In order to succeed at increasing uptime, you have to believe you can

The most basic problem with typical efforts to increase uptime: we are lying to ourselves. This blog will describe a couple of scenarios, and see if any of these ring true for you.


We sit down for our weekly maintenance scheduling meeting and present our operations counterparts with a schedule that requires 4 hours of downtime in the middle of the week. They immediately start horse-trading and ask questions like “can you do it in 3 hours?” or “can’t we just skip it this week?” Why do they ask such questions? It is because they do not really believe that these proactive maintenance tasks are necessary; they don’t believe that they add any value.

The most basic problem with typical efforts to increase uptime: we are lying to ourselves.  

We don’t take our proactive maintenance tasks seriously (preventive and predictive maintenance), we don’t really believe that they will work. We are in a way lying to ourselves about what we expect the outcome to be. I propose that when things go wrong, we are really not that confused. Deep down inside we know that our PM program was never going to save us.

Look, I know you are all going to push back on me now and say, “No, no, it’s not true; our PM program means everything to us! We have a PM completion rate in the high 90% range every month!” But I would challenge that statement by saying that our proactive maintenance plans have a serious credibility problem, and it is time for us to take this problem on at its core and fix it once and for all. Let me describe a couple of scenarios and see if any of these ring true to you.

Do you believe in your proactive maintenance tasks?

Proactive maintenance scenario 1: Stealing time

We sit down for our weekly maintenance-scheduling meeting, and present our operations counterparts with a schedule that requires 4 hours of downtime in the middle of the week.  They immediately start horse-trading and ask questions like “can you do it in 3 hours?” or “can’t we just skip it this week?”   Why do they ask such questions?  It is because they do not really believe that these proactive maintenance tasks are necessary; they don’t believe that they add any value.

Proactive maintenance scenario 2: Stealing resources

We experience an emergency breakdown, and I come to one of your front-line maintenance supervisors and tell them that I need two mechanics to take care of the emergency. The response I get is, “Take those two guys; they are just working on PMs.” Crikey! If we really believed that completing those PM tasks were the difference between high availability and low availability next week, you would take off your shirt and challenge me to a bare knuckle fist fight if I tried to take one of these mechanics away from you. The reason you don’t is that, under pressure, you don’t really see these tasks as truly necessary. You don’t believe that they add any value.

If we cannot have faith in our proactive maintenance tasks, how can we ask those people who work for us to have faith in the program? There are a few fundamental beliefs that we need to establish in order to restore this faith in our program.

Fundamental beliefs to restore faith in our proactive maintenance plan

Fundamental belief number 1: We are all capable of preventing or containing every failure that may occur – every single one.

Do me a favor… If you cannot get on board with this one, never get on an airplane again. For many of us, if we thought for a second that the proactive maintenance plan carried by any commercial airline was anything like the one at our facility, Greyhound bus lines would suddenly become a fantastic investment opportunity.

We have to believe that with careful study and continual refinement, each and every failure can be addressed either through redesign or careful application of a proactive maintenance task.

Fundamental belief number 2: More proactive maintenance is not necessarily better than less proactive maintenance.

It is kind of like Goldilocks and the 3 bears; some porridge is too hot, some is too cold, but this one is just right. Many times we carpet bomb our equipment with way too many proactive maintenance tasks that are performed much too frequently. Let me help you out with this – nobody cares how many PM tasks you perform, they only care about safety, cost, and uptime. That is it.

When we perform too many proactive maintenance tasks, we diminish the credibility of those really important tasks with hours upon hours of non-value added tasks. We must continually strive to find just that right amount, just those right tasks that will predict or prevent failures from occurring. Nothing extra.

Fundamental belief number 3: The details beneath the task matter.

If we want to predict and control failures, we can no longer afford to send our people out with task descriptions that read like “check the gearbox”. We need to understand that there is a right way and a wrong way to perform any task, and statements like “check the pump” leave way too much to the imagination.

In situations like this, I often get pushback that sounds something like, “You have to understand; every one of our mechanics has been here for more than 30 years, and they know how to inspect a gearbox.”

Diagram of subjective inspection vs. quantitative inspection. Courtesy: Mike GehloffHere’s a way to test that theory: take 5 of these people with the 30 years of experience and give them each a blank piece of paper. Ask them to jot down a few notes on how they inspect that gearbox. Do you really think that those 5 pieces of paper are going to look anything alike? If they are not identical, then at least 4 of them are performing that inspection at a subpar level (I shy away from the word incorrectly as it comes with so much baggage), and there is a distinct possibility that all 5 of them are performing that inspection at a subpar level.

What is the correct answer? We need to get quantitative with our task descriptions (see the graphic). Once we get quantitative, we have a baseline to build upon. When failures occur in the future, we learn from them, adjust our criteria, and if we are careful enough, we will have eliminated that particular failure. Now on to the next failure and repeat the process. We need to realize that “continuous improvement” of our proactive maintenance program is not some buzzword that we toss around in meetings when we are trying to impress our boss. It must become the core of who we are as an organization. Improving these tasks is a career-long commitment, we never lack for opportunities to learn and improve.

Making proactive maintenance work to increase uptime

If we really want to make this work, then we need to get serious about our proactive maintenance program and realize that the change that is needed starts with us, and our faith in our ability to prevent or contain each and every failure. There is no bad luck in this world, only the luck that we make for ourselves through hard work and focus.

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