Foster Teamwork for Better Maintenance Results

Rex M. Gallaher

A major mail-processing plant in Philadelphia with approximately 2,000 employees on five floors was experiencing unscheduled absences greater than 7 percent along with poor quality and high expenses.

Its reputation was questionable. If you walked the plant floors, you would have trouble seeing farther than 50 feet.

You would also notice deplorable restrooms (not a custodial issue), an absence of supervision, paint peeling from the walls and lots of red-tagged rolling stock on the floor. In spite of this, the maintenance department was held in high esteem as it managed to keep the equipment operating.

You can imagine the magnitude of union grievances, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEO) complaints and letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The new plant manager, Al LaRiviere, had a challenge. His first actions were to remove all red-tagged equipment as well as the equipment that was not being used. The number of items that were placed in the parking lot numbered more than 1,000.

More than half were scrapped, while the others were eventually repaired at another facility. Next, he began a process-management study of what really transpired in the plant and worked to get management involved as a team.

This was a 24-hour, 365-day plant with three shifts per day. There were approximately 350 employees in the maintenance staff to manage the building’s more than 1 million square feet, customer lobbies, 20 acres of land, more than 200 pieces of automation, 2 miles of conveyor, all custodial needs and the 25 stations around the city.

The original plant was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project and had been modified numerous times.

Originating mail (mailed within the plant’s service area) and destinating mail (coming into the plant’s processing area) processes were broken into streams (letters, parcels, small items and bundles). It had an inventory turn of 365 per year (unable to store mail).

Critical metrics were measured in days from the mail being placed in a box to the delivery day (delivery standards). Each type of mail had different standards. There was also a quasi-metric of work hours used versus work hours earned (budget performance). These were the results metrics on which the plant manager was rated.

An external evaluation of the management team’s competencies recommended team training, individual training, and development of all supervisors and managers on interpersonal skills and how to supervise. This was begun concurrent with the process-management study.

In the study, the performance indicators were identified as process or results. Examples of process were absence, production, unit quality and meeting work-area clearance times.

The bottom line was did the mail clear the various operations having had quality sortation and did the right mail get on the correct transportation at the scheduled dispatch time. These last two questions became the plant results indicators. If they were consistently met, the plant’s delivery standards were met.

Armed with the process study results, LaRiviere made a decision that he only wanted his management teams to be concerned with two metrics — clearing the mail on time and quality of sortation.

He felt that productivity was the result of the individuals’ motivation and would accompany the meeting of the indicators. These became the results indicators for each supervisor’s/superintendent’s processing areas.

The shift managers had the results indicators of the right mail on the right trucks at the right time. All staff meetings or other management discussions were limited to those two sets of metrics.

LaRiviere even had a small stand with three steps built for the conference room. If a person failed his metrics, he had to climb the steps to stand up and be counted. There was no follow-up discussion. However, LaRiviere did institute celebrations for achievements (lots of them).

Training for all employees focused on the two metrics and the process within their work areas. Supervisors were not to focus on absence rates, individual performance, reasons for incoming mail quality or being critical about any other process with their employees.

It was the supervisor’s responsibility to worry about upstream and downstream problems and to have his or her employees focus on their work.

Supervisors were also to develop a team. Each supervisor posted his or her team’s process indicators each day (how much was processed, work hours, internal quality and delayed mail).

All machine operators were trained on using the machine-generated production reports, and rudiments of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) were built into the software.

To make this work, plant employees were assigned to specific supervisors. All supervisors adhered to the game plan and were kept informed of overall U.S. Postal Service performance, their plant performance and their own area’s effect on performance. They were becoming respected go-to people for the craft employees.

LaRiviere believed that if employees knew that their managers were all on the same ship, where it was going and the game plan for getting there, they would find the confidence and motivation to perform and go home at night with a sense of accomplishment and pride in their plant.

Maintenance employees were trained on interpreting equipment performance reports, understanding the customer-supplier relationship with operators and relating to the operations people in a problem-solving mode to stop the blame game. Conversations between employees and their supervisor centered on processes in their work areas.

I have only touched the surface of this remarkable turnaround. Unscheduled absences dropped to 3 percent, productivity increased 20 percent and the plant’s quality led the region.

Would you believe they now had too many people coming to work each day? Employees now counted on supervisors to supervise, keep them informed and buffer them. Supervisors now held their heads up and looked forward to coming to work.

LaRiviere also had the interior plant painted and put up meaningful signage to make it a visual workplace. He reduced the number and size of restrooms (original employment was more than 4,000 employees).

He then worked the same process with human resources, finance, maintenance, vehicle operations and office staffs. LaRiviere was a unique manager who was at the right place at the right time.

While this is not necessarily a maintenance story, it does illustrate the use of process-management tools, the understanding of what makes people tick and what a vision can produce when the top dog is given the freedom to take a chance.

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