Most businesses that depend on physical asset performance have a reactive maintenance department. Reacting to breakdowns and dealing with budget variance are routine events for these organizations. Turning the corner and operating in a highly effective, reliable environment is an enormous challenge.

If it was as simple as buying the program and installing it, everyone would have a highly effective asset base with few failures. Understanding the main areas of knowledge that lead to lasting results is critical. This article reviews a proven path that leads to measurable improvements. Managing three vital bodies of knowledge helps to make the transition possible:

  • culture management;
  • key process enhancements; and,
  • specific change management practices.

Few industries have climbed above the rest and sustained a reliability program that truly elevates their results. The list is short, but examples include the military, airlines and nuclear power. Some consultants state that perhaps as few as 1 percent of industrial maintenance organizations could truly be called world class. There are probably thousands that do certain things at a world-class level (best practices), but very few can put it all together. For businesses that are serious about making these improvements despite the known difficulty, embracing these knowledge areas will enhance the potential for a successful transition.

"Rx" is used throughout this article to symbolize Reliability Excellence. Rx represents an environment where asset care is consistently performed at world-class levels.

Figure 1. Department interdependencies.

Switching to an Rx environment is usually considered a non-critical project. It could always be delayed or postponed due to other priorities. Few companies have the foresight to take on a project with this complexity when it doesn't absolutely have to be done. Therefore, many businesses accept the choice of dealing with a reactive maintenance department. Indeed, the Rx effort shouldn't be considered a short-cycle project. The extent of efforts needed to achieve Rx is dependent upon the size of the organization (e.g. multiple storerooms, multiple shifts). Organizing the main components may take 12 to 18 months. During this time, companies may see that executive leadership changes or major competitive influences will only add to the difficulty rating of the project.

Why would any organization endure the hardship of an undertaking this difficult? The answer is simple. Achieving a reliable environment means being able to operate physical assets at the highest necessary levels at the lowest cost. The benefits don't stop there. Other advantages include improved profits, a safer work environment and increased customer satisfaction.

Working for a maintenance department that hasn't evolved to a proactive, preventive-type environment is stressful. The operations group which depends on the maintenance group for repairs will often become frustrated and lose trust in the maintenance staff. Upstream departments also live with the burden of the reactive environment: Materials and stores are forced to work in an inefficient manner; human resources is often strained with hiring and training issues; purchasing must increase the number of expedited critical components; and supply vendors become cynical regarding maintenance's ability for advanced planning and shipping schedules. The ripple effect is truly widespread.

Turning the corner and taking the appropriate steps to drive Rx is possible but not necessarily easy. Three important areas of knowledge must be managed to initiate this change. The first step is establishing the right culture. Next, business processes and supporting data must be organized in a way that ultimately will lead to the desired state of reliable equipment at the lowest possible cost. The last step is utilizing a change management process that assures the changes will be permanent.

Figure 2. The 29 elements of a highly effective organization.

The culture of the organization must support the new way of doing business. This includes the organization's executive leaders, managers and stakeholders within all staff levels. Everyone must be educated on how the organization will look and feel when reliability is in place. Each of these groups has a critical role to play in a successful transition. If it was simply up to the maintenance department to get its act together, most would have done so a long time ago. This interdependency is a primary factor of why achieving reliability excellence at or near world class is difficult.

Similar to the ripple effect of a reactive maintenance effort, the interdependencies of a reliability-based group are equally widespread. The appropriate interactions identified in Figure 1 must be set in place to succeed. The arrows connecting the departments and sub-departments represent critical relationships and specific communications that must be refined and adopted into the culture. Understanding and managing the business at this level provides tangible measurements.

To help shift the culture to an Rx environment, all levels of the organization will need to make some adjustments to their daily and weekly routines. Executive leadership, site leadership, team/shift management, craftspeople and maintenance customers will all have to adopt this new method of doing business in order to shift the culture. The closer a site is to operating in this manner now, the less change will have to occur.

All groups are dependently bound for reaching the goal together; no group can drop out. If one of these groups doesn't cooperate, world-class performance will not occur.

During the culture change, the executive leadership group needs to accept a couple of new roles. One role refers to its interactions with site managers. Executives must begin asking appropriate questions that support the desired state. For example: "How are the elements of Rx being improved from the current state?" or "What areas of the communication plan can we help you with?" These types of questions will help lead the new culture.

Executive leaders also need to establish the appropriate funding to set up the best approach in which assets will be maintained. An evaluation or assessment of how the organization is operating now will highlight areas in need of assistance. An example: If a reliability engineer isn't already in place, hiring one will pay for itself many times over. Another instance: If the planning/scheduling process does not match world-class formats, executive leaders need to be prepared to bring experts with best practices to the site. Leaders need to be prepared to meet all of these commitments.

Site management will also play a role in driving the new culture through regularly measured key performance indicators (KPIs). It's common knowledge that what is measured is managed more effectively.

One example is customer service. An old measure: "When did my asset get fixed after requesting the repair?" A new measure: "After requesting a repair, when was I notified that it was planned, and do I have an estimated due date?" Another example is a reliability indicator. Old measure: "How often has a key asset broken down this year?" New measure: "How many root causes of breakdowns have been identified and solved?" Understanding what to measure in this new environment is critical.

Local site management will be equally tasked with asking smart questions out on the floor and assuring the new processes are being adopted by the majority. Visibility on the floor should become a daily practice. This group needs to play a weekly oversight role in implementing the whole process through their people.

At lower levels of the organization, there are an equal number of cultural traits to observe and manage. Managers must be supportive in maintaining asset attributes through a variety of processes. These processes include effective planning and scheduling, preventive maintenance, and predictive technologies. Repairing after failure is not enough.

Shift managers will have great influence over the speed of acceptance. Acceptance is fostered by communicating the right way with colleagues. In the new Rx environment, don't ask a maintenance technician, "When do you think you will be done with that machinery so we can get it running?" Instead, it's helpful to ask, "Do you know what the root cause of that failure is so we don't face this problem again?" In addition to management, the staff must be trained to drive the Rx effort in the right direction.

Staff technicians may need to work differently to drive toward the new, desired culture. For example, they may need to change the way they receive and/or close out work orders and collect job information.

Operations staff will have new responsibilities in order to take shared ownership of their equipment. They will also need to follow the work control process of allowing maintenance planning time. In the new environment, everyone must do their part.

Figure 3. The Sustainability Model.

The second key area of knowledge for a successful transition is the use of a set of proven processes that will help steer the daily activities toward a more effective, reliable state. Figure 2 highlights 29 elements of a highly effective organization. It is critical to have each of these elements in place and aligned with the desired Rx environment. Understanding these elements is only the first step. Determining how to go from where you are now to the desired future state is the ultimate challenge.

The figure divides the 29 elements into layers of principles, culture, processes, optimization and sustainability. Notice that having a fully functioning maintenance computer system is not in the first or second layer. Many business leaders have a false belief that a new computer system will solve ineffective maintenance. A system is important, yet organizing the business processes beforehand will lead to the proper use of the system. Similar to connecting a puzzle, each element has a special place and fills a niche in order for the process to be completed. Leaving out any of these elements reduces the opportunity to operate at a high level.

In order for this area of knowledge to be effective, a process that introduces the technical aspects of the 29 elements is required. Behind each element is a cornucopia of details, including who, what, where, when and why it should be done a certain way. In addition to the details of how these elements work in a perfect environment, there has to be a clear plan to redirect the current state into the desired state. Clear directions and measurements provide the desired outcome.

All of the stakeholders involved in these elements will have to change their daily habits to some degree. Changing employee habits is often the hardest task of all. It requires education, clear business motives and patience. Like the interdependencies of departments, these elements are similar to a wide coverage checklist. With the new culture and a set of proven processes in place, the stage is set for the third key area.

A change management game plan is essential to move toward the desired state. The change management program describes the approach used to get all of the business processes organized. Driving reliable operations is a balancing act with cost factors. The plan needs to maintain the balance.

Change management can become a vague concept that gets publicity but little tangible results. Therefore, it's important to check the amount of change occurring. Say technicians need to engage work orders in an organized and consistent manner. If this isn't happening within a year, the process change has failed. Smart change management plans reduce the risk of processes failing to improve. A smart plan will have specific methods to assure success.

Managing the changes in an integrated approach is the answer. This approach requires a main ingredient of internal people from the organization conducting a majority of the work. Hiring mentors or coaches to deliver Rx best practice knowledge is recommended, but having them do the actual conversion of current processes to new can be a mistake. Stakeholder trust goes down when outsiders write new policies and plans. Utilize inside colleagues for the highest level of success and lowest overall project cost.

How can this structure of mentor/coach be built? There are many ways, but the principle must remain constant. Establishing teams of people from within the organization to run the specific improvements is critical. A recommended approach is to bring in coaches or subject matter experts (SMEs). Use these experts continually at first and then less frequently. The SMEs will lead an internal group of employees that have dedicated time away from their normal daily tasks. As time goes on, the SMEs come in less frequently. Eventually, the team is self-sustaining as it finishes with its tasks. Up to four or five teams can be working simultaneously on different tasks. Teams work on different aspects of the 29 elements, such as: work control, planning and scheduling, asset data, materials, etc. Tasks are dependent upon deficiencies compared to world-class standards. Coordinate this effort through an Rx project manager during the undertaking. In addition, a Rx principal manager should coordinate the executive-level responsibilities and ongoing support.

Roughly 90 percent of the teams should be internal, and a communication program must be established. Communications will be critical across teams, up and down levels, between departments, and even to other sites when applicable. Describing the desired state of Rx to everyone is crucial. Communications must be tailored to the audience. Craftspeople need in-depth details, but administration people need main principles.

The last part of change management is to use a proven approach to sustainability. Even with all three areas of knowledge engaged, there is a risk of colleagues reverting to old habits. Using a model that has been refined to assure the new processes carry on is important.

Large projects need an adhesive to hold everything together. In this case, the glue is the Sustainability Model. The model has four ingredients (Figure 3): KPIs, corporate sponsorship, local management commitment, and the follow-up commitment to the new processes.

The likelihood of large, sweeping changes not taking hold is high. Many executives avoid projects with this level of risk. The downside of procrastination is that the organization will continue to operate in a costly, inefficient manner. This model of sustainability reduces the risk involved with moving forward and can enhance the employee's work satisfaction.

KPIs are the first component of the model. These are measurements that are reviewed periodically. They will report on the effectiveness of the new processes being adopted. They need to be engaged as soon as the new processes are rolled out. They are in addition to the typical KPIs that measure daily business results. Many of these process KPIs will eventually be discontinued.

Corporate sponsorship is equally important. This sponsorship means real, visible commitment. It is providing the skill sets required at each site to run the new Rx processes and providing the funding to accomplish the tasks. In addition, sponsors need to personally attend as many of the milestone meetings on-site as possible to illustrate their commitment. Finally, the group needs to establish a monthly reporting process that measures KPIs, the installation of the 29 elements, savings for the project and continuous improvement opportunities. The process should also solve hurdles for the site implementation.

Local management commitment is often described as the backbone of the organization and the processes in use. Site management has insider knowledge of how the employees generally react and engage new ideas. This knowledge must be tapped in order to be successful. This group completes the daily oversight of the teams and needs to stay engaged to resolve hurdles and setbacks. These managers need to expect hurdles and make adjustments along the way to assure success.

The last step of the Sustainability Model calls for follow-up commitment. This refers to the daily oversight of new processes. Three months or 12 weeks of regular follow-up is required to effectively change employee habits. People tend to do the things with which they are comfortable. New processes are rarely considered comfortable. Even employees that are dedicated to making the changes will have questions and issues with the new processes. If they can't get their questions answered quickly, trouble will arise. They will revert to the old way of doing their tasks or will develop processes that are different than the intended process.

The original employees chosen to be part of the internal teams for changes need to be re-engaged at this step and utilized for their intimate knowledge of the new processes. It's important to provide them with the authority to solve problems. If significant costs are involved, then immediate access to the site leadership team must occur. Follow-up commitment is one of the difficult challenges of the Rx installation. It is often forgotten or under-funded, yet it is critical.

Effective change management needs to include the team process of engaging internal members augmented with best-practice SMEs, and a project manager and a principal manager that have experience guiding high-risk Rx initiatives. Finally, an organization heading through these changes needs to engage a Sustainability Model that has a wide focus of KPIs, corporate sponsors, local management and follow-up commitment.

All three areas of knowledge - culture, processes and change management - must be addressed simultaneously in order to be successful. Engaging an Rx initiative is challenging yet feasible when approached in a logical manner. No one said it would be easy. Achieving world-class standards in reliability has only been attained by 1 percent of businesses to date. Ninety-nine percent of the industrial sector does not have it. Therefore, world-class reliability can become one of the key differentiators between you and your competition.

Joe Mikes is a consultant for Life Cycle Engineering. For more information, call 843-744-7110 or visit