Leadership in Maintenance

News of Sweden’s recently reinstated mandatory military training took me back to the early 1990s.

My generation (X) grew up during the Cold War and everyone had to do military duty or alternatively spend a year in prison.

As I didn’t want to go to jail, I opted for military duty. I remember the first day well, sitting on the lawn at Army Base A3 waiting for the Major, along with about 40 other sets of future boots.

It was a sunny day and I was glad I had managed to switch from 15 months service in the Air Force to 12 months in the Artillery, closer to my university and girlfriend.

Because the Swedish military training was mandatory, and Sweden held the world record in peace*, and as we were paid the equivalent of $4 per day, I felt entitled to do as little as possible.

Our military was there purely for defense. My plan was to take it easy for those 12 months.

After all, my goal was to be an engineer not armed forces career.

The military training was just a bump in the road.

Most of us that were sitting on that lawn in 1990 had the same attitude.

For those readers who may have served in the U.S. armed forces, Sweden was a little different. The military service was mandatory.

We had no choice and therefore attitudes were more relaxed and unwilling. We knew we stood no chance of winning a war anyway.

It was estimated that Russia could overtake Sweden in roughly 3 days at that time. In a safe and relatively neutral place like Sweden, patriotism often gets buried a little deeper.

But, twelve months later, we were singing a different tune. All of us ended up doing what we were told, oftentimes above and beyond.

We took it as seriously as the military is meant to be.

How did this happen? How did the Swedish Army get an arrogant group of university students to do what it needed, and with excellent results at that?

One factor was likely that we were young and formative.

They called me ”Great Grandpa” since I had been studying at a university in the U.S. and came back to Sweden for the military training at the mature age of 23.

The one they called ”Grandpa” was 22.

But the biggest reason for the turnaround, of course, was the leadership, the routines, and the teamwork.

People can think whatever they like about the military, but one thing is set in stone: the military has ONE way of doing things and that way is made very clear.

In the maintenance industry, we don’t punish people with 4 hours of weapon cleaning or 500 pushups.

But there is still a form of punishment, shown in poor annual reviews, lay-offs and in the worst-case scenarios, shutdowns.

I believe the clarity, routines and skillful balance between authority and teamwork used in militaries worldwide would benefit us in Maintenance.

Of course, the Swedish officers knew where we were coming from that first day on the lawn, but we weren’t the first blueberries they had made into jam.

They understood how to handle slack young wanna-be-rebels, and how to get the most out of us. Drilled in leadership (rooted in psychology) they gave individual or group orders, but in the end, it was always a collective responsibility.

If someone made a mistake or slacked off, it was punished, while we were rewarded when things were done correctly and efficiently.

On the very first day, we were, of course, taught how to march.

We began at 4 pm, after checking out our uniforms. True to our new-jack attitude, about half of us trudged along.

After 30 seconds, the officer stopped us and said, or, yelled something I can’t repeat all of here, because it was pretty harsh, but the message was to “march 5 minutes in perfect formation! We WILL continue until you get it. I don’t care if you get it at 5 pm, 9 pm or 7 tomorrow morning!”

We managed by 5.30 pm, for the simple reason that those who were serious about their military training clarified: “Get your stuff together! We’ll miss chow!”

It’s an example of positive peer pressure. The officer gave an order, but it was the collective welfare that made it happen.

A few weeks later, we had to learn how to set up a 20-man tent: “Instructions are in the box, report to me when done!”

It took us about 40 minutes and the officer said: ”Good. Now when you can do it under 4 minutes, you’ll get the rest of the day off.”

It took us a couple of hours of practice, but we managed to set up the tent in 2.5 minutes, and then enjoyed the rest of our day.

The officer gave clear orders, he followed up and he rewarded. We also got a perk. Putting up a tent in record time would soon prove a valuable skill.

I especially recall a freezing day in February at 2:00 am; I think that tent went up in under 2 minutes that night.

Sometimes I think about the fact that many companies pay a lot of money for leadership and teamwork simulations, something that all Swedish men born in the early in the century to the 70s got for free (suddenly the $4 per day seems like some kind of a bonus.)

So how come we sometimes have a hard time getting things done efficiently on the floor in the maintenance industry when we’re paid so well?

Do we simply not have a good understanding of the balance between authority and teamwork?

Or are we unable to give clear orders and goals? What do our routines look like, and how clear are our work processes?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are some nuggets I take with me from my brief time in the Army and 24 years in the industry:

  • 1. Leadership. Every team needs a strong leader; self-sufficient groups take the easiest route, which negatively affects reliability. The boss can be tough, nice, or have different leadership styles, but consistency is the most important part of maximizing output from human nature.Do your supervisors have practical leadership training?
    Does your HR department support the supervisor when needed?
  • 2. Clarity. How clear and comprehensive are your work processes to new hires? Are there clear rules for how to prioritize work orders? Standard jobs?Do you have a set training plan? How are your routines?Clear expectations are easy to fulfill and quick to carry out.
  • 3. Follow-up. Without follow-up, a system eventually becomes hollow, regardless of how clear it was from the beginning. Knowledge and best work practices are diluted over time.For example, if you are in a leadership role when did you last do a PM-walkthrough? Participated in a meeting about prioritizing work orders?
    Just took a stroll down on the mill floor, talking to people?
    Looked at key performance indicators as a complement to hands-on checkups?

Some people may think that the military lacks creativity, and I can agree to a certain extent, but at its core, a well-functioning maintenance department is all about routine, just as in the armed forces.

It’s rooted in great work processes and clear orders.

The importance of leadership and routines is even bigger in large organizations: inspections, calibrations, loop checks, lubrication, weekly meetings, work order priorities and cleaning are just a few examples of clear, necessary routines in a successful maintenance department.

Having put this old military memory in print, I realize that I may have some more work to do here at IDCON.

The principals are simple (though they can be hard to implement on a daily basis).

If we implement clear work processes and routines, coming from good leaders who exercise follow up, constructive criticism and a rewards system, we stand a great chance to become just as successful as any platoon, division or regiment.

*Sweden has had peace since 1809 when Russia conquered Finland, whichuntil that time was part of Sweden.

Read more articles about Leadership in Maintenance and optimizing reliability and maintenance work processes.

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Torbjörn Idhammar

President & CEO, IDCON Inc. Reliability and Maintenance Consultant

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