As a plant reliability management instructor and consultant, I’m commonly asked to share my views about equipment operators performing maintenance. Call it Total Productive Maintenance, operator-driven reliability, autonomous maintenance … it all comes down to the same thing – operators doing the work that mechanics, electricians and other craftspeople have historically performed. For the purpose of this article, we’ll call it operator-involved maintenance (OIM); it would be a pity to write an entire editorial without introducing a new three-letter acronym!

Will OIM work for you? Yes, no, maybe … it depends on you. That’s probably not the answer you were looking for, but I hope you understand my reasoning by the end of this column.

I didn’t name this column after the famous book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by author and beat philosopher Robert Pirsig, to be cute. In his book, Pirsig views one’s journey through life and all the associated decisions, causes and effects that influence it – favorably or unfavorably. He discusses what he calls the Metaphysics of Quality, which (loosely defined) means that the quality of one’s life is in part affected by chance, but more significantly affected by the cumulative effect of the decisions and actions we take. He explores common concepts such as “the harder I work, the luckier I get” and “you reap what you sow.”

What is interesting and relevant to our topic is that throughout the book, he metaphorically compares the maintenance of the motorcycle he rides on his journey of self-discovery to the management of one’s own life. He discovers that if he looks after the little things associated with maintaining his motorcycle – like tightening, adjusting, cleaning and lubricating – the ride is more enjoyable and more fruitful, and the big things tend to take care of themselves. That’s true for motorcycles, true for life and certainly true for managing plant reliability. To me, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is OIM.

When I’m asked about OIM while consulting or teaching courses, I normally start by querying the client to learn more about his or her motives and to understand what’s really involved. The motivating force for most people or organizations considering OIM falls somewhere on a continuum with ends that, for this article, I’m calling the Zen Masters and the Spreadsheet Masters.

Zen Masters are managers or engineers responsible for improving reliability and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) who truly believe that operations/production is the true beneficiary of reliability and should, therefore, drive OEE. To do so, they believe that operators, who have the most contact with the machines, must perform basic maintenance tasks like cleaning, inspecting, tightening, lubricating, etc., so they can be “one” with the machine. This helps them keep the machine operating smoothly and reduces the likelihood of big problems. By regularly inspecting machines, they are forewarned of major issues. Japanese plants are very successful with Total Productive Maintenance because their leadership and organizations truly believe and live the “Zen Master” philosophy.

The Spreadsheet Masters group is much different than Zen Masters. There are times when I wish spreadsheet software, a potentially valuable tool, had never been invented. It’s too easy to make casual, and often very wrong, decisions when you never take your eyes off the spreadsheet to look at what’s really going on. In my experience, the Spreadsheet Masters have figured out that by moving tasks from one individual or group and giving them to another individual or group, it’s possible to reduce headcount, which has a remarkable effect on the plant’s income statement – at least in the short term.

The problem with this approach is that if the reallocation of tasks is poorly conceived, the net result can be an actual loss of asset value. For you financial types and other spreadsheet aficionados, boosting the performance of your income statement is accomplished by weakening the asset column of your balance. This is a well you can only tap into a few times before it runs dry. At the risk of being critical, a common trait of Spreadsheet Masters is that they, like many politicians, are commonly focused on getting their next job or promotion, not on doing the one for which they were hired.

If you fall more on the Zen Master end of the continuum, good for you. You’ve got the right idea and stand a good chance of succeeding with OIM. Be sure, though, that you fully understand the ramifications. If you fall more on the Spreadsheet Master end of the continuum, sharpen your pencil to be sure the gains you’ve estimated aren’t a false economy.

OIM appeals to Zen Masters because they see it as being more effective. It is the perceived sense of increased efficiency that appeals to the Spreadsheet Masters. Be sure, however, that you know what you’re getting into. Here are some of the “soft costs” associated with OIM that are often overlooked:

  1. Procedures, checklists and systems costs: When work is decentralized from specialists (people who do the work all the time as their primary job) to generalists (people who do the work occasionally and/or as a component of a diverse overall workload), you must depend more on procedural instructions and checklists than on “skill of the craft” to ensure the work gets done, and that it gets done correctly and consistently.

  2. Training and skills management costs: When specialists perform all the work for which they’re specialized within the plant, your training responsibility is confined to that person or small group of people. When it’s decentralized to operators, you will geometrically increase your training and skills management costs. This is not just an up-front cost; it’s ongoing. Your new-hire skills assessment and training costs will increase dramatically.

  3. Tools and equipment costs: Chances are pretty good that when you decentralize work, you’ll need to increase your inventory of tools, some of which can be expensive. You’ll also need to factor in training costs specific to the use of the tools, calibration, updates/upgrades and maintenance of the tools themselves.

  4. Loss of focus costs: A study conducted in the United Kingdom found that operators in chemical processing plants encounter, on average, an alarm every two minutes. If your operators are working on the equipment, who will mind the shop? Granted, many events are nuisance alarms and the alarms themselves should be rationalized (the topic of a future column). Just the same, if an operator is distracted performing maintenance, which causes him or her to miss a serious alarm, the consequences can be dire. Watching a computer screen may, on the surface, seem like the operator’s not doing anything. This, in fact, could be a costly false conclusion.

  5. Culture costs: Funny thing about people. We know that they’re hired to do a job and that management defines that job’s description. However, human nature is that people tend to do better work when they’re doing the things they like and enjoy. Some people enjoy doing work that is repetitive and with which they’re familiar. Others thrive in an environment where the work is diverse. Be sure you understand the behavioral predispositions of your team before you try to implement OIM. You can remediate skills, but it’s difficult to manage behavior tendencies. Also, don’t underestimate the difficulty and cost associated with achieving and sustaining organizational change – most organizations do.

Your plant is your motorcycle. If you take care of it, it will take care of you. Operators who are in tune with their machines are invaluable to a reliability initiative. However, before you take the plunge into OIM, honestly consider your objectives and accurately assess the benefits and the costs. The soft costs can kill you. Many have succeeded with a phased approach, starting with a focus on doing better inspections with greater regularity and involving the operators in the maintenance process to set priorities, shed light on what has happened, etc., before proceeding to the full-scale deployment of OIM.

Managed properly, operator-involved maintenance can significantly improve your plant’s reliability and OEE, and improve relations between operations and maintenance. Done incorrectly, you’ll likely make matters worse and lose credibility along the way. Be sure you plunge in with a game plan.