The Silver Bullet of Maintenance and Reliability Management

Victor D. Manriquez

The Silver Bullet of Maintenance and Reliability Management

Every generation has its movie icons, and among the most famous are those featured in horror films. From Freddy Krueger and Annabelle to Frankenstein and the Werewolf, these monsters are known for being sophisticated, resilient, and extremely hard to defeat.

But, even though they seem invincible, every monster has its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In the case of the Werewolf, the only way to defeat it was by means of a silver bullet. The term “silver bullet” ended up becoming a popular metaphor for a final solution to a tough, long-standing problem.

Some maintenance organizations have searched for their own silver bullet to optimize maintenance management, reduce costs, and achieve world-class metrics. However, often, it’s discovered that their silver bullet (a new strategy, methodology, or tool) proves unsuccessful.

During my decades-long maintenance and reliability career, I have witnessed many of these failed silver bullets, including:

  • Total Productive Maintenance
  • Maintenance Strategy
  • Maintenance Outsourcing
  • Root Cause Analysis

Total Productive Maintenance

For many companies, their silver bullet is Total Productive Maintenance (TPM). While effective in certain cases, it can also lead to more problems if implemented incorrectly. 

Total Productive Maintenance

The process of using machines, equipment, employees, and supporting processes to maintain and improve the integrity of production and the quality of systems.
Source: Reliable Plant

Case Study #1

One example I personally witnessed was with an oil and gas company. They began implementing TPM initiatives in their maintenance department, but they failed to establish a corresponding partnership with the operations department. The maintenance team began the implementation process by itself, because, as “specialists,” they believed they could find success on their own.

They were wrong, and ultimately the implementation process failed.

Why? Not only did they fail to establish a partnership with the operations team, but they did not analyze their stakeholders; this company was part of a union, and when union leaders realized they had been left out of the implementation process, they had strong opposition to the entire project.

Case Study #2

Another case I witnessed took place in a reducer manufacturing company, where during implementation, they transferred certain maintenance tasks from the mechanics to the operators without first providing proper training.

As a consequence, during the maintenance of a critical reducer, defective work was performed, and the reducer was damaged beyond repair.

I would add, as important as training is, the tasks must also be standardized so they can be fully comprehended by the team members performing them. This allows them to perform the maintenance tasks in a standard way. Without effective training, TPM can be a path to failure.

Additional Case Studies

As further evidence of the potential dangers, I would like to refer to two studies that reviewed the potential problems associated with TPM implementation.

The first study, conducted by Gilberto Villegas, observed 30 Columbian companies trying to implement TPM and the “aspects related with the change management on the TPM implementation in the industry.” Villegas found many “learned lessons” from the obstacles and failures that he discovered.

One lesson was that “there [were] organizational cultures that made the TPM implementation process unviable.”

Other exposed issues that directly affected the success rate of TPM were:

  • Incomplete implementation of 5S by using an “almost similar” approach.
  • Lack of compromise from executives.
  • Subordination between maintenance and operations areas.

The second study, The Implementation of Kaizen in Mexican Organizations: An Empirical Study by Manuel F. Suáres Barraza, also discovered reasons behind TPM implementation failure, such as:

  • Employee resistance to change.
  • Incorrect implementation and monitoring.
  • Lack of engagement and support from leaders.
  • Lack of employee motivation to participate.
  • Lack of resources.
  • Union opposition.
  • Lack of clarity on the potential financial benefits.  

Maintenance Strategy

Another maintenance and reliability silver bullet is a company's maintenance strategy.

Maintenance Strategy

"A systematic approach to ensuring equipment reliability and optimal performance in an industrial setting."
Source: eMaint

While adjusting a maintenance strategy can be a valuable endeavor, companies that change theirs without first creating a roadmap, or at least establishing their objectives, set themselves up for failure. They become consumed with meeting short-term objectives instead of long-term ones that are sustainable. 

The first question leaders should ask themselves before altering their strategy is simple. Why should a specific strategy be chosen?   

Patty Azzarello’s article, “What It Means to Be Strategic”, sheds light on the answer by asking leaders to take action in four ways:

  1. Recognize
  2. Think
  3. Do
  4. Communicate

Leaders should recognize:

  • How specific jobs impact the overall business.
  • If a specific job is still relevant and valuable in an ever-changing market.
  • The status quo is no longer working.
  • Obstacles are tasks to be overcome.
  • Opportunities for improvement.

Leaders to think about if:

  • The current way of conducting business requires too much effort for an insufficient result.
  • They are getting enough value from their projects.
  • There are conflicts that require difficult decisions to be made.
  • Change is needed.

Leaders must decide what to do about it by:

  • Finding creative solutions to problems.
  • Creating more efficient systems and processes.
  • Conceiving of, leading, and executing change.
  • Resolving conflict by understanding all points of view, making recommendations, and working through the issue in its entirety.

Leaders must communicate about the strategy change by:

  • Describing how this will impact the organization.
  • Sharing the value of the new maintenance strategy with all stakeholders.
  • Creating communications relevant to each stakeholder group.

It’s this last action step that really helps overcome one of the main issues with changing maintenance strategies: alignment between the maintenance teams and the rest of the organization.

This lack of organizational alignment is frequently referred to as working in “silos”. For a maintenance strategy to be successful, it requires a complete partnership between all areas of the facility. 


"The isolation that occurs when employees or entire departments within an organization do not want to, or do not have the adequate means to, share information or knowledge with each other."

Maintenance Outsourcing

Another popular silver bullet is when large companies outsource their maintenance processes to a specialized maintenance services organization.

In my experience, many of the reasons for outsourcing were driven largely by the desire to reduce maintenance costs and avoid labor, social, and legal compromises established due to local labor laws. Decisions like these only serve to transform the organization’s deficiencies to the outsourcing company.

In his book, Outsourcing, Ben Schneider states, “Outsourcing should not be considered as a method to spare fixed costs, instead of a way to potentialize the organization’s capacity.”

Another issue intertwined with outsourcing is the clarity and specificity of the contract for the maintenance service. We must have similar concerns for the technical and maintenance management issues of the contract as with the legal clauses. Specifically, I have found numerous conflicts with the calculation of key performance indicators (KPIs), especially when the KPI value is linked to a reward or penalty.

Criteria for calculating KPIs should be clearly specified in the contract, and it could be of use to utilize the standardized metrics outlined in the SMRP Best Practices Handbookor the European standard EN 15341.

For more information on how to construct a quality outsourcing contract, I would recommend consulting the European standard EN 13269on maintenance contracts, as well as “The Seven Deadly Sins of Outsourcing,” by Jerome Barthelemy.

Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis (RCA), when incorrectly implemented, can become another detrimental silver bullet. In my career, I have witnessed three such cases where the RCA program didn’t deliver the expected results.

Root Cause Analysis

A systematic approach for identifying the root causes of problems or events and an action plan for responding to them.
Source: Reliable Plant

Case Study #1

The first case involved an organization whose leadership was negligent with their engagement and communication of the responsibilities involved with the RCA solution implementation. They also failed to empower and support the authority of the RCA facilitator in his attempts to assign responsibilities for the recommended solution. 

Because of this, the teams in charge of carrying out this solution did not understand the relevance of the new tasks, and they were quickly ignored so they could focus on their routine and clerical work. In this instance, a lack of organizational culture and structure became the downfall for their initiatives.

Case Study #2

The second case occurred when the RCA process became a bureaucratic one. During their RCA implementation, they began conducting failure analyses, but unfortunately, the company was more focused on finding a guilty party than a physical cause.

The failure analyses began requiring excessive numbers of meetings and man hours to complete, and one event report could take months to complete.

Case Study #3

The final case involves a company that had no criteria for prioritizing its RCA development. Because they affect critical assets and produce a significant monetary impact, some RCA projects have a greater effect on company operations and objectives. These RCA projects need to be prioritized.

However, with this company, their definition of the problem and the appropriate initial steps for their RCA implementation did not include the significance of the problem in terms of its impact on safety, the environment, and their bottom line; they based their plan on trivial events instead of prioritizing the events of greater significance.


Now is the time to ask yourself:

  • Have I been looking for a “silver bullet” to solve my critical maintenance problems?
  • Have I applied any of these options?
  • What aspects have I not taken into account?
  • Am I using the best strategy, methodology, or tools for my organization?

Some may consider this text pessimistic. Perhaps, but I would like to end this article with a quote from the Spanish author Antonio Gala, “I am not a pessimist. I am an optimist well informed.”

Subscribe to Machinery Lubrication

About the Author

My name is Victor Manriquez, professional Mechanical Engineer, formed in the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP), Master in Renewable Energies by the Universidad Internacional de And...