Why do factories still have ‘maintenance’ departments?

Technology helps put the focus on continuous improvement rather than current state.

By Bob Argyle, Leading2Lean July 13, 2016

We hear a lot of talk about "Lean maintenance." Here’s my question: Why does the "maintenance" department even exist?

The term "maintenance" implies maintaining things the way they’ve been, sometimes for decades. In today’s competitive marketplace, to only maintain inevitably leads to the company’s demise. So why have a department dedicated to maintaining those machines and processes?

In my experience, 90% of factories are operating with systems and methods that are outdated. Antiquated, actually. These are systems that do not support continuous improvement and are in fact wasteful and don’t add value. For the people on the plant floor, these systems are viewed as more of a task than a valuable tool. For manufacturers to stay competitive in the rapidly changing marketplace, it will require that they let go of these outdated methods and embrace the future. Imagine factory workers utilizing mobile technology to instantly share ideas and have visibility of current conditions and past history. What if maintenance technicians were wearing Google Glass while troubleshooting problems? We live in a time when cars are starting to drive themselves, yet plants are still using pen and paper and solutions that were developed more than 20 years ago to track activities.

An engine of continuous improvement

Sure, there will always be people who complete the functions of repairing equipment, but in the future, their department will be called something else because they’ll be tasked with doing less maintaining than improving activities. Some people refer to it as "Lean maintenance," but I prefer "Lean manufacturing" because in reality, maintenance and production are inseparable.

In factories that have a true Lean culture, maintenance sees itself as an engine of continuous improvement, and management empowers them to do so. Think of NASCAR. The uniformed pit crew is front and center near the track. They are part of the race, and their job is to coordinate as a team to help the driver finish the race as fast as possible. To do so, they take into account mileage, tire wear, and a host of other factors to work as little and as fast as possible when they need to, all while making decisions on the fly by constantly monitoring information.

What if factories treated their maintenance people the same way? By putting the maintenance team front and center and empowering technicians to immediately suggest improvements based on real-time data, velocity and productivity will increase. Unfortunately, in most factories I’ve seen, the maintenance department is tucked away in the back. It’s dirty and oily, and the manager doesn’t feel like they are part of the operations team. Morning meetings usually become a finger-pointing exercise, with the finger usually pointed at maintenance.

If this is to change, the mentality around maintenance must evolve.

Moneyball on the factory floor

Technology is allowing more manufacturers to see data in real-time in a way that identifies what the biggest problems are. Not having real-time data is a lot like coaching a baseball game without being present. You just can’t gather enough information to see a clear picture and make adjustments in the moment.

Analysis of real-time data will also help guide further improvement after the fact. Think Moneyball on the factory floor. Just as analytics were used to more accurately identify good traits in previously undervalued baseball players, real-time data on the factory floor can give technicians and engineers immediate feedback on what needs to be changed or fixed. This will empower maintenance departments to be one of the main drivers of improvement.

I personally observed a government contractor on the East Coast implement a technology system that allowed everyone—floor workers and executives—to see tracking data, align goals between departments, and identify repetitive downtime issues. A few months later the maintenance technicians were presenting to the VP of operations solutions they had developed for problems no one even previously knew existed-or even worse, were viewed as normal. One machine was eating up nearly half an hour of downtime a day with needed repairs. Data allowed maintenance technicians to discover they could decrease needed repairs down to half an hour a month.

Over the longer term, this access to useful, real-time data empowered the people on the plant floor to continue to drive improvements. After one year, the factory was able to produce 20% more product with significantly fewer resources. Additionally, over the following three years they increased operational availability by 15%, improved preventative maintenance compliance with the government from 65% to 100%, and reduced equipment downtime by 50%.

The factory maintenance supervisor said, "I finally got my life back." He no longer spends every day—plus nights and weekends—receiving calls and texts about problems.

Not only did the factory enhance bottom-line results and make things easier for managers, maintenance techs were empowered to improve things instead of making the same adjustments and repairs to machines. No doubt technicians were going home to their families and saying, "I solved a problem at work today," and, "They’re not just asking me to fix something over and over every day, they’re actually asking me to use my mind. They’re open to my suggestions, and they’ve implemented my ideas." This makes people feel more valuable, and it motivates them to want to solve more problems and improve more processes.

Sadly, a lot of companies overlook the value of ideas from employees on the factory floor.

Continuous improvement brings more work and adds jobs

The way to keep factories from shrinking, having to move operations, or even closing is to continually show that those factories are keeping up with the global economy, and they’re more effective today than they were yesterday. Real-time data with technology is leading to improved bottom-line results and takes emotion and territorial disagreements out of discussions on improvement.

Some people fear the loss of jobs with onboarding new technology. In my experience, it’s been the opposite. You save jobs because you ensure the plant will continue to exist. By incorporating continuous improvement across the entire factory, I’ve seen plants become more efficient, with more work coming to the plant, which actually led to hiring people. I’ve also seen companies refuse to reduce technician headcount because they could see that they were driving improvement, resulting in bottom-line savings for the company.

A technology-based tool provides instant access to information about what’s going on, what’s happened in the past, and what they need to do to solve the problem. It also creates a more cohesive community environment where employees can more easily share information and ideas on how to fix problems.

So I’m looking forward to the day when the term "maintenance" doesn’t exist in a manufacturing facility.

Essentially, that day is here—in successful factories.

But if factory owners keep on maintaining things, ignore the use of technology—which is improving systems in all kinds of industries—and remain complacent, they will be challenged by more agile competitors.

Bob Argyle is the chief customer officer for Leading2Lean, a Nevada-based manufacturing tech solution provider. Leading2Lean is a CFE Media content partner.