Improve basic work system first

Christer Idhammar, IDCON INC

Many organizations spend too much time searching for new reliability and maintenance concepts, and very little time on implementing and improving what they just started.

Let me give some examples of my own observations as they relate to the statement above. Some time ago, I met with a group of supervisors, planners and craftspeople — the front line of maintenance — in a mill.

Are you serious?

"I attended your presentation yesterday," said a millwright in the pulp mill area of a mid-size integrated mill. "You sounded like you've been in our mill for many years and that you'd used our mill as an example in your talk. We've had three mill managers and two maintenance managers in the last five years. We started a reliability improvement program a year ago, and we already have a second manager in charge of that project. Each new manager seems to have an urge to put their mark on the project, using different names and three-letter acronyms, making changes just for the sake of making changes. They are always talking about how good their programs were in the mill they came from, and by the way, the mill they came from seems to get better every time they talk about it, just like the good old days."

The millwright continued by saying that it was difficult for him and his peers to think that management was serious about reliability and maintenance improvements. "They talk about how important it is for us to buy in and commit to whatever they want us to do. But, we don't know if there will be another program and a new manager here next month or not."

A mill planner agreed. "I became a planner overnight three years ago, and I still haven't received any training. I don't even have a description of what I'm supposed to do more than plan." When this planner did ask for a definition of his title (planning and maintenance manager), management simply told him that it was "getting the jobs ready."

The planner went on to tell me that, "I don't even know when I do a good job or not. The truth is that I don't plan as much as I would like to." His job includes, in addition to his planning duties, filling in for supervisors, searching for and buying spare parts (which can take up a lot of time), finding drawings and other information, putting together reports for managers, showing contractors around, etc. "You would not believe how much better planning I could do if they allowed me to focus on that more."

No such thing as work ethics?

The maintenance supervisor spoke up, noting that he and the planner often "figure out what to do between us." However, he did note that they often had to ask for help from the craftspeople. "They do much of the planning that we should do, but it isn't done effectively that way." As with the planner, he had became a supervisor two years ago, also overnight without any training. "Just get the job done safely and keep your people busy. That was about the only direction they gave me."

This maintenance supervisor proclaims to be "from the old school," where, "work ethics are important, and you need to recognize the good performers and do something about the people who don't do their part of the work." He describes a scenario where he had reprimanded two of his workers because they disappeared for two hours, were often late and frequently quit early. The result of his reprimands was that the workers complained to human resources and he "was told to back off." When the same thing happened a few more times, he gave up. "I can see how basic work ethics are falling apart. As it is now, 70 percent of the work is done by 30 percent of the crew by the good people in my area," he concluded.

"We could tell you much more," said the mill planner, "but we don't even do basic planning and scheduling of work here, even if we'd like to." They also expressed how poorly they are able to do preventive maintenance, because they don't have time for it due to too many breakdowns.

"We hope that you can understand that we are very disappointed and have lost faith in management's initiatives."

The frequent change in programs has deteriorated these workers' faith in management.

It could happen to you.

The above discussion could have been taken from many mills. It is very typical and supports the truth in a statement made by Dr. W. Edwards Deming many years ago which states, "People cannot be more productive than the system they work in allows them to be."

What leaders need to do is to improve the system people work in. The major effort must first be to do what you should do much better, then look for more advanced and, possibly, new work systems or technologies.

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About the Author

Christer Idhammar is president of IDCONInc., a Raleigh, N.C.-based reliability and maintenance management consulting firm which specializes in education, tra...