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A terrorist with a bomb passes through airport screening undetected on Christmas day. If not for a failure to detonate, many lives would have been lost.
When this brazen attack occurred, one of the things made evident was that many of us had let our guards down since 9/11. We had grown less interested than we once were.
I recognize this in a related area of my professional life. When I am not working on maintenance systems, part of my consulting practice is in "food defense," the concept of keeping the bad guys from intentionally contaminating our food supply.
There was significant interest in this topic after 9/11, as you might imagine. I regret to share with you that today there is far less interest, at least in the United States. Paradoxically, workshops I have taught in Peru, Thailand, Panama and the Caribbean have received considerable interest from their governments, universities and food industry (factories).
I have a couple of theories why corporate America is so short-sighted. One is that our public-company, quarterly-results-driven world trains us to think and work short term instead of long term. The other is related to a term no longer in vogue but recognizable to all of us in manufacturing: the "flavor of the day."
I think this phenomenon has gotten worse in our current downsized economy. We have cut beyond the fat into the bones of our organizations. We have let so many people go that we can barely do our daily work and certainly don’t have the means to pursue more than one or two improvement initiatives.
So we went from responding to the airline terror of 9/11 and food terrorism concerns to the bird flu preparations, to the swine flu response and to the economic downturn. At each juncture, we left behind an unfinished plan or a newborn program left to die of atrophy. This was without malice but also without the energy and resources to keep multiple programs sustained.
We have seen the same with industrial plant maintenance. The total productive maintenance and condition-based maintenance initiatives of the 1980s were never finished or sustained. They were replaced with the proliferation of product forms in the booming 1990s, the packaging initiatives of the early 2000s, the "green" initiatives of recent years and the cost-saving cuts of the past few years. As a result, many of our maintenance programs have failed to advance in the last 20 years.
We need to learn from the airlines, which have largely sustained robust maintenance and reliability programs (albeit under Federal Aviation Administration regulation). We cannot let our guard down — not in our preparations against terror in the skies, not in our defense of the food supply and perhaps, with less life-threatening drama, not in our maintenance and reliability initiatives.