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Practical Tips for Reliability Improvements

by Torbjörn Idhammar

A few years ago I was doing a follow-up visit to a mining company in Kazakhstan with about 67,000 employees. IDCON had been hired to implement better maintenance work processes at one of their smelting plants. Our joint plan was to start by implementing planning, scheduling and preventive maintenance (PM)

At the very first follow-up meeting, I learned that nothing had been done. The assignment for the designated work group was to collect component information for each piece of equipment and start a backlog for maintenance jobs. The reason nothing had happened, according to the work group, was because they didn’t have a formal order.  None of us in the IDCON team had a clue what they meant as we had limited experience in the Russian/Kazakh culture. It turned out that an order from the plant manager was necessary to get anything done within this organization, no matter what it was. They didn’t have an order. We argued with the work group that it wasn’t realistic to have a work order for every single thing that has to happen. Or was it? Apparently so. We headed up to the mine manager and received our order, which read something like this: “The mine manager hereby orders all personnel to begin implementing improved planning, scheduling and preventive maintenance (PM)”

Back in the conference room with our new order, we met with the work group/project manager who said: “Very good. Now problem solved. We implement planning and scheduling; you go home.” As you may understand, it wasn’t that simple. The frontline management at the smelting plant did not know what planning, scheduling and preventive maintenance entailed. It’s likely that they weren’t even sure they even wanted to implement something new; many of them were probably completely against it.

Regardless of how people are going about a change, the human element of change is universal. People do not like change, especially if an outsider tells them HOW to change. Having worked in many different organizations and in many different countries, I’ve reflected a lot on what’s needed to improve and change work methods. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe I have found some valuable points.

Good maintenance is highly dependent on human behavior

Machines largely run the operation in a factory. The people who run the machines have to follow the pace of both the machines and the production process. Poor operating practices are therefore very noticeable. Maintenance efficiency is developed through better work processes. For example: An inspector can carry out detailed inspections, or just walk around and look busy. A maintenance job can take 10 hours or four. A planner can plan a task very well, or just order spare parts. As a maintenance manager, it’s crucial to understand that 90 percent of maintenance effectiveness depends on human behavior.  To get buy-in for our work, our first step was to communicate a picture of the future, a description of what the every day work would look like if we implement improvements.

Describe and relay a clear picture of change

Maintenance improvements need to be clearly defined.  It’s not enough to just explain how to get there, you must be able to provide a clear picture of what things are supposed to look like in the future. If you want to improve planning and scheduling, for example, there should be a description of what the work process will look like, when finished. IDCON describes a work process as something that is:

  1. Documented
  2. Executed
  3. Followed up

The future picture is summarized in these bullets as headers. Under ”documented” we describe, for example, what documents should be in place when we are finished with the improvements. We may want a clear workflow, a definition of planning, priorities and so on. If you are interested in a more specific example, please e-mail me at the address posted below.

Think about how you communicate

We thought it was custom in Russian and Kazakh culture to be clear and straightforward, borderline commanding, so that was the tone we opened with. This was partially due to a translation problem, but also because of stereotypes about the old U.S.S.R. It turned out that it was accepted (but disliked) when bosses issued commands to the floor, but that they were extremely polite and unpretentious in project groups. Come to think of it, this behavior doesn’t differ much when compared to Sweden, the U.S., Canada or any other country, for that matter. People often react very similarly to communication style regardless of industry, country or culture.  

If you want to get people involved, think about HOW you communicate. Compare: ”Our documentation for work order flow is really bad, why are we performing so poorly?” to ”Can our documentation for work order flow improve?” I believe the project group would work in the same direction in both cases, but with much more enthusiasm and drive if you chose alternative two.

Since maintenance is based on human behavior, it is important that we as maintenance leaders think about how we relay the message. Words are important! 

Project plan and RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed)

A manager or an executive group has to decide WHAT needs to be done, but one suggestion is to allow a work team to decide HOW, then document a detailed plan and develop a RACI. As a manager, you should expect an improvement plan from the team.  The plan needs to have specified activities and a deadline. In order to delegate who is going to do what, a RACI-matrix should to be documented for every main activity. (I’d be happy to send examples.)

At this mine, our extremely detailed project plan became our savior. Our consultants worked with the project group, which after three months consisted of eight PM inspectors, eight planners, three project managers, one plant manager and four consultants. PM inspectors and planners had never existed in the organization. The project group would later grow to about 50 people, since we had to build an intranet, buy servers, install a CMMS, then train personnel in the CMMS, PM and, planning and scheduling. If we hadn’t come armed with a very comprehensive project plan and RACI, it would have been impossible to organize.

The project, according to our clients, was a great success. After two years of joint effort, there was a functioning CMMS, weekly scheduling meetings with daily updates. Around 80 percent of all jobs had work orders. They had eight certified PM inspectors/lubrication technicians, and I still get weekly project reports with numeric values. According to IDCON’s standards they still have a way to go in mastering their maintenance processes, but they made significant improvements during the duration of the project.

We did learn how to work together during this journey and today the smelter uses RACI, project plans, and clear goals. They struggle to communicate and execute some plans, but my guess is that’s not that unusual for most factories.

The company's profit in the year IDCON’s project was completed was 3 billion dollars. Most of that is unrelated to our work with them, but it makes me wonder how efficient we really are in the Western World, but that’s a discussion for another column.

The examples above are just a few possibilities of what can be utilized in an improvement project. I’m interested in hearing from you. Do you have any tips for establishing and implementing reliability improvements? Join our discussion on this topic at our www.LinkedIn.com discussion group Search for IDCON in the discussion pages.

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