Overcoming Big Excuses to Deliver Lasting Change

Joe Kuhn

Overcoming Big Excuses to Deliver Lasting Change

There are many tools to improve a business, and new ones arrive constantly. But, in a capital-intensive business, I found nothing has a greater impact than creating a reliability culture. A reliability culture prioritizes reliability and maintenance (R&M) best practices and focuses on continuous improvement. 

R&M best practices impact more than equipment reliability; they impact:

  • Production
  • Product quality
  • Worker safety
  • The environment
  • Opportunity costs

Opportunity costs, often the most significant factor, are captured when resources can focus on improving the business rather than fighting fires.

For a variety of reasons, reliability culture remains something most of us only study, listen to in case studies, and dream about. This gap between learning and doing is filled with excuses.

Popular false justifications include:

  1. We have no money. 
  2. We don’t have enough people.
  3. Results take too long. 
  4. It’s not a good time.
  5. Culture change is too hard.

I’m going to address these one at a time and share my insights, based on my 36 years of manufacturing leadership experience, on how to overcome these barriers.

We Have No Money

“We need to upgrade our old equipment.”  

“We can’t get funding for capital replacements.” 

“Our budget was cut by 10%, and we just eliminated all overtime.”  

“There’s no way our budget can absorb the dollars required to get the assets in a maintainable shape due to past management decisions and neglect.” 

I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard, or even said, these in the past – I have. They’re in everyone’s unofficial maintenance training manual. However, an often-misunderstood fundamental fact about R&M is that every single practice is designed to eliminate waste. This means that by implementing best practices according to your plant’s waste, you save money – this is why R&M best practices are often called “money machines”.

I’ve visited 42 plants, and all have been overflowing with waste, and many of these situations and solutions may apply to your facility:

  • 50% of preventive maintenance (PM) plans aren’t based on failure modes. PM optimization events can free up thousands of labor hours, nearly 20% of the workforce, for other proactive activities like problem-solving and condition monitoring.
  • Before establishing best practices, workforce efficiency, measured in wrench time, is rarely above 15%. A common cause is a lack of planning, scheduling, kitting, and staging. Kitting and staging equipment and parts at the job site before work begins can increase worker efficiency by 30%. This leap makes every technician twice as efficient as the day before, costs nothing to implement, and can be carried out in 30 days.
  • A major issue in most plants is a lack of precision maintenance. Companies should invest in developing precision maintenance training to create internal subject matter experts. Not only do subject matter experts help create a precision maintenance program, but they also help engage the workforce.

We Don’t Have Enough People

“We’re overwhelmed with reactive work; we need to hire more people to do preventative maintenance.” 

“We can’t find the problem’s root cause because we have other ‘fires’ to move on to.”

“We need to hire another planner; ours is planning for 25 technicians.”

“Because we’re short-staffed, we tried to contract out our predictive maintenance routes, but it was too expensive.”

These statements are all true, given your current state. But what’s missing is a focus on your specific wastes. Most of your resources are working in pitifully inefficient systems. There are two solutions:

  1. Hire more inefficient people, costing more dollars.
  2. Increase the efficiency of the system in which the technicians work. 

Over the years, I have helped dozens of plants understand the current state of their waste through kaizen. In every kaizen, the participants (usually plant leadership) were completely convinced the solution was to hire more people. Within a few days, they were concerned they may have too many people to successfully achieve their goals. What a change!


Meaning "change for the better," Kaizen is a two-part system that eliminates manufacturing waste by improving a facility's existing standardized processes and procedures.
Source: Reliable Plant

After best practices were implemented to attack the plant’s unique waste, leadership eagerly redeployed resources to practice tasks like predictive maintenance, problem-solving, and precision maintenance. The technicians also enjoyed the increase in efficiency; after all, they chose their profession to be a part of the solution, not wait on parts or run equipment to failure.

Results Take Too Long

“Due to business conditions, we have been asked to cut our spending by 10% this quarter. All new programs are to be put on hold to focus on profits.” 

The traditional reliability best practice deployment should include:

  • Hiring a consultant.
  • Training the masses.
  • Implementing best practices and new processes.
  • Getting the equipment in maintainable shape from past neglect.

In just three to five years of sustained effort, you will see dramatic results. This is how I learned and implemented best practices in my own career. You need a strong, long-term committed leader to make these efforts turn into reality. This is why a reliability culture eludes 95% of plants.  

There is also another option. By applying lean principles to reliability and maintenance best practices, results can be seen in as little as 30 days. The key is to know what waste exists in your plant through intense observation. This process is called, the “Chalk Circle Observation” and was pioneered by Toichi Ohno in his Toyota Production System. 


A series of methodologies, philosophies, and tools designed to minimize manufacturing waste and maximize productivity.
Source: Reliable Plant

Chalk Circle Observation days must be added to your data set of key performance indicators (KPIs) and expert opinions. A medium-sized plant may need three to five days of observation; large plants may need eight to ten days. Only by knowing the specific wastes in your plant will solutions become self-evident. It is then a simple task to identify what actions must be taken in the next 30, 60 and 90 days.

Priority must be given to the actions that require no money to implement. This is key to getting organizational momentum and enthusiasm. My experience shows a minimum of 10% reduction in R&M costs in six months. This result is on top of gains in safety, quality, environment, and production.   

It's Not a Good Time

“We need to get this unplanned work behind us.”

“We have a big outage coming up.”

“We need to get fully staffed first.”

“We have an upcoming union contract.”

“We have other priorities; a capital installation, new product qualifications, new customer, a corporate safety audit, plant-wide yield focus, an urgent need to reduce costs.”

Blah, blah, blah, right? Take it from a 36-year veteran, without best practices, tomorrow, next week and next month will be worse. Unplanned work is a death spiral; you only stop it through best practices. 

Hope is not a plan. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is today. Begin your journey.

Culture Change is Too Hard

“We have 50 years of old habits; it’s impossible to change.” 

Few things strike more fear and excuses into a manager than being asked to improve culture. Most managers go careening down the new technology and capital solutions path to steer clear of anything people related.

At my plants, I have wasted millions of dollars on this fool’s journey. These purchased off-the-shelf solutions rarely live up to the justifications, but we rinse and repeat year after year, losing time, money, and, worse, creditability.  

In 2000, I was introduced to an extremely simple culture change model that I credit as transforming me from a manager to a leader. I attended a training session by Partners in Leadership LLC. They detailed a culture change pyramid (see Figure 1) that explained how change occurs in organizations.

Change is initiated by new experiences.

New experiences change your beliefs.

New beliefs change your actions.

New actions change the results.

Thus, the starting point for culture change is to create a new experience. These new experiences are created one at a time; all leaders need to do is create a new experience to change the culture.

Here are two examples:

Example 1

Current State: Your plant’s 20 craftsmen are fully consumed in reactive work.

New Experience: The technicians are split into reactive and proactive teams; 16 focus on reactive maintenance, and four focus on proactive maintenance.

You notice motor and lubrication failures are the leading causes of equipment downtime. As a response, your four proactive technicians target preventive and predictive maintenance best practices focused on these two failures.

Reactive work decreases, and proactive work prevents additional downtime. Eventually, you can increase the number of proactive technicians.

Example 2

Current State: Your plant’s 40 craftsmen have a 15% observed wrench time. Waiting, transportation, and locating parts, tools, and equipment are major sources of waste.

New Experience: You assigned a highly skilled senior technician to become a kitter-stager accountable for gathering all parts and specialty tools needed for a job and placing them in an easily located basket. The goal is for the technician to have no reason to return to the shop or tool crib.

The basket is delivered to the job site along with all necessary equipment needed for the work prior to the technician’s arrival. To accomplish this, the kitter-stager typically works a skewed shift; for example, they would work 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. versus the normal shift of 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.


Excuses are easy to find, and while many are true, we as leaders must resist the temptation to accept them and become a victim.

Early in my career, a great manager of mine asked me, “Joe, what would have to be true for you to make this change successful?” This simple challenge changed my mindset from “Here is why it won’t work” to “How can I make this work?”

Great leaders choose to persevere, overcome, and destroy obstacles – and we desperately need great leaders in R&M. To quote my friend and industry peer, Tom Moriarty, “Go forth and do great things.”      

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About the Author

Joe Kuhn worked at Alcoa Corporation for 32 years. Joe was an operations leader for 29 years, a plant manager three times, and the global director for reliability and maintenance serving 31 loca...