When the snow hits the fan

Plants that don't put a high priority on maintaining their assets, even when times are tough, are taking a big risk.

By Richard L. Dunn February 1, 1999

Plants that don’t put a high priority on maintaining their assets, even when times are tough, are taking a big risk. That fact was brought home to me again as the public transportation system in Chicago struggled to provide service after a January snowstorm.

Eighteen inches of snow were dumped on Chicago the first Saturday in January. And as the city began to dig out, it quickly became apparent that it would be some time before the public transportation system would recover. The reason: Inoperable equipment and an unsafe stretch of rapid transit track. Maintenance, it seems, had been neglected in an effort to keep costs under control.

The problems didn’t show up while temperatures were relatively mild and snow was nonexistent. And the worst storm in 30 yr seemed an unlikely event. But when the snow hit the fan, so to speak, the system broke down.

Now some might say that management was justified in taking the risks of some deferred maintenance here or there. Those are the kinds of decisions managers are expected to make. In its more elevated forms, it has a name: risk management.

We daily see the parallels in industry — the “what if” games and the “what are the odds” bets. Unfortunately, the scenarios played out in the board rooms are seldom connected with the realities of life on the plant floor. And overall maintenance budgets are somehow disconnected from the probability of failure under severe circumstances. The management assumption is that maintenance will somehow be adequate, even if not optimal. The bet is that the snow won’t hit the fan.

But the reality is that the risk takers are making their decisions without a true assessment of the condition of the plant or even of its most critical equipment. Plant engineers, or course, are usually caught in the middle of all this. And when the snow hits the fan, they’re the first to feel the blast. Given these scenarios, it behooves plant engineers to do some risk assessment of their own. And the place to start is with the identification of critical equipment.

A good maintenance organization will know exactly which equipment will cause a production shutdown if it fails. Add to that any equipment that poses a safety, health, or environmental danger in case of failure, and you have your critical list. This is the equipment that must be maintained at optimum conditions at all times. Of course, this sounds easier than it is in practice, but it is essential to real maintenance management effectiveness.