I stumbled across some music trivia lately, that the old rock band Chicago finally had its album “Stone of Sisyphus” released a few years ago. One of the more famous “lost” albums, it was originally recorded in the early 1990s but had languished for years, available only in illegal bootleg copies.

That reminded me of when I used to use the story of Sisyphus in maintenance training sessions.

I never encountered a great number of serious Greek mythology students in those sessions, but was always amazed how mythology suddenly grasped attendees’ attention when I started telling about Sisyphus showing up in an episode of the TV series “Xena: Warrior Princess.” A statuesque, obviously very strong gal who always wore a brief, Roman-style leather outfit, Xena had a pretty fair following back in those days, especially it seemed in the typical plant maintenance group. (It was often brought up that the whole educational experience would have been much enhanced with video clips.)

Sisyphus was a Greek king who made the mistake of getting the Greek god Zeus really ticked off at him. He supposedly did this by leaking stories to the press of that time about some of Zeus’ indiscretions. So Sisyphus was sentenced to spend the rest of eternity every day, all day laboriously pushing a huge boulder up a mountain. Then in the evening, he was to stand aside and watch it roll all the way back down to the bottom. Then the next day, he was to start all over again, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day summer, winter, rain, snow, hot, cold, no vacation, no sick days, not even Christmas (obviously) or New Year’s Day.

Sisyphus was pretty much a piece of work who had pulled off some pretty bad stuff himself, so it’s hard to really work up much sympathy for him.

So Sisyphus is still at it, somewhere out there, I guess, but you know he’s not alone. Keeping maintenance in a proactive mode can be a very similar pastime.

When we start out trying to get out of the frenetic “fix it when it breaks” mode, getting preventive maintenance inspections going, getting maintenance planning and scheduling going that feels a lot like pushing a boulder up a mountain. (Actually, it’s probably harder. Sisyphus didn’t have people pushing back on the boulder as he was pushing it up.)

But as PM inspections get better and better, and people become more routinely conscious of equipment condition and get potential problems dealt with, and emergency work falls off, and we are getting better and better scheduled repairs done, the slope becomes gentler and it is easier to push the boulder. And the higher we get, the easier it is to push, and the air gets clearer, the sky gets bluer, the sun shines, the birds sing, the flowers bloom, we can see for miles, and maybe even Julie Andrews is running around up here singing something about the “Sound of Music.”

After a while and some serious effort, we start to get where things start to run more smoothly. We can count on steady, decent production numbers every day. We don’t have aggravating breakdowns. We don’t have that routine, yet always unexpected, excess overtime that messes up people’s lives. (I remember the days of really hoping to make it through Friday without a disaster so I didn’t have to ruin some people’s, and my own, weekend.)

When we do planned repair work, we have pretty much everything ready, so it goes well and we get done what we had planned, pretty much how we planned it. We have a process in place where operations and maintenance folks routinely identify and analyze our problems and make permanent fixes.

At this point, it becomes really tempting to try to walk away from the boulder, because you know, it looks like maybe it will stay there by itself. It seems pretty secure.

Maybe now we can start skipping some PMs. Maybe we can pull our maintenance planner for some other work. Maybe we can use our “free” maintenance resources for that project we can’t quite justify otherwise. Maybe maintenance doesn’t have to come to the production meetings anymore (there aren’t that many people showing up there now anyway). Maybe we just don’t need to demonstrate that much commitment to routine maintenance anymore. It seems to be pretty much a non-issue now, and there are other more exciting and visible things to work on.

Well, guess what happens as soon as we stop pushing on the boulder? You bet. That son of a gun starts rolling backward slowly at first, then faster and faster and faster, then bounding and smashing its way down the mountain. It’s headed all the way down to the bottom, and the trip down is a whole lot quicker than the trip up. You have to be really brave or really dumb to get in its way.

If we ever stop pushing to keep maintenance proactive, we will be back down and dirty in the reactive mode before we know it  back down in the dark, cold, slimy, muddy gulch at the bottom, where all kinds of nasty, obnoxious creatures are hissing and snarling and biting at us.

Now down here it takes way more resources, time, money, blood, sweat and tears just to get through (just to survive) the day. We were starting to have it made when we were at the top. Comparatively, it wasn’t taking that much to stay there, but we just didn’t realize what we had, and what it took to stay there. We took it for granted and we lost it.

Now we have to start over, and it’s going to be tougher this time because now we have a serious credibility issue. Will we be like Sisyphus again this time?

About the Author

Currently working as a consultant, John Crossan retired after spending 30-plus years with the Clorox Company. His roles for much of the past 14 years were mainly focused on improving operations by fostering the installation and ongoing implementation of basic manufacturing and maintenance procedural mechanisms across 30 varied plants in the U.S. and Canada. Prior to Clorox, John also held operational and engineering roles with Johnson & Johnson and the Burndy Corporation. He can be reached via e-mail at john@johncrossan.com or online at www.johncrossan.com.