How to improve maintenance

Wayne Vaughn

To improve maintenance, you must get better at building a positive relationship with operations. To achieve maintenance excellence, you must have an excellent relationship. This means having maintenance in full alignment with the larger goals of your operations and your company. How do you do this? There are two basic things that must be done:

1) Build your maintenance strategy in alignment with your company goals; and,

2) Build the relationship with operations that will allow you to get the resources that you need to accomplish your strategy.

Figure 1. A project is broken up into phases.


While there are many possible approaches to developing and executing a strategy - and there are actually an infinite number of specific strategies - some paths are more effective. I will present an effective path to improve maintenance in this article.

The first thing to do is ensure that you have management support for developing an improvement strategy for maintenance. Building the strategy shouldn't consume a ton of resources - mostly labor and perhaps some benchmarking - but it will require a lot of your personal time.

What follows are the key steps to building an effective strategy:

  • Identify company principles directly or induce them as best you can

  • Identify the short- and long-term goals of the business

  • Identify what best in class (occasionally called world class) looks like

  • Prioritize those areas which will have the largest impact achieving company goals and move you toward best-in-class results

  • Assess the current state of affairs in your maintenance operations

  • In each area of the assessment, evaluate each of the following:

  • People - culture, symbols, espoused values, underlying values

  • Process - map yours vs. best in class

  • Technology - evaluate your systems (information technology, paper, people); technologies should support your processes, which should support your people.

All of these activities are opportunities to get your people involved and engaged in the improvement process. Engagement is a key to success. Also, it is important to communicate with your people in terms that are meaningful to them.


Figure 2. A cycle for maintenance success.

You will need an estimate of the resources and time required to achieve this transformation. I have learned, having run many projects, that an old saying is closer to truth than we'd like to admit: "A poorly run project takes four times the resource estimate; a well-run project takes three times." Even if true, it's still 25 percent cheaper to run the project well, and that starts with a good plan.

It is useful to break the project into phases (see Figure 1 on Page 26). The vertical axis on this diagram is anything that you are trying to improve - reliability, preventive maintenance completion, crib accuracy and so on. The top line represents the ideal condition. This is from the data you gathered on best-in-class performance. Now you have a strategy and a high-level project plan. This is the starting point.

It has often been said that it isn't necessary to schedule machines down for maintenance, for if you wait long enough, they will schedule themselves. This is true of strategy, too. If you wait to do this important work long enough, you will have a strategy. Lee Iacocca said it well: "There are times when even the best manager is like the little boy with the big dog, waiting to see where the dog wants to go so he can take him there." Make sure the "big dog" is the company and not the machinery or the urgent needs of production.


Figure 3. The numbers don't lie; they tell the value of improved maintenance.


One of the best-known ways to decrease business efficiency is to build organizational silos. Unfortunately, this is very easy to do and, often times, seems perfectly normal and even encouraged as a way to increase effectiveness. If your organization sends the message "just do your job and don't worry about other people", people will do their job. This is the building of silos. It's the effective management of boundaries where excellence occurs. You've seen excellent teams that just seem to jell and always get exceptional results in spite of the fact that they don't have all-star players. You can have world-class maintenance and world-class production, but if they don't work effectively as a team, then the overall performance won't be world class. Just how much it falls short will depend directly upon the relationship between the two organizations.

This problem can't be eliminated by having operations manage maintenance directly. It's the rare leader that can balance the core responsibility of production with leading and improving support areas. If this were easy, then other support areas also would be decentralized. Human resources, finance, purchasing and other support areas would be natural candidates to be decentralized to have better effectiveness. Maintenance must be a partner in building an effective organization, but partnership brings with it significant responsibilities.

I recently read "Speed of Trust" by Steven Covey and find it to be right on and would like to describe his concept briefly and then discuss how this can be used in maintenance. Covey says that a common management "formula" is this:

Strategy + Execution = Results

There is no doubt that both good strategy and good execution are required to accomplish good results. You may not know your maintenance strategy because it may not be written down, but you have one. Too many have the default firefighter strategy of "I just want to get things back into production as quickly as I can." This, by the way, is a strategy that often is fully endorsed by operations. In fact, if the response time to unexpected outages (mean time to repair) is an important key performance indicator, then you are probably a firefighting organization and likely reinforcing that behavior by rewarding the "hero" who manages to get you back into production in record time.

It's important to have a written strategy, as discussed previously. Sure, this takes some time and money to develop, but it's cheaper than having a default strategy that keeps changing and having different people following different strategies. It's a little like the bumper sticker: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance". The same is true about strategies. Execution is the key to results. The better your people execute, the better the results. This is obvious and the main reason for providing the facilities, technical documents, tools and training that your people need to perform at a high level. Ensuring that your people have what they need  to improve maintenance and are adequately trained isn't cheap, but not having these things is far more expensive.

It costs money to have a written (preferably jointly developed with operations) strategy. It costs money to be excellent at execution. I suggest that it costs much more not to have these things. Unfortunately, the money needed to do the right things must come out of your budget, and this budget must get approval from company leadership. If adequate money or resources have not been available in the past, then probably the left side of this equation isn't as good as it could be and, consequently, the results side isn't as good as it could be. Since budgeting is typically a complex process where trade-offs occur, it's more likely that people who have performed well will get more of the limited resources of the company.

You may have observed that even though you have a good strategy and good people that you still aren't getting the results you should be getting. This brings us to the core of Covey's book. He says that this equation is incomplete and must have trust inserted:

(Strategy + Execution) x Trust = Results

This equation indicates that the amount of trust between maintenance and operations will affect the results. Covey says that if trust is low, then it is like a tax that takes away from results; and if trust is high, it is like a dividend that multiplies results. This is powerful stuff!

But what is trust and how do you get the dividend? Covey says trust is made up of two elements: intent and competency. If your maintenance organization has the best interest of operations in mind, then your intent is good. If your maintenance people can deliver on their promised work, then you have the competency. Only repeated good experiences build trust. The more positive experiences, the higher the trust dividend.

Let's be more specific. Do operations believe that maintenance really is interested in their well-being? Do they feel that maintenance has skin in the game, or do they feel that maintenance is more interested in doing just what has to be done, having a cup of coffee when they should be fixing things, or getting more overtime? Interview some of your partners (operations) or do a short survey about how operations personnel view the intent of maintenance. I recommend performing an annual customer satisfaction survey to ensure you are improving and focused on the right stuff and to understand the level of trust you have within your plant.

The second element of trust is competency. Do you hear "I really don't want you to do the PM now because I am afraid that the machinery will not come back up afterward"? This means that operations personnel don't believe your people can competently execute a PM without resulting in some maintenance-induced problems. Do operations want you to immediately call in outside technical help before you even have a chance to troubleshoot a problem? Do operations want to tell your organization what to do instead of describing the symptoms? All of these indicate an underlying concern about competency.

Examine this data and carefully develop a plan to improve intent and competency. This gives you plenty to work on, and these problems won't be solved overnight. This would be a good time to go public with what you plan to do. Announce the beginning of this process to your staff, to your trades personnel, to your partners in operations and to your boss. This commits you onto the path of continuous improvement.

What's IT WORTH?
Noria's Drew Troyer has worked with data from the Aberdeen Group that gives an indication of the financial impact of improved maintenance, and it's huge (Figure 3). As you can see on Page 28, company earnings will increase, capacity will increase, return on net assets will improve and, finally, share price will increase - all of which drives market capitalization. This not only has benefits to stockholders, but will likely protect the firm against competitors or a hostile takeover - which protects employees.

You'll know you'll improve maintenance when you no longer have trouble scheduling maintenance activities, when your operations partners argue that you should have the resources you say you need, and when maintenance is part of the business plan instead of an afterthought.

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