Driving a Maintenance Culture Change Through Supplier Partnerships

Doug Smith, Pinnacle Foods Conor Flaherty, RILCO

A culture change is one of the most difficult transformations to implement and sustain. As a 45-year-old canned meat plant, the Conagra facility in Montrose, Iowa, did not live in a world of high margins and an overstaffed maintenance department. Our day-to-day operations loved to praise “the Tarzan” who would swing in and fix the problem when things broke down and then swing away as soon as things were running. He was the hero who had been trained to work this way.

With turnover and understaffed maintenance positions, the plant has fought the reactive maintenance culture that rewards patching it back together and doesn’t reward the proactive repairs that never lead to a downtime issue or catastrophic failure.

We knew we had an opportunity to do better. Several people in maintenance leadership understood the prospects of becoming more proactive and less reactive, so it was time to move forward and make changes. A tool for ultrasonic leak detection was purchased, and a few technicians were trained to use it. They started out with steam trap inspections. Before long, with retirements and job rotations, the plant did not have anyone trained or qualified to use the tool, which was left sitting on the shelf.

Several attempts were made to partner with vendors who would try to sell us on the dream of identifying failures before they happened. They claimed they could save us $80,000. They were so enthusiastic. “We will do you a favor and split those cost savings with you. You pay us $40,000, and we will set up the routes, train your guys, and then you do the data collection. We will analyze the data and send you the reports.”

It sounded great because that is what we wanted to do all along — train our guys to do the work and eventually bring the program in house. This quickly became a modern-day Spruce Goose that achieved flight only for a short time at great cost with little to nothing to show for it.

Living in a reactive culture, we were unable to devote adequate resources to collect data on a reliable basis or maintain the trained qualified resources we needed. These attempts all ended with failure that led to a growing disbelief in predictive technologies among the traditional mechanics.

New Beginnings

When I started in my current role in late 2014, I had experience in maintenance, production and management but was mostly self-taught with little knowledge of maintenance reliability. I thought I knew what it meant, but my description would make me laugh today. I became fired up learning more and more about real maintenance reliability.

It became a passion for me. I continued to read and learn every chance I could. In 2015, I was allowed to attend a reliability conference and passed my certification exam after a great deal of studying. The knowledge I gained at the conference pushed me even harder.

That same year our department decided to start a reliability journey with lubrication. To that end, I began working with a new vendor who provided not only cost savings but experience, training and a sense of partnership to the table. Instead of a sales pitch, they wanted to know how they could help me.

In our new partnership, we worked first on stabilizing and consolidating the lubricants in the plant. They conducted a site survey to identify and assist with implementing basic lubrication best practices. In a follow-up meeting, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my lubrication vendor also had a predictive services division.

In previous vendor meetings, I had been wowed with expensive technology and was impressed with the list of customers, even reassured by the comprehensive reporting system. It all seemed so magical until we started to talk price. Reality hit me in the face when I realized that I could never get the support to invest the money the program was going to cost.

Always refusing to give up, I arranged to meet with the predictive services division of the lubrication vendor. This meeting was different. There were no expensive technologies or fancy presentations. It was just me and a couple of very knowledgeable and experienced individuals who again wanted to know how they could help me and build our partnership.

Ever eager and inexperienced, I had seen the brass ring and wanted it. I laid out my vision. I wanted a full package with vibration analysis, thermography, ultrasound and oil sampling. I also wanted a vendor to set up all the services, routes and reporting, as well as to start collecting and analyzing the data. I wanted my in-house team to eventually start working with the vendor and learning how to do what they were doing.

I wanted to buy my own equipment so that my in-house guys could, in time, take over the data collection. I wanted the vendor to continue to analyze the data until my guys were fully trained and could take over. Finally, I wanted this to be a five-year plan, where by the end of five years, my in-house guys would be fully trained and the vendor only called in as needed.

The idea of it all made me smile. It would be great. My reliability partner said, if that is what you want, we will be happy to help build it and make it happen for you. We can set everything up, work with your guys to the point where they can take over partially and eventually all the way. Whatever you need, we can customize to help you get what you want. Looking back, they knew before I did that I did not have the resources to do what I hoped to do.

In my excitement, I forgot that I still lived in a very reactive maintenance environment. When reality settled back in, my vision seemed crazy even to me. I knew already that everyone would love the idea of fixing things before they failed until I explained the cost. Getting the budget approved was even more realistic than the dream of asking for additional technicians to learn a program like this. The wind left my sails in a big way, and the dream plan was put into a holding pattern.

Small Steps with Purpose

Our vendor partnership continued. As we talked, we hatched a plan to start small but with a purpose and plan in mind. We developed a deliberate plan to identify, introduce, execute and educate on reliability and condition-based technologies and activities. The belief behind the plan was that we could help drive a culture change. Using this partnership with our supplier, the facility has been able to launch new predictive technologies. The results of these endeavors created a platform to drive a culture change in the organization.

Among the key issues we addressed that have made great strides in our facility include strategic blocking and tackling of technologies with a tiered approach, small demonstrations for key stakeholders at all levels of the organization, tools for internal training, education of the senior plant leadership and management team at the introduction of each new technology, and an anti-firefighter award.

Where to Start

There are many technologies available, and each has unique advantages. In a very distinctive way, our vendor partner took time and made multiple trips to the plant to get to know and learn more about our operation. With our combined experience, we made a decision to start with an ultrasonic leak survey. Our plant, like many others, had corporate-driven goals around cost savings. We had recognized the cost associated with air leaks and put in a “sophisticated” program to eliminate air leaks.

Every weekend when the plant was down, a utilities technician would walk the plant listening for leaks and tag any that he found. Those tags would become work orders, and the leak would be fixed. I poke a little fun at our program, but the truth is we were finding and fixing air leaks.

The first ultrasonic leak survey took two days to cover the entire plant and utilities. The survey found more than $40,000 of air leaks, providing an outstanding return on investment. Using the reporting provided to us, we created work orders in our system to repair the leaks with color pictures, a description of the problem and the location. I selected one of our planners to take the lead on our predictive services repairs.

Detecting the issue is great, but the savings are zero if action is not taken. Identifying an owner in the planner group helped to drive the action. Now all the planners have engaged in the journey and drive the repairs.

Selling up

It was fantastic to start the program and see results, but few people knew about it or appreciated the impact. The maintenance manager was very pleased and understood the technology and impact. He knew what needed to be done next. I had to sell this predictive technology up the staff level while it was still fresh and before it got lost in a sea of cost-reduction goals.

My passion for predictive technologies was never a question in my mind, but my ability to speak intelligently about it left me with doubts. Again, our partner stepped in to help. They offered to come to our facility at no charge and spend time educating and informing our staff and leadership team.

I set up a meeting with our plant leadership where I could talk about the survey and results. Our vendor was able to use their knowledge and enthusiasm to explain the process and an overview of predictive technologies. The staff was interested and even asked questions. Support for expanding services was high. It was an overwhelming success.

Technologies like ultrasonic leak detection are great for driving support. The savings generated are real. Because they can be calculated, the leadership team can understand that they will spend less on air generation by correcting the leaks. It is more tangible than telling them we avoided a breakdown that didn’t happen yet, which might have cost “X” amount. It was important for me to learn that we had to stop along the journey and share with upper management what we were doing.  

Just Keep Swimming

The partnership with our vendor continued to grow. Along the way, we managed to make small changes to the culture as well. A reactive culture can be a monster to overcome, so rather than trying to slay the beast, we just kept chipping away at it a little at a time. After the success of the ultrasonic leak program, our vendor recommended taking a look at thermography. We started small and did thermography on the motor control center panels.

Once again, we received an outstanding return on investment and created work orders to repair the issues identified. The services were going well, and support from my manager and the staff was tremendous, but we were still just starting the journey. We took months between services. Even though we were taking steps in the right direction, we were still living in a reactive maintenance world.

The next opportunity for our team was identified during one of our weekly preventive maintenance (PM) meetings. It was brought up that the annual PM to inspect our steam traps had been open for almost nine months with hardly any progress. Each time it was scheduled, something reactive would interrupt the schedule, or the only person who was halfway trained to use the equipment was not available. After a quick discussion with our strategic partner, we set up two days of steam trap thermography and completed the PM.

Even though we already had a program in place, the number of faulty steam traps detected paid for the services for years to come. We no longer attempt that PM in house. It is an annual predictive maintenance (PdM) service that our vendor completes along with the electrical thermography and ultrasonic leak detection.

Learning from past experience, we took this opportunity to sell up to the staff and hijacked one of the weekly maintenance meetings. Our vendor again traveled to our plant as a service and to grow our partnership. Thermography is a wonderful topic to discuss with those who have a limited understanding of predictive services. Everyone understands that red is hot, and hot is bad, so it’s easy to view the reports and relate to the technology.

Most people understand that loose connections that generate heat do not fix themselves and will fail. A steam trap that is blowing through is simple to show and explain to someone. The plant leadership was fully engaged. Our plant manager encouraged and acknowledged our efforts. He recognized our strategic partnership and the advantages of it.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

James Bryant Conant is quoted as saying, “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” Working with our vendor, we discussed that the next logical progression was to start condition-based monitoring in the form of vibration analysis. This technology can cost a little more depending on how it is used. It often is a recurring monthly service to monitor asset health. In my role, I am constantly working to control spending in the maintenance department. The idea of committing to an ongoing expense left me a little afraid to stick my neck out of the shell.

Our vendor and I continued to talk frequently to discuss the PdM program. I shared my anxieties with making the commitment. I understood that the value in condition monitoring comes from building historical data and leveraging that data to identify variances. This was not a service I could complete once and then walk away until the next year.

Our vendor stepped up again to partner in the process and offered a three-month trial of half-day vibration analysis. Due to the travel time and post-process analysis involved in vibration analysis, the service typically is a full day, but the vendor wanted to help us dip our toes into condition monitoring. We started by looking at our asset criticality list to determine which assets made sense to include in the vibration analysis program.

In the first three months of half-day vibration analysis, we identified 12 critical assets with defects ranging from lubrication and alignment to a stage-4 bearing defect. Each month the reports were sent to me, and I shared them with the departments where the defects had been found. I was thrilled with the issues we had identified, as this justified my faith in the technology; however, the repairs were not being made.

When I pushed for a few issues to be repaired, it quickly became apparent that while I had succeeded in sharing the information and technology upward, I had failed to engage at the ground level. I had a cancer growing right in my own department where parts of my maintenance team did not believe in the technology.

I heard comments such as: “We have done this before, and it does not work.” “We greased it; it will be fine.” “I don’t care what the machine says. It will keep running.” “It was aligned when it was put in. What could be wrong now?”

This type of negativity concerned me because it could easily erode all the progress being made. As Robert Kennedy said, “Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”

I immediately reached out to our strategic partner, who shared my concerns. We discussed how to make a change to the culture that had been holding us back. Our vendor agreed to travel to our plant and bring pizza for lunch as long as I could get some key players to sit down and talk.

We held an informal lunch-and-learn. In this environment, we were able to discuss concerns and replace misinformation with education. This education helped some of my teams see what was happening, but for others it was like reading the first chapter of a book; they were not yet hooked and did not understand how the story would unfold.

Chapter Two

Several good stories manifested in short order. The first involved a fan motor. The fan had been tagged as failing for months. It was one of those jobs that was low priority, but eventually it was replaced. The next month a new defect arose. The motor was fine now, but the belt had been overtightened when it was installed. This should have been an easy fix, but again it did not receive a high priority, even though it already had been determined to be a critical asset.

As this issue persisted unresolved, the belt tension ceased to be a concern. The over-tension had been allowed to continue long enough that now vibration analysis was detecting bearing defects in the fan. I shared this series of unfortunate events with my team. The connections were so obvious  that it was indisputable. Now the issues have been resolved. This short story has a happy ending and serves as an example of why vibration analysis is a predictive maintenance tool, not a reactive one.

The next story occurred in a place most people avoid: the waste-treatment aeration lagoon. Our facility has four older blowers as part of the system. All four blowers initially had been identified for alignment issues. After months of being ignored, one of the blowers was called out in a monthly report for a frequency increase. When these types of things happen, I always receive a phone call immediately from our vendor. The utilities department manager had received my information as well as the report but failed to engage his team.

Before the next month could roll around, the blower decided that it would run no more. Now the lagoon was in danger of not meeting state and federal requirements. The system was operating on three blowers, and another was giving warning signs that it also was on its last leg. The utilities team was fully engaged at this point. We had $20,000 of motors expedited to the plant at a premium cost. It was an expensive lesson, but everyone on the management and maintenance teams understood what happens if the warning signs are ignored.

Not a Happy Ending But a Hopeful Middle

This is far from the end of the story. I’m sure there will continue to be plot twists and surprises in the future. When that happens, we will use the lessons learned to educate and drive the changes we need. Through real-life examples, we understand how our successes and failures developed a partnership that provided value to our company and created the beginnings of a culture change.

Among the positive signs that keep me hopeful are that the entire plant is now coming up with ideas to use these new tools and services to be predictive. We have also created an anti-firefighter award for maintenance technicians who are engaging in predictive maintenance before they have to fight the fires of breakdown work. In addition, the mechanics are starting to understand the benefits of not always fighting fires.

One of the utilities technicians is fully engaged in the process. He requests vibration analysis reports and works with the planners to enact repairs. He recently rebuilt two freshwater pump motors as scheduled work, avoiding downtime. By repairing the motors when defects were first detected, the motors did not have to be replaced.

We also expanded our precision alignment training and have more technicians than ever before who understand the process and benefits of precision-aligned equipment. We are reacting to the data and recently prevented a possible situation that would have shut down the plant temporarily. By acting in response to the data, we have time to plan work and minimize the cost while avoiding downtime.

Our corporate leadership has taken notice of the changes and benefits. They are now looking for ways to replicate our success throughout the company.

The takeaway from our story thus far is that we are making mistakes and learning from them. We are starting to see some wins but only because the team has grown in size and knowledge. I could never have made these improvements by myself; others in our facility have tried and failed. It began with a strategic partnership with a vendor who was willing to put skin in the game. This partner was willing to start small and help us grow.

Our partnership grew as we educated others in the facility. As the team evolved, the partnership continued to be the essential element in our progress. Each step along the way, we would demonstrate, evaluate and educate. This has been a winning formula that has made the culture change happen.

This article was previously published in the Reliable Plant 2019 Conference Proceedings.

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