Improving the Relationship Between Operations and Maintenance

Don Armstrong, Veleda Services

Improving the Relationship Between Operations and Maintenance

It goes without saying that every department in an organization exists to support the overall goals of the enterprise, whether that is to manufacture a product or to provide a service.

However, in a manufacturing organization, operations and maintenance are the closest departments to the manufacturing process and must work together to ensure the best possible overall organization performance.

Operations has a primary responsibility to produce a product through the management of all process inventories and by operating process equipment the way it is supposed to be operated. Maintenance has the primary responsibility of providing operators with equipment that will consistently meet their requirements, including throughput, product quality, safety, environmental and the cost of operation.

There has been a debate on whether the operations-maintenance relationship is one of customer and service provider, or if they are a partnership. Of course, they should work as partners, after all they are totally dependent on each other for success. However, manufacturing industries exist to produce and sell a product to generate revenue; they do not sell maintenance. Maintenance exists to support operations and therefore is a service provider to operations.

Being a service provider to operations does not mean that maintenance is subservient to operations, nor does it mean that they should be at their beck and call. In a perfect world, both will communicate continuously and ensure that the other has the best opportunity to do what they have the responsibility to do. Operations should not be controlling what maintenance does just because they feel they are maintenance's "customer" any more than I, as a bank customer, should dictate how the bank conducts its business.

There are components of the maintenance cycle that will not work well unless operations and maintenance cooperate fully. These include controlling the work order backlog so the highest-value work is done first and scheduling maintenance work so interruptions to operations are minimized.

Certain factors can put a strain on the operations-maintenance relationship. One is geography. When the operations and maintenance supervisors' offices are far from each other, the continuous communication that’s so essential is much more difficult. A good goal is for front-line operations and maintenance people to share the same lunch room and coffee pot. This is easier to achieve if the operations and maintenance organizations are designed to be as parallel as possible.

The second factor is the way in which performance is measured. Assigning the blame for downtime to operations or maintenance will cause disagreements and fruitless arguments. The most positive way to measure losses is to allocate them to the department that is in the best position to take the action needed to prevent them from happening again. For example, this may include having the maintenance equipment expert train operators on the best method to start up or shut down the equipment.

Another factor is the perception by each department of the value of what the other is doing. For instance, operations should have confidence that the preventive maintenance work that maintenance does is appropriate to achieve the reliability they need and does not waste resources. This requires a high level of communication and cooperation.

The relationship between operations and maintenance is not the only one that is important. The same principles apply to the relationship between maintenance and the storeroom, as well as to the partnership between operations and the technical department. It should be a high priority for plant managers to ensure that key departments work together to accomplish a common goal and to be on alert for anything that threatens their relationship. 

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About the Author

Don Armstrong is the president of Veleda Services Ltd., which provides consulting and training services to maintenance departments in industrial plants and i...