How much are you worth?

By Richard L. Dunn February 1, 1998

It’s one of the oldest questions in plant engineering and maintenance: How do you put a value on prevention? How much money and effort are needed to make sure something doesn’t happen? And if something doesn’t happen, how much did your effort contribute to its prevention?

It’s relatively easy to put a value on what does happen. When something breaks, there’s a measurable cost to fix it. When production stops, it’s not that hard to compute a value for the lost production. It’s easy to say that maintenance costs so much per hour or so much per year. But what is the value of that maintenance, and how is it measured?

When a breakdown happens, it’s often easy to show that a lack of maintenance was responsible. But the opposite does not necessarily follow. When breakdowns don’t happen, it’s not easy to show that maintenance prevented them.

Much of what plant engineers do is making sure that negative events don’t happen. It might even be said that the most successful plant engineering and maintenance operation is the one that doesn’t appear to be needed. Thus, the question of the value of prevention goes to the very heart of the plant engineering function. And it runs the gamut from small, day-to-day decisions to strategic concerns of plant organization, capability, and capacity.

Plant engineers, therefore, become like medical doctors. Just as dietary habits or lifestyles can be shown statistically to have positive or negative effects, those factors may or may not affect certain individuals in specific ways. So, too, the industrial plant “doctor” — the plant engineer — finds himself dealing with probabilities and trends as indicators of the value of prevention.

All of this is not to say that it’s futile to attempt measuring the value of prevention. Every plant must continually evaluate its programs and make adjustments. But closing in on the optimum level of investment is likely to involve a great deal of trial and error, benchmarking, and informed opinion.

This situation is one of the reasons I advocate that every plant should have a chief plant officer — someone at the highest level of plant management whose experience, knowledge, integrity, and professionalism are trusted to result in the best decisions for that plant. Often, the value of an individual decision can be neither proved nor disproved, so confidence in the person making it is prime.

I like to think a good plant engineer is worth his weight in gold. The trouble is I’m not sure how to prove that.