Malleable maintenance: Departments must evolve with changing times

Maintenance departments are living and breathing entities. They need to grow and change. They need to adapt to changing production techniques, evolve with new technologies, accept new ideas as their team ages, and keep up with accelerating productivity demands. Today's successful maintenance departments are forward leaning, progressive, and motivated.
By Michael E. McBride, Facilities Operations & Property Manager, Nike Inc., Beaverton, OR February 15, 2003

Maintenance departments are living and breathing entities. They need to grow and change. They need to adapt to changing production techniques, evolve with new technologies, accept new ideas as their team ages, and keep up with accelerating productivity demands. Today’s successful maintenance departments are forward leaning, progressive, and motivated. They have to be to keep up with increasing demand, tighter budgets, and aging equipment.

How do we know when the patient is sick? Look at the vital signs. Is all maintenance recorded? Is any analysis done on the maintenance data? Does gross productivity reflect a number that seems to meet plant needs? Is the CMMS system robust enough? How much skills training has been conducted in the past year? Am I organized to meet my requirements? What technological advances have been embraced by the workforce? How is morale? How is the department perceived? How is the performance to budget? By asking and answering these questions, you can determine the relative health of your maintenance department.

Importance of training

Frequently, ongoing training is avoided because it translates directly into lost productivity hours. Every hour spent in training is lost to production. By constantly training, however, the workforce is kept abreast of new ideas and techniques, and becomes conditioned to changing and updating.

Training should include skills upgrade training as well as new skills development. Skills upgrade training is essential in keeping the team’s abilities up to speed with industry standards. Failure to keep up with new products and techniques can actually result in lower productivity, as better materials and more reliable components are not introduced into the normal maintenance practices.

New skills development training expands your repair capability and opens your workers up to learning new concepts, including the ones you introduce. Select the areas in which you would like to reduce your dependence on outsourcing, and train to those skills.

A positive byproduct of all training is increased feelings of self worth among your employees. They will enjoy learning, and will feel good about learning new things.

Follow the leader

The No. 1 factor in turning things around is leadership. Leadership in maintenance requires technical knowledge, problem-solving ability, good managerial skills, and superior interpersonal skills.

Changing behaviors within maintenance departments is a challenge. Most maintenance departments are staffed with experienced technicians. Most of these individuals come from trades apprenticeships and formal training programs and are older. This combination of age and formal (read as procedural) training make this group very resistant to change. Production departments frequently see turnover of personnel, and this turnover provides an ideal opportunity to introduce change into these departments. Maintenance departments see little turnover, and thus, it is difficult to redirect this inertia. To do this, a determined, confident, focused leader is required.

The resistance a well-seasoned maintenance department can muster can be astonishing. Resistance to change is the hallmark of the maintenance department begging for a turnaround. Resistance to do even the most basic maintenance functions is not uncommon. I have met technicians who completely fail to recognize the value in even keeping track of all work orders, or diligently accounting for labor hours. Maintenance professionals recognize these as the basic building blocks to developing a competent maintenance program. Overcoming this type of entrenched resistance requires no less than a full court press. You have to change these beliefs and break this resistance. Your program will be mired in the past and fall farther behind progressive and leading-edge departments and lose money in the process. Get a true leader to begin to affect this change; it takes that kind of talent.

Tone setting

Nothing fails like failure, so completing a turnaround demands determination and success. You must be successful in your first endeavor to be successful long term. If your first initiative fails, all changes from that point on will be met with ever-increasing resistance. To begin, take the most glaring symptom, outline the new behavioral/procedural change, and implement it as policy.

Explain the change and the purpose. Explain how you are going to verify compliance. Be prepared to give verbal reminders, written reminders, and formal discipline for not complying with the new policy. Back it up with action, or you will fail.

Essential to ensuring continued compliance is feedback, such as monthly productivity reports, backlog analysis, equipment failure analysis, productivity analysis, and staffing analysis.

Workers will begin to understand the value of the change, and more importantly, their value to the organization.

Gradual change

Getting used to a changing environment will take time for some team members. Many will welcome the changes as they come, but some aren’t ready for any change at all. It’s better to build on a string of slow and steady changes than to overspeed the team with a fire hose of changes.

Additionally, it is important for the changes to become part of the normal routine before attempting to implement other changes.

Wasted efforts

Meaningless, superficial changes are easily recognized and a waste of effort. Only make changes that produce results that have value and that you can validate. Employees will easily recognize wasted efforts that produce marginal results. Don’t confuse your message by diluting it with unworthy projects. Pick the important things to change — avoid all others until your team is so bored with success that there is nothing else left to change.

Team morale

Nothing succeeds like success. Advertise your success to upper management. Integrate your productivity numbers into regular productivity reports. Most people like to win. Being part of a winning (achieving) team is an instant morale builder. By ensuring success through planning and determination, your team will begin to win, and begin to see itself as a winner.

A good leader must be there every day. A well-led team will have good morale. What motivates your team? What do team members want? Figure out if their basic employment needs are being met. Do they understand their benefits? Are they participating in the benefits packages? Do they understand their retirement system and how it works?

Team identity is also important. Distinctive coveralls can set technicians apart from the rest of the plant workers. As the individual appearance improves, the team identity becomes apparent to customers. Customers will recognize team members and compliment them on their accomplishments. This newfound team identity, coupled with the success of change, will enhance the implementation of further changes.

Stars in their own universe

Encourage team play and unity. Avoid “superstars” — not the superstars who are talented, dedicated, hardworking employees keeping the show running. I am referring to the “superstar” who tells you about how talented he/she is and how you can’t live without him/her. The superstars in today’s maintenance departments understand the value of the nonglory jobs: PMs, lube routes, routine checks, and failure avoidance/prevention. They understand that a failure, regardless of how heroic the return to service is, is still an equipment failure resulting in production and revenue loss.

The “superstars” are not satisfied working outside of the limelight, or behind the scenes. They will avoid completing PMs, and scoff at any maintenance action that is not a world-saving event. They are not progressive in their thinking, they will be resistant to your efforts, and they will be a huge divisive force in the team. They will not help you, regardless of how talented you (and they) think they are. Their negative force in the team is intolerable.

Sustained success

As maintenance departments are living entities, care and feeding is essential to long-term viability. Maintaining high levels of achievement requires diligence and focus of effort, and occasionally new ideas.

Reward those who have helped you succeed. Invariably there are those in the organization who have welcomed your arrival and changes. I am not talking about the brownnosers, but the true professionals who have been hungry for direction and leadership. These true believers should be recognized. Monetary awards, pay raises for skill increases, time off, formal recognition, and a bunch of simple “thank you’s” are all important ways to reward those who have helped you introduce your changes.

Keep abreast of the maintenance business. It is essential that maintenance departments continue to modernize, lest a turnaround be necessary just a few years later. Magazines, professional journals, product digests, expos, seminars, and working groups are all ways to keep abreast of the industry, and all potential sources of new ideas.

Encourage ideas from within your team. Certainly the technicians within most maintenance departments are subject matter experts on all types of equipment, processes, and tools. They know where some of the changes should be made. Ask them. Get their ideas and best practices distributed among the team. You’ll be surprised how little information is shared over six shifts on a 24/7 operation. Make the contribution of ideas part of the review process.

Aside from being an excellent device to condition people to accept change, training is critical to sustaining excellence in the team. Skill training sustains the modernization effort. Keeping up with the latest techniques in the field is a straightforward, simple way to keep change as an ongoing departmental principle. Even seemingly incongruous training can be valuable to the team; it frequently stirs discussions that help us to view what we are used to a little differently.

Author Information
Mike McBride is the Facilities Operations and Property Manager for the Nike Inc. World Headquarters in Beaverton, OR. He spent 20 years in the United States Marine Corps as a Naval Flight Officer, and Aircraft Maintenance Officer, and 2 1/2 years with Precision Castparts Corp. as the Maintenance Manager and as a Production Manager. He can be reached at .