

There are probably other ways to achieve similar shared benefit when machines are vigilantly maintained. We cannot force people to be motivated, although we can give them many positive incentives.

Remember, we generally do only those things we enjoy or that reward us.

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About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...