Archive | Lean Manufacturing


8:11 pm
February 10, 2017
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Uptime: Problem Solving — A New Competitive Challenge

bobmugnewBy Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor

What do robots, integrated automation systems, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), ISO 55000 Asset Management Standard, TPM, RCM, Lean Manufacturing, and re-shoring of jobs have in common? Yes, they’re here, now, and defy many traditional ways of managing a business. But there’s more. The rapid implementation of these performance-improvement technologies and solutions has also accelerated the demand for systematic problem solving.

In my opinion, problem solving is the new competitive challenge thrust upon us by global competition, shortened product cycles, and the explosive adoption rate of integrated and interdependent technologies. The big question, with regard to remaining competitive, is how do we develop a problem-solving workplace?

Let’s start with the definition of a “problem.” According to, the word means “a perceived gap between the existing state and a desired state, or a deviation from a norm, standard, or status quo.” Based on that definition, for a problem to be a “problem,” there must be a standard from which we can determine if there is a problem, i.e. something defining the normal condition. This is where standard work (a defined way for performing a task) comes in. The same goes for reliability standards (equipment doing what it’s supposed to do), quality standards (defect-free products), and safety standards (injury-free workplaces). Given the fact that problems are deviations from expectations, identifying and solving them without standards can fuel guessing games of chasing false problems.

Determining, then implementing, the correct solution and proving its success, is the end goal.

Determining, then implementing, the correct solution and proving its success, is the end goal.

Before we can even begin thinking about problem-solving tools, however, we must consider the human side of the issue: Does a person have a problem-solving aptitude and, if so, what type? Here are several styles you might have encountered:

“Ostrich” approach. Some view problems as negatives, as opposed to opportunities for improvement. They tend to avoid considering solutions: “We can live with this problem, if we just . . . ”

“Denial” approach. Some people routinely fail to recognize or admit that the problem exists: “That’s not a problem. It happens all the time.”

“Always did it that way” approach. For some people, problem solving is more intuitive than systematic and structured. Past practices tend to frame their solutions to a problem: “Let’s try what we did the last time something like this happened.”

“Remove and replace” approach. Some specialize in the trial-and-error method (some solutions work, others don’t): “I’ve replaced most of the parts in the unit and it finally started working.”

“Yes, but” approach.  Someone will miss the problem entirely, yet already be working on a solution: “I hear what you’re saying, but here’s what we need to do.”

“Work around” approach. Some people will look for ways to work around the problem rather than look for the cause: “I know it quit working, so we just put in a by-pass circuit to keep it running.”

“What do we know” approach. The most successful problem solvers take time to better understand the problem before beginning a systematic process of identifying options to pursue: “What happened? Was anything changed here before the problem occurred? Who was there at the time?”

Problem solving is more than RCA

Analyzing problems to determine their causes is a scientific discipline, of which there are a variety of proven processes. One key point here is “discipline.”

Root-cause analysis (RCA) not only requires a proven step-by-step process, it also depends on the human-performance discipline to adhere to that type of process—a standardized problem-solving approach embraced by the organization.

Another phase of problem solving is arriving at and establishing solutions that prevent a problem or its effects from recurring (or continuing). Arriving at a solution can also be an iterative process of trying potential solutions and analyzing the outcomes until a sustainable and affordable solution is determined.

RCA is more than problem solving

Whenever I think about problem solving, I’m reminded of my conversation with auto-racing’s Ray Evernham nearly 20 years ago. At the time, he was still serving as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, who, late in the 1992 Winston Cup season, had begun driving for Hendrick Motorsports, a top-level NASCAR race team.

As a consultant to the organization, I was focusing on Hendrick’s use of root-cause failure analysis in its problem-solving process (a very robust and rapid one). How delighted I was when Evernham explained that the team also performed root-cause “success” analyses, i.e., analyzing what went unexpectedly right, whether it was a win, an ultra-fast pit stop, or a zero-failure race. Wow.

A root-cause success analysis can turn the tables—from eliminating problems to repeating successes. Seeking answers to “what can we do consistently better,” which is a critical success factor in motorsports, can be just as valuable in plant and facility operations.

Troubleshooting is not necessarily solving problems

In the world of industrial and facilities maintenance, troubleshooting varies widely. At times the troubleshooting process involves removing and replacing parts one at a time until the defective one is located. (Not too scientific, but a common practice.)

Scientific troubleshooting requires a troubleshooter to truly understand the inner working of a device that is harboring the fault. That includes understanding components, systems, circuits, hardware, software, and firmware.

Again, the more the technician understands the device the more efficient and effective the troubleshooting process becomes.

But troubleshooting is only half the battle. Determining, then implementing, the correct solution and proving its success, is the end goal.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: For some troubleshooting tips, see this month’s feature “Boost Troubleshooting Skills at Your Site.”)

Problem-solving mindsets

The ability to troubleshoot, perform root-cause analyses, and solve problems (or improve performance) requires disciplined human performance, i.e., adherence to proven processes.

Furthermore, those doing the problem solving must have the aptitude and ability to think through the variables in the problem-solving process and the associated equipment conditions. They must be able to understand what a pre-fault (or normal) conditions are and must be able to recognize fault conditions.

In my generation, we grew up taking things apart. Fixing things. Building things. We had access to tools and looked for things to do with them.

Shop classes and working on cars and other things around the house or farm helped build our confidence and respect for how “stuff” worked. Sometimes we got hurt (nothing serious); sometimes we damaged things. But that’s how we learned many of our skills.

Over time, many of us developed mechanical aptitudes along with a variety of abilities to put them to work. A solid mechanical aptitude and an understanding of basic cause-and-effect relationships are central to problem solving.

Sadly today, we’re witnessing the impact of exposing two generations to few, if any, shop classes. Individuals entering the workplace without problem-solving aptitudes and abilities are at a severe disadvantage. So are our industries. Growing effective problem solvers is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s plants and facilities.

Building a problem-solving mindset (or paradigm) in your organization takes people with the right skills and lots of practice. It also calls for a consistent and systematic approach to solving problems.

And, one more thing: A problem-solving mindset must be set from top management as a way of doing business. In the meantime, try testing your own skills with Mind Tools’ “How Good is Your Problem Solving?” online assessment. MT

Bob 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. Contact him at


7:14 pm
February 9, 2017
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Reliability on a Global Scale

An aerial view shows the entire RIL-Hazira facility, covering more than 4 square kilometers. All images provided by RIL-Hazira.

An aerial view shows the entire RIL-Hazira facility, covering more than 4 square kilometers. All images provided by RIL-Hazira.

Petrochemical plant in India commits to superior maintenance to build a world-class program.

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6:29 pm
April 11, 2016
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Final Thought: Whatever Happened to TPM?

Cklaus01By Dr. Klaus M. Blache, Univ. of Tennessee Reliability & Maintainability Center

In his 1988 book Introduction to TPM, Seiichi Nakajima defined Total Productive Maintenance as “productive maintenance carried out by all employees through small group activities” and “equipment maintenance performed on a company-wide basis.” Performed properly, TPM can generate significant benefits across an organization, i.e., productivity, safety, delivery, quality, culture, and cost. The process was developed to be supportive of a lean-production system and enable the improvement of OEE (overall equipment effectiveness).

Although many operations, large and small, in all industry sectors, have documented savings with TPM, the process amounts to little more than an extended kaizen event if it’s not sustained. Most companies I visit still say they’re “working on” TPM—which has been in North America for more than 25 years.

TPM can fail or be difficult to implement for several reasons. The most frequently cited include:

  • not instilling the owner/operator concept
  • not focusing on people and culture first and technologies later
  • not having leadership support
  • not understanding the role differences between reliability (MTBF/mean time between failures) and maintainability (MTTR/mean time to repair) and how together they provide availability
  • not supporting TPM as a continuous improvement program
  • not basing purchasing decisions on life-cycle costs.

John Moubray’s RCM2 book contains a chart depicting three past generations of maintenance/reliability. They were:

  • 1930 to 1950 (first generation), which was to “fix it when it’s broke”
  • 1951 to 1980 (second generation), which started large maintenance projects, some computer usage, and systems to plan and control work
  • 1981 to 2000 (third generation), which uses RCM, computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) and expert systems, multi-skilling, teams, condition monitoring, and predictive technologies.

The fourth generation (2001 to present) is what we all play a part in (and are helping define). It’s about big data, the Internet of everything, learning systems, and ongoing integration of new technologies, best practices, and processes. This generation will also be challenged with increasing complexity, higher expectations, growing competition for internal resources, and a changing understanding of reliability and maintenance. TPM can help with those challenges.

As an example of its effectiveness, Nakajima pointed to TPM moving one company from generating 36.8 suggestions/employee/year to 83.6 suggestions/employee/year. My own 2015 study found the average number in North America was 3.2, with a mode of 1.0—and many companies still struggling to get near 1.0. To be fair, it should be noted that TPM counts the numerous small improvements (and larger ones) that many plant-floor cultures aren’t able to establish. Without a robust, continuous-improvement process/culture in place, TPM quickly becomes the most difficult step in lean implementation, with minimized expected results.

In another study of 200 companies, I found RCM/FMEA (reliability centered maintenance/failure modes and effects analysis) was credited for achieving savings four times more often than TPM. Other techniques, i.e., root-cause analysis, 5 Whys, visual aids, and kaizen events, were also credited more than TPM. The same study revealed that more operator involvement resulted in better financial performance. Substantial benefit had already been achieved as a result of operators becoming involved with visual aids (versus also picking up tools).

Around 1953, 20 companies began a research group that became the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Plant Maintenance (JIPM). Yet, after TPM began there in the 1970s, it still took nine years for about 23% of Japan’s companies (based on 124 factories belonging to the JIPM) to reach the full phase of the process. To be successful, TPM must be planned and implemented with change management in mind, and consistently applied with a continuous-improvement focus.

For two decades following its introduction, Japanese researchers and practitioners participated in numerous global TPM-related conferences and study trips. (In the early 1990s, I hosted the JIPM on a visit to see a large-scale manufacturing reliability and maintenance implementation and discuss TPM.)

But where in the world is TPM today?

If your North American operation has fully implemented TPM—and it has worked well for more than 10 years—please contact me. MT

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at