Risk Management: Comparing Equipment Health with Human Health

Jeff Walkup

Risk Management: Comparing Equipment Health with Human Health

As the title would suggest, comparing human health to equipment asset health is a similar, yet different, undertaking. Many times, in the world of tribology and equipment lubrication, we use the illustration of “anything a doctor can do with blood, we as maintenance and engineering professionals can do with various kinds of lubrication.”

The human body is the most remarkable organism — or machine — known to humankind. We proactively undergo examinations and diagnostic testing, and when the results aren’t what we were hoping for, we move Heaven and Earth to do anything we can to preserve our health and save our lives.

What about high-dollar, mission-critical equipment and machines that are the heart of a business? Do we do the same for the equipment we are entrusted with? Do we move as fast or pay the same amount of attention as we do to our own bodies? It makes you wonder what would happen if we paid more attention to the reports and dashboard alarms and prioritized our corrective actions based on actionable insight, information, end-user domain knowledge, common sense and a dose of good old-fashioned wisdom.

Equipment Health Diagnostics vs. Human Health Diagnostics

I was recently diagnosed with B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Follicular Lymphoma.

In June 2021, I discovered a lump in my neck and reported it to my medical team. This led to a host of tests to confirm the assumed diagnosis. From here, we came up with a treatment plan and began fighting back.

No one ever wants to hear, “you have cancer.” However, being able to assess all the data available, examine the statistical outcomes of the treatments available and get advice from specialists allowed me to make the wisest decision — the decision that was right for me.

Compare this to the reality of asset and equipment health management. I have been involved in tribology and lubrication for most of my career and worked in a variety of industries. I have seen organizations deploy state-of-the-art condition monitoring and analysis technologies that utilized a variety of tools, such as wireless vibration accelerometers, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and even Big Data, all with the idea that this would be the next all-encompassing miracle elixir to solve every issue.

In the end, a piece of hardware, an oil sample or even a thermography image is just a piece of data that needs to be prioritized and acted upon with root cause identification and a deliberate course of action to resolve. In the high-dollar engineering and maintenance world, professionals must act with deliberate and intentional purpose, or the outcome is nothing more than putting out fires and maintaining business as usual.

Technology is great, and while the advancements being made in the field of machine condition monitoring alone are impressive, it all boils down to action and prioritization. Moving from a diagnostic approach to a prognostic approach requires combining the technology data with a solid understanding and commitment to basic maintenance fundamentals and traditional oil analyses.

Did You Know?

Diagnosis identifies the issue, whereas prognosis predicts the timeline of the issue and attempts to resolve it before severe damage occurs.
Source: merriam-webster.com

While your outcomes might differ from other organizations (based on factors such as environmental conditions, maintenance expectations and personal experience), using your experience to gather insights from the data and combining that with the expertise of your lab and lubricant vendors can help you make the wisest decision for your facility.

Three Stages of Response

After you receive the results from an oil analysis test, there are three response stages: interpretation, decision and action. These stages apply both to machine and human health. Just as with my own cancer diagnosis, you must bring together all the available data, examine the options, make the wisest decision for your equipment and act on your decision. Listed below are the response stages and the actions that can be taken within each phase. 

Stage 1: Interpretation

Ask questions about the results. Do you have any concerns about the numbers, flags or commentary presented? If so, chat with your laboratory to get more details.

Gain knowledge of the situation. From an organizational perspective, your operations group can provide context around important information (such as oil service hours and recent repairs) that could impact the interpretation of the results.

Find an additional perspective. Different parties can interpret results differently, and getting another perspective (or second opinion), such as from equipment manufacturers or oil suppliers, can help build a solid consensus.

Stage 2: Decision

Weigh your options and make a call. During this phase, you may be presented with a “do something or do nothing” decision, or you may have multiple options to consider. Whatever the scenario, your decision will have a considerable impact on the actions you take next and the response protocols you implement.

Stage 3: Action

Ignore the results. If you decide not to respond to the oil analysis results, carefully consider what result would require an immediate response and update your protocols to reflect this.

Gather additional perspective. Like gathering perspective in the interpretation stage, reach out to your original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or oil suppliers for additional opinions on the best course of action.

Monitor more closely. Depending on the results, you may decide to stay the course but monitor the situation carefully for a period of time. More frequent oil sampling, additional testing or cross-comparison with other condition monitoring techniques may be in order. If additional action is required, take note of the timing and triggers, and adjust the protocols accordingly.

Perform an inspection. Humans, depending on the diagnosis’s severity, will receive additional tests to confirm the results and determine the next steps. The same is true for our machines. Based on the results and interpretation of the oil analysis results, you can perform additional machine inspections, making sure to brief your team on exactly what additional information or confirmation you’re looking for.

Perform the repair. Sometimes, the best response is to perform the surgery and follow up with close monitoring. For machines, the most common initial repair response is to change the oil. Follow this up with additional monitoring, such as oil sampling, to confirm if the issue is resolved or if further action is required.

Change the PM interval. Shorten or extend the preventive maintenance (PM) interval to determine if the oil analysis results improve or further degrade. This is similar to shortening the time between doctor’s visits in order to monitor your health progression.

Perform improvement projects. If you notice a recurring problem with your health, you may begin making lifestyle changes to correct the issue, such as modifying your diet or adding in exercise. For machine health, consider additional improvement projects to resolve the recurring issue, such as flagging optimization, training and process mapping.

Objectives for Consideration

As simple as it may seem — get the data, interpret it and take action — when it comes to setting out on a course of action for equipment maintenance, there are some considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Focus on the long game. A marathon isn’t a sprint, and losing focus for even a moment could mean the difference between finishing the race and ending getting injured. Our industry is very similar. It isn’t easy to change the course of a less-than-effective maintenance program, but it is achievable. You and your team must live a mindset of continuous improvement by maintaining focus on the goal and making conscious changes each day that create progress.
  2. Keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t let a problem become bigger by becoming polarized by the data. It’s important to be cautious but not paranoid and to keep the focus centered on the core of the issue. As a leader, you set the vision of where you are going and what the future looks like. By establishing responsibilities that coincide with the action plan, you can keep the focus on the issue and come to a solution more efficiently.
  3. Correct course as soon as possible. From time to time, you may need to course correct, either due to internal or external issues. It’s important to get back on course as quickly as possible to limit potential downstream effects. To do this, set realistic goals and key performance measurements. After all, “that which gets measured gets done.”
  4. You have a team to support you. Reach out and ask for help. We don’t always need to be the smartest person in the room; empower your team and let them have a part in not only the learning but in the success that will come. Lean on your team and empower them to speak their minds if they have a solution.
  5. Take control of bad thoughts. We tend to worry about things that never happen or things we have no control over, making today ineffective and counterproductive. Put your energy towards things you have direct control and influence over. Be aware of the other things you have no control over, but only to learn from them.
  6. You are in charge of the data. Data is a tool to be used wisely, but do not become a victim of analysis paralysis. If you do not take charge of your data, all you have is white noise, an unfocused team and a demoralizing dashboard full of yellow and red alerts.
  7. If not me, then who? If you see a need, take charge. You don’t have to be the leader to be in charge. Leadership is about influence. Lead by example and take accountability. If everyone could apply this mentality to their work, think of the improvements that could be made.
  8. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Trying your best is one of the most important things you can do. The world is full of mediocrity, and we don’t want to contribute to it. Strive to be the absolute best you can be within your abilities. In the end, all we are responsible for is our attitude and efforts.
  9. When faced with unwelcome news, press in. Your attitude and the way you see yourself in relation to the machines have a direct impact on your success. You speak on behalf of your equipment; parts will always have lubrication-related failures, and the best way to speak for our machines is by having a well-informed oil analysis program.


I have many challenges ahead of me with my health, but if anything, it has taught me to employ a state of urgency in everything I do. This self-reflection is established in my personal and professional priorities, such as what I do today that makes a difference. This same perspective can be applied to our oil analysis program. Watch the trends, listen to the data, react accordingly and do your best to take care of the machines much the same way you would take care of your body. Remember, our machines have no voice — they only have you as their advocate, so speak wisely.

Jeff Walkup will be a featured speaker at the 2023 Reliable Plant Conference and Exhibition. 

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