The Value of Autonomous Operator Maintenance

Rex M. Gallaher

What does autonomous operator maintenance mean? The “autonomous” means “me alone performing the maintenance tasks for which I am trained and qualified.” Is it something new?

To those of us who knew cars before electronic ignition and computers, owning a car fostered a do-it-myself approach toward keeping it running. I always pumped my own gas, changed my oil and filters, and sometimes changed my belts.

I could check the levels of fluids, read gauges and listen to the running engine for anomalies. Technology has given me diagnostic tools to at least identify engine problems.

Prior to the industrial age, the operator set up, ran and maintained the equipment. The industrial revolution introduced specialists, and we redesigned the operator out of maintenance and planning.

You say those are not operator duties? Why not? There are too many answers to that, which when really analyzed, cannot be supported. I cannot defend the indefensible. Rather than look at the “why nots,” how about looking at the “how can we make it happen?”

The German Post developed new maintenance programs for several dozen new plants coming on line. For the preventive maintenance (PM) program, a condition-based computerized checklist would be mainly a column of step numbers and some performance annotations.

The technician located the step number on the machine, and beside it were the instructions with pictures and adjustment limits. Essentially, it was a visual factory with the visuals in and on each machine. Operators were qualified to operate a machine based upon proper procedures, an ability to read performance indicators and maintain the material flows.

Over a period of time, the relationship grew between the operators and technicians to where operators could identify problems and, with the help of the techs, fix them. They also identified PM tasks that they could perform and did.

All of this was done without management or operating procedures dictating them to do so. The operator and tech had joint ownership of the equipment. The visuals also helped the supervision to ascertain machine operating performance.

In several U.S. postal facilities, this happened in a similar fashion. It was not uncommon to see an operator crawling over a machine. However, when a “tie” showed up, things reverted quickly. Ties were people from outside the plant. What this did was free up the maintenance staff to work on continuous improvement and help monitor quality.

How did management treat this? They indirectly facilitated it happening by providing guidance tied to several conditions, including safety of the employee and not to harm the equipment. Otherwise, they got out of the way.

How did this manifest itself in plant performance? It led to:

  • Improved production and quality
  • Reduced unscheduled absences
  • Reduced grievances
  • Cleaner plant floors and restrooms
  • Supervisors as coaches and resource providers
  • Innovations in maintenance programs
  • Lower costs of performance
  • Smiles at the end of the day

In the late 1950s and 1960s, two terms came of age: work enrichment and work enlargement. These were used when discussing motivation and seen as ways to satisfy the higher needs of employees, as identified by Abraham Maslow. Today, they are considered to have the same meaning, which is a mistake.

Enlarging the work was applied to combining sequential horizontal tasks. Where there were four employees on an assembly, the work was redesigned for two, and some decision-making was incorporated into the work. It involved maybe building four models of the same unit, with the employee making decisions about parts and fit for the unique models from information for which he received training.

Enriching the work was a vertical enhancement. This involved W. Edwards Deming’s assignment of quality responsibility to the person doing the work, building a unit and then connecting it to a different unit using a different skill set, or a multi-skilled technician working on a hydraulic line on the wing of an airplane to allow him to open the skin, reroute electrical, fix the problem and close it all up. I ran into this at the American Airlines maintenance center in Tulsa, Okla., where the unions asked to be trained across craft lines.

Both work enhancements are designed to give the employee some ownership and pride in a completed task where more than their brawn was required.

You may want to consider how work was designed before the industrial age and assembly lines. What happened to the worker during the late 19th century and up to the mid-20th century?

  • The role of Fredrick Taylor in his study of work

  • The tactics of the robber barons, which reduced the dignity of the worker to nil

  • The necessary role of the unions and the dignity of the individual

  • Laws passed by our government that established rule of engagement for the adversarial relationship of unions and management

  • How that has affected our production, innovation and creativity into the 21st century

Beginning in the late 1950s, real breakthroughs were made in the subject of motivation and improved dignity for the worker. Acceptance and implementation were (and still are) the issues due to the history of the industrial era mentioned above.

Two Americans who had been rejected by their own country introduced redesign of work to the Japanese: Deming with his quality programs and Mary Parker Follet with the concept of the employee being a citizen of the company and what that means in the recognition of dignity and accomplishment.

This fit well into the Japanese concept of space or time. This redesign of the workplace was responsible for the manufacturing excellence after World War II. Deming got them out of the quality hole, and Mary set up the dignity citizenship of the employee.

In the 1980s, the Japanese experience showed up in the U.S. with total productive maintenance, total quality management, self-directed teams, continuous improvement, kaizen, just-in-time and poka-yoke. All of that was built around the dignity of the individual.

I believe that work and learning are integral requirements of our character. They satisfy a spiritual need. We were designed to work and to reap the benefits of accomplishing a task. We need accomplishments and challenges to keep us striving into the future.

Work is only part of the life career. We should learn how to design and use it to enhance the other parts. I would hope that this is still a mantra for our country.

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