What Plants Have Failed to Learn in 25 Years

Ned Mitenius

Twenty-five years ago, I left the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine program.

As I gained experience in civilian industry, I began to appreciate the Navy’s aplomb for reliable engineering, exceptional training and consistent operations. Their penchant for comprehensive preventive maintenance programs also impressed me.

What I found in industry 25 years ago was quite different.

  • There was almost no redundancy in design; the failure of a single small pump could shut down an entire plant. Sanitary systems had been modified over time, introducing unsanitary attributes. Many components were chosen solely on initial cost, not reliability or life cycle cost.
  • Operator training was limited to “hit the green button in the morning, the red button at night, and call maintenance if anything goes wrong.” We especially didn’t train operators on what to do in abnormal situations, so small problems often snowballed.
  • Standard procedures (SOPs, CBMs), if written at all, were relegated to a dusty bookshelf.
  • And, nearly all maintenance was reactive in nature.

So quite by accident, it seems, I began a career of helping companies do these things better.

I claim some small successes on my resume, at least in individual factories where I worked. But wouldn’t you think with all the improvements our industrial society has made that we would have evolved to a better place?

My work recently took me back to some of the factories of a company I worked with long ago.

  • Technologies have improved with mix-proof sanitary valves and PLCs. But, there is still little control of changes and little redundancy.
  • Training is better regarding mandatory safety programs, but no better in system operation.
  • SOPs remain on the shelf in most locations. The only nod to improved consistency is in the expanded use of automated controls (PLCs).
  • Most sad to me is that maintenance remains almost entirely reactive. For all of the sophisticated predictive technologies that have been developed, a huge amount of our machinery is run to failure. Expensive systems fail prematurely, requiring big buckets of capital dollars to replace them.

If we had kept this same rate of improvement in other aspects of our business, we would still be calculating our financials on computers running Windows for Workgroups V3.1.1. We would be tracking inventory and shipments on spreadsheets instead of ERP systems.

By this point, I have surely angered some maintenance and engineering professionals. They have made great strides in their individual locations. That isn’t my point.

My point is, after 25 years, shouldn’t ALL of our factories, large and small alike, be much further down the path than they are? Are you?

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About the Author

Ned Mitenius, PMP, began his career supervising a submerged nuclear reactor. He has spent the last 20-plus years in the food manufacturing industry, saving companies like Minute Maid, Ocean Spra...