Don’t exclude operators from your reliability strategy. They can (and should) play a critical role.
By Dave Rosenthal, P.E., CMRP, Jacobs Engineering Group
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” When it comes to improving the reliability of our facilities’ equipment systems and processes, here’s another certainty to consider: “The lack of operations involvement dooms any reliability initiative.” Countless sites have already learned this. They now realize that boosting productivity and cost performance through reliability calls for a partnership among operations, maintenance and engineering. The goal is to provide care for the plant’s assets across their life cycle, the validity of which has been proven many times across many industries.
Unfortunately, involving operations in a reliability initiative remains far removed from standard practice. Too often, the operations side of this important partnership is left out of reliability initiatives. The reasons are many:
- Gaps in the operating culture
- Lack of a collaborative vision
- Inexperienced leadership
- Misguided approach to operational excellence
- Lack of maintenance and reliability best practices on the plant floor
Getting operations on board
Regardless of the difficulties, connecting operations to your reliability-improvement initiative is imperative for success. That connection is driven by the operators’ use of tools and methods that lead them to help care for the site’s assets. That said, operators must clearly understand the impact they have on equipment/process reliability, and be given a reason to provide care that helps ensure it.
Several tools and methods can be used. They include the value proposition to be a partner, connecting metrics to their performance, conducting joint reliability walk-arounds, training on the fundamentals and equipment operation, executing autonomous maintenance and setting troubleshooting as an expectation for the operations job. No single element is a panacea to bring operations into the partnership, but each one will help “open the door.”
Connecting operations to the reliability-improvement initiative requires salesmanship. The obvious question the salesman will face is “What’s in it for me?” (WIFM). Operators are likely to hold the standard view that they operate the equipment and maintenance fixes it, so why change? But selling reliability is not so difficult. Its many benefits include a safer environment, satisfied customers, lower costs, higher productivity and a stronger position for the existence of the facility and its jobs. After achieving executive sponsorship and identifying champions, a value proposition (VP) can be constructed to answer the WIFM question. As noted in the following sample statements, the VP should connect each entity to what is delivered through improvements in reliability:
- “For Our Business, which must maintain a competitive position in the marketplace for our products, Operations achieves safety, productivity, reliability and quality goals through demonstration of behaviors that support operational discipline for compliance to procedures and executing work processes flawlessly.”
- “For Plant Personnel and Staff who want to work in a safe and sustaining environment, Operations focuses on looking out for each other, following procedures, acting as an equipment owner and minimizing operational variation.”
- “For Ourselves, who want to provide for the families and loved ones that depend on us, our day-to-day work focuses on variance reduction, recognition of early signs of failure, reporting out-of-range conditions, troubleshooting loss of function, recording required data and looking out for each other’s safety.“
The value proposition should be used at every opportunity with the operations group as part of a change-management process—including as the subject of discussions with operations leadership and foremen. It can be translated into their own words and placed in daily communication at key meetings, on informational boards, etc.
Once operations is “on the hook,” operators need to know how their actions impact asset performance. While metrics can show this on a daily basis, they are often misdirected and may not drive the intended result. This can be because management often focuses on lagging metrics, which fails to address how to move the needle. That’s why leading metrics—those that affect the final result—must be aligned with operational activities.
More important, assigning accountability and responsibility for collecting, reporting and managing these leading metrics are needed, along with setting the frequency of reporting. Daily (leading) metrics should be discussed at daily maintenance and production meetings, while more strategic metrics (lagging) should be discussed on a monthly and quarterly basis. Attendance should be aligned with the frequency of reporting so those who impact the metric can understand their performance in the operation of the equipment. Table I illustrates the alignment for several metrics.
Institutionalizing this type of system takes time. However, once members of the operations team realize what they can impact—and understand the value delivered to their stakeholders—behaviors will change.
Table I. Alignment of Leading & Lagging Asset-Performance Metrics: Recommended Discussion Schedule
Teaching the process
“They don’t know what they don’t know” applies to operations’ ability to recognize machine failure—especially the early detection of failure. Although operators may often feel victimized by equipment failure, it’s very likely that they can readily recognize the early signs of such failures. This early recognition can help reduce the amount of downtime and cost of repair by an order of magnitude.
Operators who do know what failure looks like before it occurs must take others by the hand and show them. Reliability walk-arounds can serve this purpose and a multitude of others. They act as a training ground for recognizing the early signs of failure, a change agent to move a site from a reactive to a proactive culture, and a developer of operations equipment ownership.
Reliability walk-arounds are scheduled treks through a section of the plant to look for early signs of failure. What can be found during this type of event? You name it: broken ground wires, missing conduit covers, loose control valve hardware, oil leaks, broken gauges, noises and excessive vibrations, among many other conditions that affect equipment reliability, downtime and repair costs.
Operations should lead the walk-around at least once per month, and include maintenance, reliability, production and other site personnel. A pre-determined list of what to look for should be generated as a guide and include associated priority levels for action. The team should also include a data recorder for submittal of work orders after the tour for the highest priority items found. When this process is repeated month after month, the operations culture will adopt early recognition of failure in its daily activities.
Asset care through operator care
Operator care is a critical aspect of any effective asset-care program. Most sites have many preventive maintenance tasks—some estimate as much as 30%—that can be given to operations to perform. This asset-care connection can occur through three prescribed levels of operator care: the “four senses” approach; non-contact predictive care; and autonomous maintenance. The three levels are not designed to replace maintenance, but to become part of a predictive approach that leverages operations’ 24/7 exposure to the plant’s equipment. Table II shows the type of tasks that can be performed across the three levels of operator care.
Before any operator-care initiative is undertaken, however, site leadership must develop the case for change to perform this work. The earlier reference to the value proposition for connecting maintenance can be used. Operations must be sold on moving away from the notion that “we just run the equipment and maintenance fixes it.” The case for change should focus on a safer and predictable workplace, early identification of failure, reducing corrective repairs and improving uptime. These tasks also contribute to gaining equipment ownership.
Operators’ buy-in will also be greatly enhanced if they know what’s going on “under the hood.” While sites train their mechanics on proper equipment repair and operation, they tend to forget about training their operators. Unfortunately, learning by experience only often leads to an improper knowledge base, which can be passed on to others. This, of course, raises a fairly common question: What subjects should be taught and who should teach them? The following three training subject areas can answer parts of this question:
- Fundamentals of pressure, flow and temperature
- Individual equipment operation, with a focus on the bottleneck commonly called the constraint. (In this case, the more an operator can optimize the output of the process constraint, the more satisfaction is obtained because they directly impact productivity.)
As to who does the training, the best answer is the training resources that are assigned to the facility. This group should first perform a gap analysis to determine focus areas. Then vendors and third parties should be considered. The mechanics should also be considered. They see all the results of not operating the equipment properly and can provide pointers to proper operation based on a given machine’s principles.
Table II. Examples of Tasks Across Three Levels of Operator Care
Learning to troubleshoot
An effective method of engaging operators in a reliability effort is through troubleshooting. Maintenance is faced with many barriers in their work, including trying to understand what is behind a work order that lacks an adequate description of the problem. The words “pump broke,” for example, strike fear into the hearts of every maintenance gatekeeper and planner.
Troubleshooting can—and should—be expected of the operations group. They should be trained to properly diagnose an early sign of failure or the loss of machine function. In many cases, they can very likely resolve the issue instead of running to the break room and calling maintenance.
There are several phases for troubleshooting that focus on tools and methods applicable to the plant floor. For operators, the “5 Why” process is best. Although not for multiple root-cause situations, it does lend itself to uncovering a probable root cause. Training operators to perform a “5 Why” investigation is relatively easy—especially when self-help templates are distributed as guides.
Checklists are also useful tools. Most sites utilize checklists associated with field inspection routes. However, the specification of expected conditions and what to do if the reading is not the expected one is often missing. Visual-factory tools can enable this process by clearly identifying where the reading should be in the field. Also, labels and other instructional signs that facilitate this process are available from third parties. The checklists should provide guidance as to what to do if a difference is found. Some handheld electronic devices that are used to support field routes already provide this capability.
The pump-troubleshooting card is an example of a checklist tool that operators can use to help maintenance. This type of card lists conditions the operator can review (and note) at the time of failure, which, in turn can give maintenance a head start in trying to resolve the issue. The card should fit into an operator’s pocket and then be attached to a work order.
Bottom line, what’s in it for you?
Connecting operations to your reliability initiative is crucial for success. Leveraging your operators’ experience with and exposure to your site’s assets in your quest to detect failure early can be a powerful strategy that reduces maintenance costs and increases uptime.
Granted, no one tool or method will do the trick. Each tool you use, however, will help drive the cultural change needed to bring your operators toward full-time ownership of the equipment in their charge. MT
Dave Rosenthal is Reliability Delivery and Asset Managemenet Manager of Global Field Services, North America, for Jacobs Engineering. Prior to joining Jacobs, he had been a Reliability Manager for Marsulex, and a Maintenance & Reliability Leader for Rohm and Haas, where he worked almost 29 years. A member of SMRP, he’s a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional and a registered Professional Engineer. He’s also a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, for which he served as 2012 National President. This article is based on his MARTS 2013 presentation “Connecting Operations To Your Reliability Improvement Effort.” Email: Davida.Rosenthal@prodigy.net.