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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.

Continue Reading →


7:01 pm
November 15, 2016
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Vision, Passion, And Talent Management

bobmugnewBy Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor

Learning how to perform a maintenance task, whether a repair or a preventive-maintenance inspection, requires training, proper tools, spare parts, and general knowledge relating to safety. But, that’s not all: Aptitude is also required. It’s the natural ability to understand functional relationships and accomplish the tasks at hand. In the case of maintenance, that means mechanical, electrical, or electronic aptitude.

Yet, to qualify as a competent maintenance technician these days, training and aptitude are not enough. As my Oct. 2016 “Uptime” column noted, technology innovation and modernization of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have reached into nearly every aspect of equipment and facilities operations and maintenance—at a remarkable pace. Couple the escalation of technology with a widespread shortage of technical skills in the workforce pool, along with a shortage of maintenance-and repair-education providers, and we have a serious problem.

To put a different spin on the situation, as industrialist Henry J. Kaiser once said, “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” Simply worrying about our skills shortage, the assimilation of rapidly advancing technologies, and demands for high-performing, reliable equipment won’t make these threats go away. Instead, we need to boldly confront them in a positive, proactive manner. That boils down to talent and how we manage it.

Hiring, developing, and retaining the right people should be the top priority of any business that depends on physical assets.

Hiring, developing, and retaining the right people should be the top priority of any business that depends on physical assets.

Food for thought

While attending Dematic’s Materials Handling & Logistics Conference in Park City, UT, two presentations stood out for me: One was a discussion about achieving your personal best and the other was about talent management. What, on the surface, might have seemed like two very different topics, became hard-wired together in my mind.

Although it sounds like an individual discipline, achieving your personal best is about aptitude, interest, willingness, and an associated passion to succeed under the guidance of talented, dedicated coaches and mentors. That was the premise for the presentation by Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic medalist of all time, who candidly discussed his award-winning journey. As I look over my copious notes from his interview session, I continue to be struck by two things that he highlighted: vision to succeed (to win) and passion for the sport.

When he was seven years old, Phelps dreamed that he would win an Olympic gold medal. At 15 years of age, he described how he wanted to do with Olympic-level swimming what Michael Jordan had done with basketball. And, at age 31, he has done just that. What began as a love for swimming, and some very skilled and motivating coaches along the way, still required a compelling vision for what he wanted to achieve. That’s where passion comes in. What may have seemed to be about wanting to win, win, and win some more was really this Olympian’s passion for the sport, and how it could be used for a bigger good.

This brings me to the presentation on “Supply Chain Talent Management” led by Mike Burnett of the Global Supply Chain Institute (GSCI) at the Univ. of Tennessee Haslam College of Business, in Knoxville. His topic is described in detail in a white paper entitled “Supply Chain Talent–Our Most Important Resource.” While space won’t allow a full recap of the subject, there were a number of timely—and essential—takeaways.

Best practices

Hiring, developing, and retaining the right people should be the top priority of any business that depends on physical assets (machinery, equipment, facilities, utilities), now more than ever. This process must also become a truly collaborative partnership between the front-line business leaders and the human-resources professionals.

The “GSCI Supply Chain Talent Management” white paper provides a framework that makes sense for reliable equipment, plant, and facility operation, well beyond its supply-chain focus. The institute’s surveys and interviews of benchmark companies should help us create career pathways for our technicians and leaders. Here are some of the best practices the GSCI identified:

• Clear definition of the “who.” Describe the talent, the “who,” you need in terms of technical and soft skills to be successful on the job and in the company’s culture.
• Use of mentors, sponsors, and first coaches. Acquire the resources required to help everyone succeed.
• Individual skills-development plans. Start with a solid definition of the skills needed to be successful in the end-to-end supply chain, in supply chain disciplines, and in specific roles.
• Internships/co-ops. Provide opportunities to obtain experiential growth in job skills, learn from diverse thinking, and evaluate a work-culture fit.
• Top university partners. Find students who best fit the definition of the “who” and then place them in a role where they have the best chance for success.


Employee training is a must, and on-the-job-performance qualification is the practical outcome of efficient and effective training. But, let’s not blur the lines between talent management and training. They’re not the same. Yes, training is a vital element of a talent-management system. But talent management is the system that aligns the people side of the organization with the needs of the business.

The bottom line of the GSCI supply-chain talent discussion was summed up in their three recommendations.

• Create a clearly documented, talent development strategy. This is the first, and most important, step.
• Employ best-in-class talent-development programs. Include educational and experiential components with a mixture of internal and external experiences.
• View talent development as owned by the business and driven by ROI. Manage talent like you manage your supply chain (your business).

For our purposes

Now, back to my notes from Michael Phelps’ interview. To repeat, what struck me most about his story was the vision he had to succeed (to win) and his passion for the sport. We need to leverage those things for our own purposes.

As we look ahead to developing talented people to succeed at installing, maintaining, and repairing equipment and facilities, we must find ways to excite our in-school youth. For example, some have keen interests in sports because of what they see on TV, at sporting events, and what their friends are doing. Some get excited about computers and software and writing code. Some pursue teaching because of the role models in their schools and classes. Some want very much to preserve our planet, or to pursue agricultural interests. Some have a passion for mastering welding for their own use, but later find out that they can earn big bucks as certified welders.

Our challenge is to find ways to instill in them a vision to succeed and a passion for their futures. Sure, the focus on STEM education is resurfacing. But that’s not enough. We need more, younger-aged students learning about the rewarding careers they can have as equipment and systems technicians in manufacturing, utilities, process industries, and building and facilities management.

There are plenty of ways to do this. Look for opportunities to invite students, teachers, school administrators, and board members into your facilities. Institute and/or support plant tours, career days, bring-a-child-to-work days, co-op experiences, and summer internships. Over time, the payoff could be significant. After all, what if Michael Phelps had never seen a real swimming pool, learned to swim, or not had a motivational mentor who recognized his aptitude and talent? MT


• “Supply Chain Talent Management” white paper, April 2015, Global Supply Chain Institute, Haslam College of Business (

• Michael Phelps Foundation (

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


6:47 pm
November 15, 2016
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Employees: Retain the Good Ones

Workforce ManagmentHighly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave their employer than disengaged counterparts. Are you doing what you can to engage your people?

Mary Jo Cheney is corporate TPM coach at GE Appliances, Louisville, KY, and tacks CMRP, CRL, and CPMM onto the end of her name. Her credentials and experience make her an expert on managing and retaining people. She shared that expertise in her presentation, “Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain—Lessons of Leadership from the Wizard of Oz,” given at the 24th Annual SMRP Conference, held October 2016 in Jacksonville, FL.

The Wizard of Oz angle was a creative use of the characters in that classic movie to represent various aspects of personnel management and retention. I’ll spare you the Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man references, but share several of the facts and figures Cheney provided to help you better understand how to identify and retain talented employees.

—Gary L. Parr, editorial director

randmRetaining good leaders

Effective leader retention starts with honest, clear communication, which is not a strength for most companies. Good leaders also stick around if they are fed enriching assignments that challenge their talents. This is particularly true for younger people. Along with that is providing a clear line of sight to the next opportunity.

She also suggested the importance of knowing your competition in terms of who is likely to steal good employees. Cheney told a story of a competitor who bought a billboard sign near the entrance to one of her previous company’s property in an attempt to lure away talent. That sign got the full attention of employees and management.

“Training is critical!” stated Cheney. She asked two questions worth serious consideration: What if I train them and they leave? What if you don’t and they stay?

She also quoted Mark Alan Csonka, the smartest businessman she has ever met: “I hire people who are smarter than me and then I help them grow. I do not feel insecure because they know more than I. In fact, it has made me a better leader.”

Chaos-elimination leadership

In this segment of her presentation, Cheney turned the mirror on herself and her peers with these two questions:

• Are you the the person causing chaos in your department?
• Do you need to control every decision that is made by your employees?

An answer of yes to either or both of those questions is probably not a good thing.

Along with those two questions she suggested the importance of presenting a crystal-clear strategy, having a direct line of sight from the top to the people in the trenches, and knowing your role in a successful strategy.

Some employee facts

Cheney also offered some facts worth noting, obtained from Dale Carnegie Training and Daily Infographics, February 2014:

• $11 billion is lost annually due to turnover.
• 71% of workers are not fully engaged in their work.
• 80% of employees are dissatisfied with their direct manager.
• 70% of employees who lack confidence in senior leadership are not fully engaged.
• Revenue is 2.5 times higher in companies with highly engaged employees.
• Highly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave than disengaged counterparts. MT


5:57 pm
November 14, 2016
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Achieving ROI From Public Education


By Jane Alexander, Managing Editor

Despite leaving Alabama (and family) for Chicagoland 11+ years ago, I continue to start each day with a quick review of news about the region on Note that my interests go well beyond SEC football rankings.

The progress of the state’s public-school system and economic-development efforts are compelling topics for me. That’s why an Oct. 19, 2016 post by Trisha Powell Crain about a recently released White House report had me grinning from ear to ear. That report ranks Alabama third in the nation for high school graduation rates (89.3%), behind only Iowa and New Jersey. Seemed like good news—until I delved deeper into that article and two others Crain later posted about recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing. It wasn’t a pretty picture after all.

Known as the nation’s report card, the NAEP has been administered since 1969 in multiple academic areas, including math, reading, science, and civics. It’s given to 4th, 8th, and 12th graders in states that voluntarily agree to participate. As I understand it, the most recent findings reference scores from 4th graders who took the test in 2009 and 2015, and 8th graders who took it in 2009, 2011, and 2015.

In the 2015 science assessments (which included physical, life, earth, and space sciences), Alabama’s 4th and 8th graders scored below the national average. Mississippi was the only southeastern state with lower scores.

It gets worse.

In math, Alabama’s fourth-graders ranked 52nd—dead-last in scores from all 50 states, the Department of Defense schools, and the District of Columbia. (Sadly, while Alabama 8th graders have languished at or near the bottom in NAEP math results for many years, other states with near-bottom scores have apparently been making gains.)

Given its students’ 2015 NAEP science and math scores, Alabama probably shouldn’t be high-fiving itself for achieving that third-highest graduation-rate shout-out. According to Andrew Yerbey, senior policy counsel for the conservative Alabama Policy Institute, (as quoted in Trisha Crain’s Oct. 19 article), the ranking points to a big problem. “There are way too many kids graduating with way too low scholastic achievement,” he noted. “As long as the graduation rate is high and our test scores are low, there is no reason to celebrate.” I agree with Yerbey on this issue.

How can those dreadful scores be coming from a state that’s home to several world-renowned research universities and many world-class manufacturers, including, among others, Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai, and Airbus, and their suppliers? It’s a huge question, and one every Alabama parent and business owner and/or operator should be asking. I personally know of at least one family that has already begun considering a possible move out of state for this very reason.

Enough about Alabama, though: How does your own state’s public education system stack up in preparing students for life after high school? As a strong proponent of public education, after digesting the articles, I turned to Achieve ( for a reality check. I encourage you to do likewise.

A national advocate for improved college- and career-readiness, Achieve released a report in May 2015 on how states got their graduation rates ( Examining the different diploma options available to students in all 50 states, and identifying those at the college- and career-ready level, it’s an eye-opener. Reading this report and other information from Achieve, you may—or perhaps not—be surprised to learn that the educational investment in your state’s children, i.e., our workforce of the future, is not delivering on its promise.

I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. MT