By Heinz Bloch, P.E.
“Manage” was the blunt advice I recently gave an audience of reliability engineers. Earlier, someone from the audience had asked what should be done when “persons unknown” insist on doing things their own way. In his plant, unknown persons are apparently connecting a plant-wide oil-mist system to ordinary compressed air (plant air) instead of dry instrument air.
At first, I volunteered to return with a few bottles of expensive holy water that could be sprinkled on all bearing housings at the referenced plant. When the audience groaned, I reconsidered and said that exposing the bearings to wet plant air instead of dry instrument air would cause sludge formation. Sludge—a composite of rust, dust and water—is not good for bearings. That statement gets us first to an analogy and, a few lines later, to the entire point of this column.
Suppose a member of a plant’s fleet-maintenance team drained the lube oil from a vehicle engine and replaced it with an equivalent volume of sulfuric acid. The manager in charge would probably give the mechanic some counseling, arrange for considerable mind-altering retraining or simply find an outside-the-gate job (with zero future impact on equipment reliability) for the acidifier. My tongue-in-cheek point is also a serious plea: Manage for future reliability. Withdraw your support from the unteachable. Waste little time on the incorrigibly disgruntled. Manage like a manager.
Managing like a manager includes gathering information from others, of course. But, as a manager, beware of information based on mere opinion. While everybody is entitled to an opinion, smart managers will elicit facts and act on facts. Let me share another recent example:
Speaking to about 30 fellow employees, a young engineer claimed that plant-wide oil-mist lubrication is not cost-justified at their 2000-plus-pump facility. I let the audience know that some 37 years ago, a prominent engineering journal had published my article on the success of using pure oil mist for lubricating electric motor bearings. As of 2014, in excess of 26,000 motors (and close to 150,000 pumps) are lubricated in this manner. The motors range in horsepower from 2 to 1250; some of them have not had bearings replaced in the past 35 years.
That young, opinionated engineer was clearly dealing with anecdotal information. Had his cost-justification calculation taken into account the many thousands of oil-mist-lubricated electric motor drivers that have been in regular use since the mid-1960s, the picture he presented to his management would have been drastically different. Regrettably, his employer is not unique in allowing uninformed opinions to drive decisions with significant impact on safety, reliability and bottom-line maintenance.
So why doesn’t the reliability manager at that plant—or one of his/her superiors—ask why the competition is highly satisfied with oil mist? Or ask for authoritative data on why “they” but not “we” successfully use mature, decades-old technology? To some, that’s an iconoclastic suggestion. Finding the true answer, however, can greatly accelerate an entire corporation’s reliability achievements. Reasonable managers, therefore, will seek commonsense, factual answers.
Likewise, effective managers would probably not countenance the following situation in their plants: Two mechanics recently told me they liked failures because repair work puts overtime pay in their pockets. It appears their management hasn’t asked enough questions—nor emphasized the point that equipment failures can cause havoc.
Good managers, in fact, might demonstrate that workers’ paychecks can get even bigger when failure-avoidance is rewarded. In such a case, future generations will thank everyone for adding value instead of just jogging in place. MT