3:38 pm
August 20, 2013
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Uptime: Problem-Solving And Culture Change

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By Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor

“We keep having equipment problems (not the same equipment all the time, but the same causes on the same shift almost every time). We know what we need to do from a reliability perspective, BUT we can’t get anybody else to change the way they do things. How do we get buy-in for working smarter?”

Why change? We’ve always done things the other way… The answer to that age-old question sets the stage for a shift in behaviors and habits—or further entrenches us in the way we’ve always done things. We are all creatures of habit. We like consistency in the way we do things. It’s easier that way.

For some, changing habits is extremely difficult, often distasteful. In reality, however, we ALL change many things we do as times change, as technology changes, as society changes, as our family changes. In those cases WE choose to change. That’s the key: choosing to change rather than being changed.

Got gas?
We often choose to change the way we do things because the alternative could actually be more difficult or no longer an option. Sometimes change is forced upon us by economic reality. Take the price of gasoline for example. When gas prices soared to record highs several years ago, countless people cut back on their travel. Some sold their trusty “gas-hog land-yachts” and bought smaller vehicles or more economical hybrids. Many simply started driving less. They did all this due to fear of the alternative: paying more for fuel and having to cut back spending on other things in their lives.

Yet we adapt. No longer is $3 gasoline the crisis it was in August 2005. For the most part, we’ve adapted. Although we pitched a fit when the prices of gasoline hit $4 per gallon in mid-2008, we seem to be taking it in stride today. Sure, we long for the good old days when gas was under $1.50 per gallon (November 2003), but the reality is what it is.

Got change?
In today’s workplace, while many things get changed, most of us don’t get asked if we WANT to change. Is it change for change’s sake? Are we expected to change because something bad could happen if we don’t? Frequently, there’s no convincing reason to change from our comfort zone.

What we don’t like is BEING changed for “no good reason.” The new boss has a new idea, and we all have to hop on the bandwagon and CHANGE how we get things done. Or perhaps our site’s Information Technology group decided to change to a new and improved computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Just because somebody else has a new idea doesn’t necessarily mean his/her/their idea will improve the way we do OUR work. Maybe it will, but being creatures of habit, we typically ask “Why?”

Why change?
Consider this example: The packaging line was comprised of eight machines connected with conveyors. Everything was running pretty much as planned during the day (1st) and afternoon (2nd) shifts. Then the mid-night (3rd) shift showed up, and the packaging line runs horribly. Of course they blamed 3rd-shift maintenance for not keeping the machines running right. Scrap bins were overflowing, and the maintenance mechanics had their heads in the troublesome machines for most of their shift. Most people accepted the fact that the 3rd shift was made up of the most inexperienced people around—and that was just the way it was. Thus, why would everybody else need to change?

Is there a business case for changing the way the 3rd-shift crews operated and maintained their packaging line? Technology has given them the ability to produce more scrap and produce it faster than any other shift. Is that acceptable? The short answer to anyone who understands the cost of scrap product is “NO. That is NOT acceptable!” Throwing finished product in the dumpster is not a prescription for business success in anybody’s book.

This answer provides the foundation for building a compelling business case for change. The answer to “why change” may seem apparent to some, but it must be clearly communicated along with a change strategy. Leadership in the plant (i.e., plant manager, department manager, shift supervisors) must communicate a straightforward business case for changing the way the 3rd shift operates and maintains the packaging line. They all must fully understand and be able to effectively communicate what might seem obvious to them. In the case of the packaging line, the business case for change could be summed up here in Statement #1:

“Every time we scrap product it puts us further behind in our production schedule. And every time we scrap product, it increases our cost per unit shipped. While our competition might appreciate that, our customers don’t. And, our company’s vision is ‘striving to be low-cost, high-quality and best in on-time delivery in our markets.’ We must find ways to improve the 3rd-shift packaging line performance.”

This brief statement answers the basic question of “why change?” It doesn’t answer, however, 1) who and how changes will be made; 2) when will the change process begin; and 3) what will we have to change?

Change what?
Now that we know why and where change is needed, the next steps in the process (i.e., changing what, who, how and when) will be easier.

Problem-solving, root-cause analysis and brainstorming appropriate improvements seem to be in order. Now is the time to form a cross-functional “leadership team” of knowledgeable and respected people to ask a few questions:

  • What is the difference between the three shifts?
    • There are different people involved (operatorsmechanics, supervisor).
    • Time of day is different.
    • There’s a lack of experienced operators.
    • There are fewer mechanics on 3rd shift.
    • 3rd-shift operators often rotate to other lines and jobs in the plant.
    • Same product is run at the same line speed.
    • There’s higher carton-related scrap on 3rd.
    • Two more people were added to 3rd shift to handle the scrap products.
  • Why does the packaging line run so much better on the first two shifts than on the third?
    • It has stable, experienced crews (operators, mechanics, supervisor).
    • It has experienced mechanics.
    • There are more mechanics available.
    • PMs are performed on day shift (“. . .they know the machines. . .”).
  • Were the 3rd-shift operators and mechanics given the same type of training as their counterparts on the other shifts?
    • “We added a whole bunch of new operators in the past two weeks and left it up to the supervisor to coach them. The training department was not fully involved. . .”
    • All mechanics are experienced and have taken part in formal training.

Following this line of questioning, we may be led to believe that “the lack of formal operator training” was the cause of the poor packaging-line performance, but that’s NOT enough.

In the first place, formal packaging-line operator training may not be what is really needed to solve the problem (and providing it would be time-consuming). So, we must dig deeper: training to do what, when?

The questioning continues:

  • Where is the biggest scrap rate in the packaging line? Why?
    • The carton wrapping machine is a problem. Why?
    • Box flaps are catching on the guides. Why?
    • Carton flaps are not fully seated. Why?
    • Product is not being fully inserted. Why?
    • Manual operators have not been trained on how to fully insert the product and seat the flaps. Why?

The compelling business case for “why change” was communicated earlier (see Statement #1). Now it’s time to answer the other questions and communicate them in ways that “sell change” to everyone involved in the process. Be specific, as shown here in Statement #2:

“Product-inserting and carton-flap-tucking represent the biggest opportunities for improvement on our 3rd shift. All packaging-line operators on the 3rd shift will be trained and qualified to insert product and tuck carton flaps according to the product standard prior to working on the line. Supervisors will assure that the training standard is maintained whenever they rotate people from line to line.”

What you’ve just read is a real-world example of a focused change, driven by a compelling business case, focused on a specific group of people, on a specific process, changing a few specific methods and topics of training. The 3rd-shift crew improved their performance in less than two hours!

Got opportunities?
Problem-solving combined with culture change provides a basic framework for leading. Be careful about throwing traditional broad solutions at problems begging simpler solutions. By identifying specific problems and causes, improvement strategies and tactics are easier to sell. As mid-century industrialist Henry J. Kaiser said, “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” Where are your opportunities? MT

Robert Williamson, CMRP, CPMM, and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Email: RobertMW2@cs.com.