How to Establish the Right Size of Your Maintenance Department

Don Armstrong, Veleda Services

Several years ago, when I was trying to get approval to hire an additional machinist, my boss remarked, “I do believe that if you had twice as many men, you’d keep them all busy. And I also believe that if you had half as many, you’d keep the mill running.”

As it turned out, over the next couple of years, we were forced to substantially reduce our maintenance workforce, and the mill continued to improve its reliability and increase its daily production. So, he was right.

I’ve often been asked, “How many tradespeople do you really need?” Of course, this depends on several factors, but there should at least be a core of skilled and experienced people who understand the equipment and can repair most of the problems that are likely to be encountered during plant operation. There also must be enough people to carry out routine inspections and servicing to ensure reliability. However, the primary factors that will affect the number of people required for the maintenance department include the following:

Plant Design and Equipment Selection

Maintenance cannot compensate for equipment that is just not up to the job. Selecting equipment that is inherently reliable, correctly installed and run by experts who know how to operate the equipment will have the greatest impact on the amount of maintenance required.

Plant Condition

Preventive maintenance is only effective if it is applied in a plant where the equipment condition is maintained within the manufacturer’s specifications. Bearings and other components that are excessively worn will have a short life.

Plant Location and Climate

Remote operations where access to outside help and expertise are difficult and expensive will require more onsite tradespeople. Severe climates also increase maintenance needs.

Regulations

Inspections and component replacements required by regulations may greatly impact the amount of maintenance effort. Operations like nuclear power stations may be incredibly reliable, and virtually all the maintenance effort will be focused on plant inspections and servicing.

Experience of Tradespeople

Any tradesperson knows that it’s much easier to do a complex repair job the second time. Where there is high turnover in tradespeople, more will be needed.

Planning

A job well-planned is a job half done. Consistent, diligent, detailed work planning will ensure the minimum number of tradespeople are required to maintain a reliable operation.

Scheduling

Scheduling is often the biggest opportunity for improving maintenance performance and productivity. Bad scheduling habits waste maintenance effort. These habits include scheduling two people for work that needs only one. I suspect some of this can be attributed to laziness, as it’s easier to plan six jobs than 12. However, some practices, such as always assigning two electricians to any job, may be well-established and difficult to change.

Careful scheduling by individuals who understand the operation, the work and the people can significantly improve maintenance effectiveness. For example, scheduling two one-man jobs close together so tradespeople can help each other with heavy lifting or other activities that require two people for short periods should be a key part of scheduling.

Tools and Equipment

Nothing moves a job along faster and to a higher quality standard than having ready access to the right tools and maintenance equipment, such as lift trucks, cranes, etc.

Materials Management

Similarly, arranging the right materials in “work kits” prior to a job will also greatly reduce the time it takes. Keep in mind that the use of work kits will only be successful if the work is planned in detail and most of the work actually gets done at the time it is scheduled.

Strength of the Maintenance/Operations Partnership

Without close cooperation on activities such as setting maintenance priorities and scheduling, trades effort will be wasted on low-priority and emergency work.

Access to Maintenance Information

Maintenance computer systems must have the primary purpose of giving key maintenance people, including tradespeople, the information they need when they need it. Accurately recording costs may be important, but it does not help to get the job done.

One Final Factor

One other factor that can influence maintenance productivity and effectiveness is the observance of artificial work restrictions. The “tradelines” that were common in unionized plants a couple of decades ago, and which still exist to some extent today, can double the number of man-hours required to complete many maintenance jobs.

Work restrictions, such as not permitting trades other than welders to weld, allowing only pipefitters to disconnect flanges on operating equipment and so on, benefit one entity only, and that is the union because it forces the hiring of additional employees. Work restrictions have a negative impact on the employer and individual tradespeople. They make the work that tradespeople do less interesting and rewarding. They also discourage innovation, deny people opportunities to learn new skills and make the jobs less secure.

There is another downside to tradelines. A welder once complained to me that a pipefitter had prepared some stainless pipe for him to weld. He said, “The gaps I had to fill were more than any rod is supposed to bridge.” However, his next comment was the most significant. “So, now there’s a job out there that is a very poor-quality job, and it has my name on it.”

In my experience, most individuals take a lot of pride in the work they do, and there are some amazingly talented tradespeople in industry. Forcing a good tradesman to work with someone who does not share his standards can be very frustrating and eventually demotivating, especially when he has all the skills and experience to do a good job on his own. This is something supervisors and schedulers should always take into account when assigning work.

I was instrumental in eliminating many trade restrictions in one plant, where we had sold the changes only on the benefits to the tradespeople and without any reference to the “company” benefits. The most satisfying day in my career was my last day in this plant because, to my surprise, many tradespeople dropped by my office to thank me for helping them to “just get on with the job without having to look over my shoulder.”

In another plant where a similar change was initiated without such consideration for the tradespeople, the effect was disastrous and resulted in a strike that lasted 10 months.

So, while the “right” number of tradespeople is not easy to establish, the difference in the number of people needed to maintain the desired level of reliability in a well-managed maintenance department versus a poorly managed department can be a factor of two or more.

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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...