Applying entropy to maintenance and reliability

Tim Goshert

My favorite subject in engineering is thermodynamics, the study of heat and energy transfer. I believe understanding the laws of thermodynamics can help you understand and lead the cultural change needed for maintenance and reliability improvement.

In nature, the natural progression is for things to proceed from order to disorder. Ludwig Boltzman first defined this phenomenon. His discovery and realization resulted in what is termed the second law of thermodynamics, or the law of entropy.

Entropy is called the law of disorder. In a system, a higher energy level is required to sustain order. Over time, nature presses to release and expel this energy, which results in more and more disorder to the system. The energy released due to this process is measured and called entropy. Simply put, order requires more energy to exist and be maintained. Conversely, the more disorder in a system, the lower the energy level that exists.

Here's an example. Let's take a bucket of 20 bricks. We pick up the bucket and dump the contents onto the ground. The result will be a random assortment of brick locations. You don't expect the bricks to be stacked in perfect order or in perfect alignment. Creating an ordered, aligned brick stack requires someone to apply work or energy. To stay stacked, additional energy is required in the system — for example, using concrete or anchors to hold the bricks in place. Over time, these stacked bricks will revert to a lower state of energy and disorder (sometimes even when additional work is done). This is entropy at work.

Another interpretation of the second law is the realization that two distinct bodies, one hot and one cold, in close contact with each other will seek equilibrium. Basically, the cold body will suck all the energy out of the hot body. The bodies eventually will find equilibrium in temperature.

So, let's apply entropy thinking to the M&R improvement process.

If we have a body at equilibrium, for example an existing 10-, 20- or 30-year-old reactive maintenance culture, and we want to do anything different or new, we need to inject significant additional energy to change. Continual energy must be given to sustain the change in progress. The amount of energy is not trivial. Be prepared; not all energy can be converted 100 percent into work or progress. From a plant perspective, there will be steps or actions that have no clear return that you just have to do, such as asset field validation, criticality analysis, understanding failure modes, etc. These are called foundational elements because the elements create the basis for future success but normally don't create much seen payback individually.

I'm sure you've heard people say, "let's just do our most critical assets" or "let's just do it in a pilot area" to get started. Others may have an improvement initiative that isn't cross-functional and doesn't include all needed disciplines. All of these events fail to move the entire organization to a level of higher energy. Eventually, the energy level will decay to a natural state of equilibrium, depending on how "hot" and "cold" the bodies in contact are in the organization. The organization's distinct groups will seek and discover their own level of comfortable mediocrity. You hear this as "we're different here."

Additionally, entropy may explain why uneducated, non-passionate M&R and operational leaders must convert to a state of higher energy through continual education and action. If they fail to accomplish these tasks, they become a big cold body that sucks the energy out of the organization's process to change from a reactive to a proactive culture.

Conversely, entropy explains the situation where there may be a lot of very good M&R pros in underperforming and unsuccessful processes. Why? They can't provide enough energy alone to break the comfortable and ingrained reactive culture. They need to establish a critical mass of people that are like-minded and have high energy and will no longer accept the status quo to move the equilibrium to a higher level. At Cargill, we've used various change management tools to accomplish this challenge. One tool example is experience-based exercises such as our internal-facilitated "reliability exercise" or M&R best practice workshops.

Being proactive and using M&R best practices require a much higher energy level and continued energy input to sustain. Reactive maintenance requires little energy. Therefore, much energy is needed to sustain a proactive effort. Without this energy, systems will erode to reactivity. You need relentless leadership that provides consistent, constant pressures to insure the correct processes are done religiously and continued proactive work is maintained. Successful processes and companies in M&R improvement have many people in leadership that provide this needed energy.

Does your organization and do you have the energy and relentless effort needed to combat the forces of entropy?

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