Key steps to workflow improvement in maintenance

It’s impossible to address the organizational behaviors that encourage or discourage change without first understanding your organization’s culture.

By Jon J. Thorne, Daniel Penn Associates December 29, 2014

Regardless of what your company manufactures, two things are essential to product quality and customer satisfaction. First, how you manage, maintain and measure employees’ work. And second, how you manage your equipment’s performance.

The road to these two obvious goals isn’t always a clear path.

We can’t begin to count the number of clients we engage with who are in the process of trying to gain control of their work processes and equipment without first establishing the means to control the work and measure outcomes over time.

In a minute, I’ll share strategies that can help you improve workflow and better integrate equipment availability and maintenance into your planning. But before I do that, let’s explore the biggest challenge that companies face. How you develop a strong, viable work management process (and how you re-purpose your resources to achieve that) usually means that you’ll need to overcome less than efficient, less than effective organizational behaviors.

This goes against our SOPs.
We don’t have time to change the system.
We’ve always done it this way.

If you’ve heard these statements within your organization, it’s time to take a deeper dive. Why? It’s impossible to address the organizational behaviors that encourage or discourage change without first understanding your organization’s culture.

So what’s culture? It’s the pattern of shared basic assumptions that your management team and employees have learned over time by solving the company’s internal and external challenges. It’s how they perceive, think and feel about your company’s problems. And it’s about how they’ve historically addressed those problems.

Cultural forces are powerful because they operate outside of our conscious awareness. This is why individuals cannot consistently outperform their organization’s embedded culture. Even in the face of overwhelming challenges, people continue to act according to their cultural assumptions, even when they are not correlated to actual performance.

Cultures exist in stable states and will always revert to the state of lowest stress (comfort zone). Each state exhibits a predictable set of behaviors, i.e. – sub-optimization, change resistance, risk aversion, etc.

It’s difficult to get just a little better and have that become a permanent state. This is why improvement initiatives often underperform and sometimes fail. One thing that is always true is that the best process is of little value unless the organization’s culture is aligned to support it.

In other words, implementing any improvement measure requires aligning both process and behavior. And this is the single biggest challenge for any organization.

Organizational leadership must provide positive reinforcement of the new direction and its value to the organization. Through training, ongoing field coaching and performance feedback, behaviors can change. They won’t change all at once and not for everyone at the same pace. But they will change. How will you know when the improvements are sustainable? As with almost everything else, behavior must be measured and changes in behavior must be trended to ensure that improvement efforts are on the right track.

Once you have a good handle on your company’s current culture – and how its evolution can support new processes – you’ll be in a strong position to assess your workflow, your resources and the equipment that supports it all.

Workflow and maintenance: A few models for improvement

If your company’s already on the road to cultural evolution, great. Based on your over-arching goals and objectives, it’s now time to assess the company’s work products and the processes that support (or hinder) them.

This basic model shows the elements that must be fully implemented to gain control of your work process-and the maintenance measures that support them.

The process begins by identifying the steps to be implemented and culminates by defining the most efficient use of available, but limited, labor resources.

Once your facility has mastered work flow, the focus shifts to gaining control of the equipment. By systematically applying work control efficiencies and proactively maintaining equipment, you’re effectively deploying resources towards equipment availability and reliability.

As this model illustrates, work control enables more work with the same level of labor resources. Equipment control allows a more effective application of fewer of those resources.


While the steps above offer a roadmap, your company will also need to establish a high order of discipline to fully implement your improved approach to efficiency.

This includes setting up clear accountabilities and responsibilities for each step of each element of the process, which involves a good deal of training and practice. You’ll also need to set up a viable management system to monitor and report key process indicators (KPIs), key results indicators (KRIs) and the process behaviors that sustain your improvement measures.

Successful organizations with productive employees and happy customers have robust work processes that are supported by reliable, available equipment. When they master how work flows and equipment’s maintained, they’re able to more proactively focus on sustaining and growing the new process and less and less on reactive work.

The bottom line? To gain the most benefit from these processes and practices, the organization’s culture, and its attendant behaviors, must be in synch with its plans and goals.

Jon J. Thorne is senior consultant & associate of Daniel Penn Associates. He has conducted maintenance and operations process consulting for a wide variety of industries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. He holds an MBA in operations analysis from the University of Minnesota and a BS/BA degree in communications and industrial engineering from the University of Wisconsin. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, Plant Engineering,