Stalking the elusive maintenance quality beast

Joel Levitt

Quality control is hard to define in maintenance. Everyone knows when it’s missing, but it’s hard to tell when it’s there. The usual definition in production is that quality is to consistently produce parts with low variation. Maintenance quality usually deals with the consequences of the repair, not the repair itself. The emotional context of the response is also tied up in maintenance quality (a surly, dirty maintenance technician is low quality even if his or her work is superb).
In some circumstances, maintenance quality might equal reduced downtime. In others, maintenance quality equals:

  • Reduced scrap

  • Faster start-up

  • Quicker response

  • No repeat repairs

  • Keep unit in spec

  • No interruptions

  • Satisfied user

Every maintenance operation should define quality in a way to be useful to its operating environment. The late W. Edwards Deming was considered the quality guru for the last generation of Japanese quality experts. In fact, the quality award in Japan today is the Deming Award. He had much to say about quality in manufacturing. The surprise is that Deming’s points apply to maintenance, also. We just have to see what quality is in our plant, site or division.

Taking our lead from Deming
W.E. Deming’s Fourteen Points were first outlined in 1950. These points can be defined as follows:

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and services with the aim to stay competitive, stay in business and provide stable employment. Maintenance deterioration usually takes a long time. Any effective maintenance strategy must also have a long horizon. Resources must be allocated for good maintenance practice and not taken away with every bump in the quarterly results.

  2. Adopt the new philosophy. Awaken to the challenge. Take responsibility for and leadership in change. Our maintenance departments often are the last areas of the organization to realize the need for change. The department is dragged kicking and screaming into the new corporate culture. Looking toward the future, I see a maintenance department providing leadership for the rest of the organization. Nowhere else is high quality so closely related to safety, high self-esteem. Quality is intertwined with the very history and culture of the crafts.

  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Build quality in. Quality comes from skilled and knowledgeable mechanics given good tools, adequate materials and enough time to do the job. Quality comes from choosing well-designed equipment that doesn’t need much maintenance. What maintenance the equipment does need is easy to perform and get to. Quality comes from pride in a job well done. Lead by example with ceaseless training, coaching and systems analysis. When defects occur, concentrate on the system that delivered the defect rather than having a preoccupation with finger-pointing.

  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price alone. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single source for each item, and pursue a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust. A revolution in purchasing is at hand. More and more organizations are looking at the total costs of a part or the life-cycle cost of a machine. Some economies are false and hurt the overall goals of the organization. A low-cost bearing might be the most expensive bearing you ever buy.

  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service to improve quality and productivity and, thus, constantly reduce costs. In today’s market, the way it used to be done is never going to be good enough for the future. All improvements and growth flow from dissatisfaction with the status quo. Build measurement into the maintenance information system. Continually strive to improve both the visible and the invisible performance.

  6. Institute training on the job. Training should be mandatory for mechanics the way it is for doctors or teachers. Our factories and facilities have today’s levels of technology and our maintenance people have yesterday’s skill sets. To maintain effectiveness, we must train to bridge to gap. Special effort should be given to the people on your staff who deliver the on-the-job training. These informal trainers need instruction in how to teach adults. They also need back-up materials to deliver the best possible training.

  7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines do a better job. The supervisor should serve their subordinates by removing the impediments from production. The supervisor should insure that the mechanic, the tools, the parts and the unit to be serviced converge at the same time. The supervisor should also be the lightning rod for disruptions from management and production (unless there is an emergency, the mechanic will not be disturbed because interruptions reduce quality and worker satisfaction).

  8. Drive out fear, so everyone may work effectively for the company. Fear of the loss of a job interferes with the mechanic’s ability to concentrate. Fear gets in the way of the pride a mechanic feels in a job well done. A flexible and highly productive department where people can shift from trade to trade – maintenance to construction to production – is the safest one.

  9. Break down the barriers between departments. Everyone’s expertise is needed for constant improvement. With scarce resources, we must include knowledge from other departments and groups to come up with the best overall solution for the organization. Maintenance problems can get complex quickly with financial, marketing, purchasing, quality and engineering ramifications. The best solution to a problem might not be the best maintenance solution (like run until destruction to fill an important order). Information for the best solution might come from another department and another expertise.

  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of production. Such exhortations create adversary relationships. A bulk of the problems for quality and production belong to the system, not the people. Stable processes create quality. Create stable processes producing quality outputs and the people will feel the way your slogan does without cohersion and alienation.

  11. Eliminate work standards, quotas and management by objectives (MBO). Work standards and quotas are associated with management styles that treat the maintenance worker as someone needing to be told exactly what to do and how long to take. Standards are useful for scheduling and to communicate management’s expectations. It is difficult to not use them as a production whip. That is a disaster in maintenance situations because we want the mechanic to take the time needed to fix everything he or she sees (within reason!), not just the original job. We must trust the mechanic to look out for our interests, particularly when we are not there. The problem with MBO is that it focuses on visible, measurable aspects of maintenance. Many of the real issues of maintenance concern aspects of the environment that are hard to measure.

  12. Remove the barriers that rob the worker, engineer of his or her right of pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be shifted from numbers to quality and improvement. Trades personnel must be allowed to feel pride in their jobs that are well done. Maintenance managers and supervisors must not allow anything to stand in the way of that pride.

  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement. World-class maintenance departments make a commitment to invest 1 to 3 percent of their total hours in training for all maintenance workers. Technologies are changing; skills must change, too. A world-class auto manufacturer mandates 96 hours of training per year for everyone. A high-tech manufacturer requires 110 hours.

  14. Put everyone in the organization to work to accomplish the transformation. This transformation is everyone’s job. This transformation requires the talents of all the employees. It requires all of the talents of each person. When a hotel chain had the housekeepers meet with the architects (for a new hotel), the result was concrete suggestions to improve the designs that reduced maintenance costs and improved the rooms for the customers.

Deadly diseases and obstacles to success
There are plenty of things that can stand in the way of success. These include:

  1. 1. Lack of constancy of purpose to plan a product and service that will have a market and keep a company in business and provide jobs. Maintenance issues (like the wearing out and failure of a compressor or boiler) take a long term to develop. Only an equally long-term view will be effective. A moving agenda for the goals of maintenance work against the department.

  2. The supposition that solving problems, automation, gadgets and new machinery will transform industry. Maintenance problems are people problems. The systems, attitudes and approaches are at issue. The paradigm of maintenance as a necessary evil, or of maintenance workers as grease monkey slobs, must be transformed. The transformation starts in the minds and hearts of the maintenance department and then flows to the rest of the organization.

  3. Emphasis on short-term profit and short-term thinking fed by the fear of an unfriendly takeover, and by a push from bankers and owners for dividends. Top management will squeeze maintenance to reduce costs below the level that is necessary to avoid deterioration. The cost reduction is temporary; the asset will deteriorate and long-term integrity of the process will be compromised. Maintenance requires long-term planning and commitment.

  4. Evaluation of performance, merit rating or annual review. The question about annual reviews and performance rating is what useful outcome flows from these procedures. In most cases, the production of a mechanic is more related to how much management gets in his or her way rather than by his or her actual qualities. Annual reviews rarely change behavior.

  5. Mobility of managers and job hopping. In one beverage bottler, the average tenure of the maintenance manager was 22 months. Some lasted as few as nine months. Everyone came with bright ideas and wanted to prove themselves. The result was a complete lack of focus on long-term goals and plans. As each manager tried to cut costs, the negative results impact fell to the next player. This job hopping in management without a master plan dramatically exacerbates the short-term view.

  6. Management by use of only visible figures, with little or no consideration of figures that are unknown or unknowable. For example, when you invest in training for your maintenance crew, where does the increased asset show up? When, after spending hundreds of thousands dollars in a long, expensive trial-and-error development process a firm finally develops expertise in a new process. This expertise, this new asset, is nowhere on the balance sheet. It is important to measure and also to realize that much of what goes on in maintenance is unknowable.

  7. Hope for instant pudding. Change of fundamental processes takes time. In the current U.S. culture, it is hard to imagine instituting a change in processes that could take five or six years. In actuality, if you start with a typical reactive maintenance department, it could take you five years or more to create a proactive TPM-type of partnership in maintenance and production.

  8. Search for examples. We think that if something worked in another machine shop or foundry that it will work in ours. Since maintenance in factories has no strict rules, examples from our industry may not be useful or even relevant.

  9. “Our problems are different.” Actually, many people’s problems are the same. In the preventive maintenance area, while no two plants will have the same exact schedule, the problems will be the same. In our public sessions, maintenance managers in widely different industries, sizes and sophistication marvel at the similarity of the problems.

  10. Poor teaching of statistical methods in industry. Industry is just waking up to the value of statistical methods of explaining what happens in the shop. Application of simple statistics to PM or PCR intervals would improve effectiveness. Simple relationships such as failures to PMs would show the effectiveness of the frequency you have chosen. Statistics replace seat-of-pants reasoning, panic logic and historical prejudices with testable and verifiable conclusions.

  11. “Our trouble lies entirely within the workforce.” Your production system is a stable system to produce a certain number of defects. Changes in the workforce are irrelevant to the output. Only changes to the system can have an impact.

  12. False starts with inadequate planning, top-level support and lack of follow-through kill quality improvement transformation in most places. Serious thought and planning are needed before starting. Commitment must start in the highest levels is the organization. Buy-in at each level must be earned, worked and appreciated before proceeding to the next level.

  13. “We installed quality control.” Quality control is a way of life. It is a daily diet. You don’t install it; you become it.

  14. The unmanned computer is one of the dangers of wholesale computerization of maintenance. The computer is a great tool that like any great tool is frequently misapplied. Allow the people to have their say and make sure the computer answers to someone (a real person). Make sure that person (or people) can overrule the machine.

  15. The supposition that it is only necessary to meet specifications. Many of the important aspects of a component are not included in the specifications. You never know which attributes are important until you try changing vendors and find out that your entire process depends on qualities of a particular vendor’s products that are not covered by the specifications.

  16. The fallacy of zero defects. Every system produces defects. Ultra-high quality requires enormous sample universes to establish the defect rate.

  17. Inadequate testing of prototypes. By starting manufacturing on inadequately tested prototypes, we strain the system of improvements. There will be so much ground to cover before everything stabilizes that the product will be half-baked for a long time. To leapfrog this phase, exhaustive testing should be built in.

  18. “Anyone that comes to try to help us must understand all about our business.” The sad truth is that if the solution to your problem was commonly known in your industry, you would probably know what to do.

About the author:
Joel Levitt is a leading trainer of maintenance professionals. He has trained more than 10,000 maintenance leaders from 3,000 organizations in 20 countries in over 500 sessions. Since 1980, he has been the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services all sized clients on a wide range of maintenance issues. He has almost 25 years experience in many facets of maintenance, including as a process control designer, source equipment inspector, electrician, field service technician, merchant marine worker, manufacturing manager and property manager. Prior to that Levitt worked for a CMMS vendor and in manufacturing management. To learn more, visit or call 800-242-5656.

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