Wrench time study results will make you sick

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation
Tags: talent management

What do you think of when you hear the term “wrench time”?

For most maintenance managers at American manufacturing plants, it’s not pleasant, and for good reason.

It is a fact that – even with lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and a multitude of other initiatives that seek reduced waste and increased productivity – maintenance departments struggle mightily with wrench time. A time study conducted by consultant Joel Levitt confirmed yet again how small a percentage of an hourly maintenance worker’s time is spent on “direct actual work.” In a 480-minute work day, Levitt’s research found that a typical technician spends:

  • 24 minutes receiving instructions

  • 57 minutes obtaining tools/materials

  • 72 minutes traveling to/from tasks

  • 38 minutes dealing with coordination delays

  • 24 minutes idle at the job site

  • 24 minutes on late starts/early quits

  • 48 minutes on authorized breaks/relief

  • 24 minutes for excess personal time (phone calls, cigarette breaks, slow returns)

That is 311 minutes (65 percent of every work day) spent on non-productive or marginally productive activities.

You can’t really blame the hourly maintenance worker for these stats, just as you can’t denigrate workers in other industry segments for non-maximized work time. People perform in the environment or parameters that they are given. Bad planning, poor communication and workplace politics are some of the internal root causes.

External politics, parameters and leadership also are factors. To combat this, our country’s leaders must find ways to actively support efforts and install plans to improve productivity and make American business more competitive in this global marketplace.

Sometimes, at the local and national level, our leaders succeed. Sometimes, they fail.

A recent failure was the Supreme Court’s ruling Nov. 9 in the cases Abdela Tum vs. Barber Foods Inc. and Alvarez vs. IBP Inc.

In a decision that will affect the “actual work time” basket, the court ruled unanimously that these meat-processing plants – and, in effect, all plants – must pay its workers for time spent “donning” and “doffing” required safety and sanitary gear. Donning and doffing not only involves putting on and taking off (and storing/ disposing) work gear – steel-toe boots, gloves, safety glasses, hearing protection, lab coats, aprons, etc. – but entails the time it takes workers to travel from changing rooms to the factory floor (and vice versa).

Since this prep time is now paid, a company can have their workers get dressed after the preordained starting time – say, 8 a.m. – or have them come in early to dress – do it at 7:45 a.m. Similar scenarios would occur at the end of the shift. Given the fact that the arrive early/stay late option would trigger overtime, an employer would most likely select the option that cuts time (potentially productive time) out of the work day.

Prep time at the start and end of the shift may not appear significant, but 30 extra minutes away from actual work raises the non-wrench-time figure quoted in Levitt’s research to 71 percent.

Industry and government are on opposite sides of this legal decision. The National Association of Manufacturers assailed the court and expressed its concern about “already high costs and the ability of U.S. companies to compete.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration called it “a tremendous victory” for workers.

Industry and plant maintenance must push to make positive strides. This ruling throws a wrench into productivity. It’s a small wrench, but a wrench nonetheless.

Paul V. Arnold, editor


About the Author