6:00 am
November 1, 2007
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The Conquest of Breakdowns

How you rally and arm your troops is crucial to the outcome of this ongoing battle.

As the well-known civil engineer and author Henry Petroski put it, “Success is foreseeing failure.” It’s only four words, but it defines what every preventive maintenance (PM) program should strive for. Whether you have been working for many years or are a newcomer, your most effective weapon against breakdown is a well-organized and on-schedule PM program.

1107_breakdowns1It also doesn’t matter what field you are in or how large or small your organization is. The fact remains, if you do preventive maintenance correctly and consistently, it works. Proper staffing levels are required to stay on schedule and staying on schedule is the cornerstone of all successfully run programs. You still can run your program behind schedule, but breakdowns will increase and your program will become less and less efficient. Your troops will be doing more breakdown maintenance than preventive maintenance, a sorry situation for everyone concerned (including your company, your department and your customers).

We are all familiar with the various predictive (PdM) technologies that have emerged to supplement PM programs (i.e. infrared scanning, oil analysis, vibration analysis, etc.). But, while such technologies are very effective and can add much more refinement to a program, they still are supplemental in nature. They do not take the place of a PM program, but enhance it. There is no substitute for the day-in-day-out battles that must be waged to keep breakdowns at bay.

The dictionary defines “breakdown” in terms of “failing to function.” A breakdown can be a complete failure, i.e. a motor burns out. It can be a partial failure, i.e. a motor overheats but still runs. It can be an intermittent failure, i.e. a motor stops and starts for no apparent reason. Or, it can be a calibration failure, i.e. a thermostat won’t control temperature properly. Whatever the form, though, be it major or minor, a breakdown is always a problem that needs to be corrected.

Let’s look over the accompanying chart. As you can see, the planning, strategy and tactics to conquer breakdowns start at the headquarters.


Planning is the first and most important step. According to John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” It’s the same in maintenance as it is in basketball.

Take the time needed—months if necessary—to develop your plan and always involve your troops in the planning phase. Furthermore, “know your enemy.”

  • Do you have 1000 motors that you have to keep running 16 hours a day, 300 days a year?
  • Do you have computer room air conditioners that never can be shut down? How can you schedule the maintenance these air conditioners need?

You get the idea. You have to know your plant, your systems and their needs—and you need to develop your strategy around this information.

To give you an example, our program has 225 pumps that must have preventive maintenance done twice a year, on schedule. This is part of our overall planning strategy— to do the PMs needed to keep these pumps operating at their designed efficiency. We have a planned strategy for all of the equipment in our program. 

Let’s assume that you have enough troops to move against the enemy. If you were setting up your program in a new plant that had yet to start up, adequate staffing should have been part of your overall planning. There is information available to help you plan tasks and how long they should take to complete.

If you are coming into an existing plant, your troop levels may or may not be sufficient. If you have enough troops, good! If you don’t, you’ll have to do your best to control and defeat breakdowns working under a disadvantage.

Refer to our chart again—you will notice we have the enemy surrounded. He cannot break out as long as we keep pressure on him and keep him under control. Keeping him besieged is your tactical objective.

I’ve set the stage for our attack to begin. We have a sound plan, we have developed tactics and we have enough troops to control the growth of our enemy. Now what?

Gather your troops and explain your overall strategy (they should have been in the planning phase). Discuss the benefits of the program if it is done correctly and on schedule as much as humanly possible.

What are the benefits?

  1. Increased reliability and life of equipment
  2. Fewer major repairs and downtime
  3. Shift from breakdown maintenance to preventive maintenance
  4. Fewer emergencies
  5. Better customer relations
  6. Less work stress = POM (Peace of Mind!)
  7. Increased profits
  8. Glory for you and your troops (A Bonus!)

Attack with vigor
Look at the chart, again. The following items are your prongs of attack. 

Persistence (refusing to give up)…
Next to your overall strategy, “persistence” may be one of the most critical elements in your program. You must—at all costs—keep your program active and vigorous. In our own organization, I try to ensure that preventive maintenance is done every workday. If you are understaffed, you will have to prioritize and be willing to adapt to changing conditions. As a maintenance manager, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure the work gets done.

Training …
Train your troops both on the job and in formal settings. New technology is a blessing and a bane. It gives YOU an edge—but, it also gives breakdown an edge. Your troops must be properly prepared to meet these new threats.

Standards (the level of requirement)…
What brand of line starters do you prefer? Will you accept sloppy and shoddy workmanship? Will you tolerate late shipments from vendors? These are questions of standards or levels of requirements. Your preventive maintenance will live or die based on what kind of standards you set for it. Set high standards and have your troops, contractors and others who report to you rise to meet them. Don’t lower your standards to meet theirs.

The next prong of attack is the routine (course of action or schedule). Your schedule is your guide. Routine for your organization could be quarterly, bi-annual, yearly, whatever. Only you and your troops can determine that. Don’t, however, underestimate the role of “routine.” Without it, you are like a ship at sea without a rudder.

The documentation that you do and the level of quality and importance that you place on it will be another major factor in your success or failure. Your office staff must be involved, hopefully from the very beginning. Moreover, they must be properly trained and committed to the program and its success.

Auxiliaries (contractors and vendors)…
Your auxiliaries also play key roles in your conquest of breakdowns. If you can’t get the logistical support to the front when you need it, breakdowns will begin to defeat you and instead of being on the attack, you will be in retreat, Sit down with your key contractors and vendors and discuss their roles in the program. Let them know what is expected of them—and that they are essential to your success. If they won’t or can’t conform to your high standards, muster them out and recruit new auxiliaries to fill the gaps in your lines.

Observation (paying attention)…
Sounds simple enough. How hard can paying attention really be? Talk with your troops about taking ownership of their equipment, their areas and their customers. Your troops are your eyes and ears out on the front lines; they are the ones that hold back the “hordes of breakdown.” Their input is essential to the conduct of the war. Always be on guard. As the great Neil Young album noted, “Rust never sleeps.” It’s true.

Ingenuity (inventive skills)…
This last assault is what separates the winners from the losers. Everyone in your program will contribute to this effort by presenting new ideas (i.e. “Let’s switch to this new grease for motor bearings, it protects better and will last longer without drying out”).

Try to foster in your troops a climate where their ideas and ingenuity are valued and used. If they can improve the program, they will take ownership of it—it will become “their” program. As a result, they will nurture it and believe in it and its value. This is another way to make constant improvements. Remember, if you are not moving forward, you are falling behind.

Taking up the flag
There’s no industry where preventive maintenance won’t pay off. Now that you know what it will take to make you, your troops and your PM program a success or failure, roll up your sleeves, put on your battle gear and get out there and conquer breakdowns.

As The Battle Rages On

So what is breakdown doing while you are doing your best to defeat it? It’s getting older and next to neglect that’s what is going to give you the most problems. Certainly, the other factors are important—but they are easier to control. The older the equipment, the more it has worn out. If you have a 35-year-old air handler, it will take more of your resources than a 10-year old air handler in good condition. (Age really can be your enemy, too.)

John Camillo is an engineering supervisor at the Princeton Healthcare System in Princeton, NJ. He also is the Engineering Department’s training coordinator. Camillo studied at the Philadelphia Wireless Technical Institute, majoring in HVAC-R. Over the past 40 years, he has worked in various industries, including hospitality, aviation, missile reentry, mill/canning and healthcare, where he has specialized in developing and implementing PM programs. E-mail: jcamillo@princetonhcs.org