Maintenance vs. Production: How to Mend the Relationship

William Jacobyansky

Maintenance and production in a manufacturing plant often have a tense relationship. This is odd because the existence of these departments is only possible if the other exists. One cannot survive without the other. This does not keep them from undercutting each other or building walls between them, which in the end only hurts the profitability of the business. This article will discuss this relationship with an emphasis on the maintenance side of the equation, but the concepts also have analogies on the production side.

The Blame Game

In a normal manufacturing facility, there are two primary groups: production (or operations) and maintenance. It’s common for there to be tension, if not outright antipathy, in the relationship between them. Disparaging remarks from one group regarding the abilities of the other are frequently heard. While good-natured teasing and competitiveness between groups may be healthy, it can be detrimental to profitability if allowed to develop into a lack of respect. This often happens, but why? It’s obvious that neither group could exist without the other. Each group only has a purpose if the other exists.

I’ve often heard each department blame the other for problems at their plant. This may make a person feel better, but it’s not the truth. While maintenance and production are very different in their mindsets and the way they approach problems, they are so intertwined at the plant level that they cannot be at opposite ends of the performance spectrum. If you have a bad maintenance department, you cannot have a good production group, as the unpredictability of equipment will force operators to develop bad practices and inefficient work arounds.

The converse is also true, as poorly trained operators will lead to reactive maintenance and destroy maintenance’s ability to efficiently maintain the factory. Remember that the next time you hear one department denigrating the other. When that occurs, they are also implicitly admitting that they are not very good either. It’s the old adage that says if you’re pointing at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

Maintenance and production work toward the same goal but approach it from completely different directions. The problems begin when differences in the philosophical approach cause a wall between the groups instead of being used as a tool to enhance the abilities of each. Management has a big role in allowing this to develop, mostly through inaction or the minor reaction of spouting platitudes in meetings about how everyone needs to work together. Both departments must understand from top to bottom that they must not just coexist but play off each other to be successful. The enemy isn’t the other groups in your plant. It’s the competitors in the marketplace who want to take away your business.

An example of how this separation materializes can be seen in overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), which is a common key performance indicator (KPI) used by manufacturing plants. OEE can be defined as quality x production rate x availability. This typically is interpreted as production responsibility x production responsibility x maintenance responsibility. While this is a nice way to compartmentalize and assign priorities, it’s not accurate.

Both groups affect all three parameters in a positive or negative way. When equipment breaks down, the obvious scapegoat is maintenance because it’s their job to keep the machines running. Unfortunately, most maintenance departments define their responsibility as turning over working equipment to production and wiping their hands of it until it is given back to them again – typically in a degraded condition. However, turning over good equipment is just step one in the process. Where many maintenance departments fall flat is when they fail to realize that it is also their job to coach production on how to operate and maintain the equipment, as well as to understand when the equipment is degraded or failing. This coaching doesn’t happen as much as it should for many reasons, including higher turnover in the production workforce, the communication effort needed to transfer technical information to non-technical people, and the fear of losing informal power.

Taking Ownership of the Equipment

A good maintenance department not only fixes problems but also finds ways to keep them from happening again. Too often this is limited to installing a better bearing or improving the lubrication program. This is what I call the easy stuff. To truly take ownership of the equipment, maintenance must become involved in all facets of equipment operation and work with operators and production management to ensure they have the necessary support to get consistent output from the machinery. This support doesn’t just involve pointing out production errors or shortcomings. It means taking input from the operators, understanding their needs, and training them on how to operate a piece of equipment properly. It also means working with production and engineering, instead of working as an independent group. It requires changing the way maintenance is performed to do what is best for the plant instead of what is best for the equipment or maintenance. This isn’t easy – very few marriages are – but it is necessary to get the full benefit of the different approaches to the problems that production and maintenance have. This is one of the building blocks needed to move maintenance from being another cost center to becoming a strategic advantage.

Poor Training

What should happen is stated above, but what often occurs is the exact opposite. The maintenance department will train production personnel not to give them information, and they do this without realizing it. While many machine operators do not understand the mechanics of their equipment, being around a machine for eight, 10 or 12 hours a day gives them a sense of how it is performing. It can be difficult for operators to translate their “sense” into the technical jargon that maintenance techs use. Instead of following the operator’s “intuition,” maintenance tends to denigrate it as meaningless or laughable or just ignore it. This is especially true if a work order has not been initiated.

After this happens a few times, the operator will quit trying to feed information to the technician because it’s either not taken seriously or it’s not acted upon. The result is that almost every maintenance technician has responded to an emergency call for a broken machine only to hear the operator say something to the effect that “it’s been acting up for weeks” or “it’s been making strange noises for the past three days.” The technician then becomes upset because the operator didn’t report the problem when an issue was first suspected. The technician’s opinion of the operator’s ability drops, but the operator simply responded in the way that he or she had been trained by the maintenance department.

This is a self-sustaining circle that leaves both groups dissatisfied with the other and hurts the company’s profitability. A few corollaries to this scenario can produce the same result when maintenance ignores the operator’s problem because it can be worked around by the operator, or maintenance responds to the problem but doesn’t let production know when the repair is delayed because of parts or scheduling.

Consider Production a PdM Tool

In general, maintenance technicians are an intelligent group, but they often are not great communicators. As a rule, maintenance techs feel more comfortable with technical data and tend to ignore the “touchy-feely” aspect of their job. To a mechanic, a problem that an operator can work around is not as important as another problem like a low-flow pump or a preventive maintenance (PM) route. In some sense, this is true. However, if you’re the operator standing at the machine, that small problem you adapt to every day for hours is a huge disruption. Maintenance must learn to see production as another predictive maintenance (PdM) tool like vibration, oil and ultrasonic analysis.

Production will always put pressure on maintenance to solve problems, increase machine reliability and reduce costs, and they will want it all to be done now regardless of how unreasonable the demand is. This is the norm because it’s what a good maintenance department should be trying to do. They take equipment performance personally and take pride in keeping everything running. Unfortunately, when the maintenance department thinks of themselves as an outside group and become arrogant about their abilities, these traits tend to bring them into more conflict with production.

This is where management needs to come into play. The role of maintenance management is not just to assign technicians their daily tasks and help them solve technical problems. Those are the easy parts of the job, but sometimes this is all that’s expected of technical management. Management must make sure that the environment and culture encourage support of disparate groups instead of pointing out the differences and emphasizing the mistakes that others may be making.

This is a simple concept that’s extremely difficult to execute. It also is where many plants fall short by assuming that anyone who has an engineering degree or who can fix a piece of equipment and communicate adequately can be the maintenance manager. If it were that simple, there wouldn’t be such an incredible amount of reactive maintenance being done in industry.

Symbiotic, Not Equal

Though the relationship between production and maintenance is symbiotic, it is not equal. Production is the big dog in this picture. Maintenance hates to hear this, but it’s true. A good analogy is to compare the relationship of production and maintenance with the civilian control of the U.S. military. The military knows how to do its job, but the rules it must work under are determined by civilian authority. Maintenance must realize this and understand that their rules of engagement, such as equipment availability, budget and resources, will be determined by someone else. The decision should be made with input from maintenance, and hopefully the department’s credibility has not been diluted by constantly crying wolf or failing to deliver on promises.

I’m convinced that maintenance can be the best place to work in any plant. It frequently takes a backseat in how it’s perceived because it has not evolved as well over the years. When maintenance departments do evolve, they all seem to eventually fall back into a reactive state because the gains often disappear as new managers take over and let themselves or production force them into becoming a reactive group.

Maintenance management is not easy, and it is not something that can be done by any technical person. Management is a learned skill, and unfortunately there are not enough paths for the needed people to develop these skills.

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About the Author

William Jacobyansky is the owner of Strategic Maintenance Consortium consulting. He has a bachelor's degree i...