We face challenging situations every day. In many cases, dealing with short-term challenges is a maintenance organization’s normal way of life. The problem is our long-term challenges, the ones at our doorstep, or looming just over the horizon that we often put off tackling. They’re “giants” bearing down on us.
Not too long ago, I spoke to nearly 90 maintenance professionals at an Oklahoma Predictive Maintenance User’s Group (OPMUG) event. Maintenance managers, supervisors, technicians, mechanics, planners, and engineers, they came from a wide variety of industries. Regardless of their particular role or business, though, they were all actively pursuing better maintenance practices.
I asked the attendees to take a few minutes and think about the top three challenges for maintenance that they expected to see in the next three, to five, to 10 years, then record them on note cards. Let’s consider what they wrote and how their thinking mirrors yours. Based on my analysis, the 117 challenges they came up with fit in the following nine major categories (some fit in more than one):
• Skills Gaps (35)
• Culture of Reliability (35)
• Training & Qualification (27)
• Top Management (26)
• New Technology (11)
• At-Risk Assets (10)
• Parts (10)
• Knowledge Transfer (8)
• Life-Cycle Asset Management (5)
It’s about ‘people’ on the front line
When we look for a common theme among the OPMUG responses, it’s not too surprising to see that it’s “people,” i.e., the biggest variable in improving equipment maintenance, performance, and reliability. Of the nine major categories above, three of them—Skills Gaps, Training & Qualification, and Knowledge Transfer (with a combined total of 70 responses)—point to challenges on the front line of maintenance.
Many responses alluded to difficulties in finding qualified technicians and shortages of skilled trades people. A few referenced the Millennial Generation’s communication skills, work habits, and expectations. Several addressed the lack of competencies for and interests in industrial maintenance careers.
Capturing the knowledge of workers nearing retirement appeared to be a sizeable challenge for many respondents. They noted that their organizations stood the chance of losing all skills and knowledge gained from years of experience. Furthermore, there was concern that even if they could capture crucial knowledge, without a capable replacement or the mechanism to train new employees, that knowledge would be lost.
It’s about ‘people’ in top management
A second group of categories—Top Management, Culture of Reliability, and Life-Cycle Asset Management (with a combined total of 66 responses)—points to need for leadership to improve equipment maintenance, performance, and reliability. Whether it’s the pursuit of best practices, asset-management processes, or culture change, top management sets the tone and defines the culture by purposeful actions, or, by default, through inaction.
Some responses tied the challenge of Top Management to struggles with hiring and training priorities, i.e, management’s inability to grasp the severity of skills gaps, shortages, and knowledge transfer. Several mentioned decisions to cut maintenance costs and staff, reductions in time for preventive maintenance, and misinterpretation of the reliability requirements of new equipment.
Others referred to “silo” organizations and decision making that hindered maintenance and hurt the reliability of equipment and processes. These siloed objectives and decisions lead to an organization’s inability to focus on common goals for overall business improvement.
Regarding Culture of Reliability ranking right up there with Skills Gaps as a top challenge: Leading a culture of reliability means that the line of sight between reliability best practices and the goals of the business are understood. Frequently, that line of sight is not so apparent with reliability best practices appearing as a flavor of the month.
Facing our giant
Most equipment challenges lend themselves to reliable and sustainable countermeasures, or corrective actions. The giant we face isn’t so easily addressed: human variation, inconsistency, behaviors, moods, and habits present an ever-changing reliability improvement challenge.
Our giant can be lurking among front-line crews or behind decisions and actions made by top-, mid-level and/or front-line managers. Facing it with slingshots and stones may be our only option, that is, if slingshots and stones represent maintenance fundamentals, available tools, and accepting the reality of the situation.
We can no longer manage equipment performance and reliability the way we always have. There aren’t enough talented people, or isn’t enough time or money to continue that journey.
Bottom line, the skills gaps we see today, coupled with training and knowledge-transfer problems, are primarily caused by the fact that top management and reliability and maintenance professionals still aren’t “sitting at the same table” and focusing on common business goals. That’s sad.
Looking to the future, facing our giant will require fewer hands-on people, robust condition monitoring, building reliability into critical at-risk equipment, and, most of all, getting top-level management to believe in reliability best practices. 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 RobertMW2@cs.com.