Knowledge management systems: Maintenance on the front lines

Reducing repair and maintenance costs is important to improving productivity and a constant goal for all manufacturing operations that use complex equipment.

By Lyle C. Emmott September 1, 1999

Reducing repair and maintenance costs is important to improving productivity and a constant goal for all manufacturing operations that use complex equipment. Minimizing equipment downtime as a result of scheduled PM or unscheduled repairs reduces maintenance costs and increases revenues. The ultimate goal of maintenance is zero downtime.

Reaching that goal becomes increasingly difficult as the complexity of equipment and the skill level needed to repair it increase. Many plants have adopted knowledge management and support software systems to improve decision making and support the maintenance process. Computerized maintenance management systems (CMMSs) improve productivity and equipment reliability. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems help manage data and information flow. Enterprise data management (EDM) systems store and manage online documentation for procedures. Electronic performance support systems (EPSS) provide just-in-time information while interactive electronic technical manuals (IETM) use CD-ROMs to deliver repair and maintenance information online.

Although these systems offer many benefits, they do not give those on the plant floor the execution knowledge they need to maintain and repair mission-critical equipment. When maintenance workers do not know how to interpret data or how to complete a recommended procedure, losses occur and downtime increases.

One option available for addressing these challenges is a maintenance execution performance system (MEPS). An MEPS lets a plant deliver knowledge and support material to front-line maintenance employees. It gives workers maintenance knowledge, technical information, troubleshooting procedures, and learning support material in the context of specific maintenance tasks. At the same time, it lets workers add to the knowledge base, allowing information to be updated instantly.

Integrating elements

The field of knowledge management (KM) was created to help control processes by providing just-in-time information. It is similar to IETM and EPSS, both of which provide just-in-time information or training to workers where and when they need it to perform specific job tasks.

Studies support the effectiveness of IETM software as a better way of providing technical information than paper-based systems. Similarly, a recent user opinion poll showed the importance and impact of EPSS. Companies implementing KM systems in an enterprise-wide environment have demonstrated similar returns.

Although many have recognized the advantages of each of these systems, few have successfully integrated them into a software system that supports both knowledge management and performance support requirements. Most KS or EPSS systems focus on higher-order management processes and business decision-making requirements.

An MEPS combines the advantages of these systems, but specifically targets front-end workers executing specific maintenance tasks on complex equipment. In conjunction with CMMS, ERP, and EDMS systems, a MEPS lets maintenance personnel access the information and support material they need when they need it.

Managing knowledge

Maintenance personnel acquire knowledge in numerous ways. Technical documentation provides operating and maintenance procedures, troubleshooting information, parts lists, and the like in an online document, an IETM, or on paper. Training is delivered in the classroom, through a computer-based program, or with print-based training manuals. Expert maintenance personnel offer on-the-job training for novices.

Knowledge development is typically an isolated process. Almost as soon as knowledge is captured, documented, and published, it becomes outdated. No feedback mechanism is in place to update “as designed” knowledge to “as implemented” knowledge. The tacit knowledge of the expert maintenance technician that comes only with experience is not available to all on an enterprise-wide scale, nor is it easily retrieved when needed.

Integrating the knowledge development process within an MEPS application provides for the management and maintenance of up-to-date knowledge for both maintenance documentation and training. All available knowledge is accessible by all maintenance personnel when and where they need it, and expert knowledge can be captured and made available to all maintenance personnel.

Technology benefits

This type of system integrates the characteristics of KM, EPSS, and IETM into a comprehensive knowledge management solution. Integration offers a number of advantages.

– The system is concerned with executing maintenance tasks and providing knowledge to craftsmen, not with the management of resources or data that support the maintenance process.

– An MEPS focuses on front-line maintenance workers, providing knowledge within the context of their work. A performance-centered system, it provides static knowledge in the form of practices and procedures, tacit knowledge in the form of “best practices” procedures, and performance support to guide the technician through executing a task.

– The system provides the dynamic ability to keep the application current. It allows for the ongoing capture and management of new knowledge as it is acquired. Maintenance personnel can add personal knowledge to the system or communicate suggested changes. System administrators can easily incorporate changes without an involved production or publishing process, and changes are instantly available to all users.

– The system supports a media-rich environment. Visuals are provided as high-resolution images, video animations, and the like. Media can be imported into the system without the need for highly specialized designers.

This type of software is not a replacement for a CMMS or for resource planning tools. Rather, it is a system that uses other systems as data to focus the required knowledge more accurately to promote maintenance execution on the job. Maintenance management, resource planning, asset management, and diagnostics software provide data to help make decisions about what to maintain and when. An MEPS application provides the how of executing the maintenance task or repair.

Key characteristics

To integrate effectively the characteristics of various software systems, MEPS software must accommodate a number of requirements. A typical system includes nine key characteristics:

1. Provides instant access to operations, maintenance, and troubleshooting knowledge and has interactive multimedia support.

2. Provides access to knowledge and training in the context of specific tasks.

3. Helps capture and manage maintenance knowledge and support materials in a real time database.

4. Lets maintenance workers add comments to the database so the system administrator can make revisions and updates.

5. Enables electronic documents to be imported and links to external databases to be made easily.

6. Eliminates the need for custom design work prior to implementation.

7. Integrates and uses existing material.

8. Integrates existing information structures and legacy material so that everything is maintained in a single source.

9. Delivers multimedia-rich content across the enterprise for remote maintenance.

Systems limited to collecting data and generating reports cannot provide a complete management solution for complex maintenance. A maintenance execution performance system lets maintenance personnel complete tasks they would not otherwise be able to complete by providing current knowledge and best practices for the entire enterprise. The system holds the potential for improving uptime and increasing maintenance execution produc- tivity. Maintenance workers can access the knowledge they need to ensure procedures are completed correctly and when necessary.

Lyle C. Emmott manages the development of one of his company’s major software products. His experience includes teaching and developing interactive computer-based programs as well as designing, developing, and managing multimedia education, training, and support programs. He received an M.A. in Educational Technology from Concordia University and both a B.Sc. and a B.Ed./A.D.from the University of Alberta. Contact him with questions about this article by phone: 403-447-9246; fax: 403-452-6087; or e-mail: The company web site is located at