'Lean’ doesn’t always mean less

The phrase “Lean maintenance” lends itself to an onslaught of requisite punch lines … “Our maintenance is so lean … Most professional plant leadership understand that Lean maintenance has nothing to do with thinning out warm bodies, or more directly, reducing maintenance resources.


The phrase “Lean maintenance” lends itself to an onslaught of requisite punch lines…

“Our maintenance is so lean…

  • “You can read through it.”

  • “If it turned sideways and stuck out its tongue, it would look like a zipper.”

  • “It has to run around in the shower to get wet.”

    • Most professional plant leadership understand that Lean maintenance has nothing to do with thinning out warm bodies, or more directly, reducing maintenance resources. Rather, it has to do with enhancing the value-added nature of our reliability efforts.

      I had a boss once that used the word Lean as a verb, as if he were actually summarizing the philosophical and practical nature of the concept into a conveniently useful and economic term. “We leaned out that line last month,” he’d say. Or, “We need to lean out this production cell next.” None of this was to be confused with the fact that, according to him, we were also “TPM-ing” parts of the plant, and “5s-ing” some other areas. I took from his cowboy jargon that he felt these processes not only had a beginning, but more dangerously assumed a definite end. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      The simple fact is that a perceived reduction in any plant resource in concert with an organization’s efforts to adopt the principles of Lean manufacturing is a non sequitur , a logical fallacy allowed to fester to the point that the perception has become real %%MDASSML%% absolutely real, in fact %%MDASSML%% to the person perceiving it. What we face now in applying those Lean ideologies toward our reliability efforts is a need to combat the popular belief that we are trying to reduce headcount.

      Lean simply means to eliminate the non-value-added steps in our process. For the neophyte, Lean value-added steps are those steps that our customers are willing to pay for. In maintenance, our customers are inherently internal to our organization %%MDASSML%% they are our production departments. One of the primary responsibilities of maintenance is to supply plant capacity to its customers. Let’s face a fundamental truth: You can’t be successful with Lean manufacturing if you don’t have reliable equipment.

      The factors stated above, logically mean that Lean maintenance will provide a product our production departments are willing to pay for: plant capacity. At this point, it might be best to give examples of what Lean maintenance is not. Lean maintenance is not performing poor corrective action. Our customers (production) would not be willing to pay for poor corrective actions. Lean maintenance is not facilitating a poor preventive maintenance program. Our customers expect our preventive maintenance programs to be optimized and fully support the need for plant capacity.

      The truly thankful news is that most fundamentally good maintenance practices and processes are fully consistent with the Lean maintenance principles.

      A product or service for a customer demands a value stream in the manifestation of that product or service. As a provider of “service,” our challenge in maintenance lies in seeing the value stream, and attacking the non-value-added measures. Continuing our logical pattern established earlier, if maintenance provides a service to its customers (production) and that service has a value stream, and production is only willing to pay for value-added processes, it is then our mandate to eradicate waste and non-value efforts toward plant capacity.

      The majority of maintenance activities revolve around systems and the processes that move man, material and machine together: preventive maintenance systems, predictive maintenance systems, plan and scheduling systems, computerized maintenance management systems, store room systems and work order systems. This is a very defensible thesis. However, when we try to apply the principles of Lean to maintenance, try to drive out the non-value added processes, we make the mistake of concentrating on our maintenance personnel first, instead of the systems with which they operate.

      Creating a value-stream map of the current state is a common first step in Lean manufacturing. From that current state, we create a future state, typically by brainstorming ideas and executing kaizen events. The future state leads to the ideal state, and requires a great deal of out-of-the-box thinking and paradigm busting.

      Have many organizations created value-stream maps of their maintenance systems? Or, is it more likely that we haven’t practiced what we’ve preached and tried to force Lean rationalisms onto our maintenance people and not attacked the non-value-added elements of the systems? Why, if it’s typical form to create current and future states for our production processes, shouldn’t we do the same for our maintenance processes? Of course, we should.

      Around the development of the current- and future-state maps of our maintenance systems, we must also engage in an honest and tough assessment of the skills and knowledge of our trades personnel. A poorly skilled person operating within a great system will net poor results. Likewise, if we present the best overall preventive maintenance system, yet our PMs are poorly structured and designed, our PMs will achieve poor results. Therefore we need to adopt a practice of PM optimization to give new life to our efforts. Many of the peripheral elements of our maintenance systems require in-depth review; these are but two.

      It is interesting to note that most organizations %%MDASSML%% even without proclaiming a Lean maintenance effort %%MDASSML%% might actually be engaged in the very activity that will get them there: TPM. Total productive maintenance and Lean share many traits. Standardization, 5s and mistake-proofing are just a few. More importantly, TPM recognizes that the operator is just as responsible for equipment reliability as the maintenance person. We all share the common objective to eliminate the six major losses: breakdown, set up and adjustments, idling and minor stoppages, operating at reduced speeds, defects and reduced yield. It is to these losses that we employ the CMMS, work orders, planning and scheduling and other systems so as to mitigate them.

      Lean maintenance is not a foreign concept. In fact, almost nothing about the idea is new in principle. Our role is to provide plant capacity. It is that simple. Our service has a value-added portion, and a non-value-added portion. The value-stream map of the service we provide includes value-added and non-value-added activities. Value-added processes are those that meet three criteria: 1) the customer is willing to pay for it, 2) our action physically changes the item we work on or contributes to its life and 3) it is done right the first time.

      Our challenge going forward is to create current-state value-stream maps for our maintenance systems and compare the processes to the definition of value-added. If the process or step taken by the skilled trades does not add value to the overall effort, we need to minimize or eliminate the non-value added step. Eliminate the step, not the person.

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      Author Information
      John L. Ross Jr., Ph.D., is a senior consultant with Marshall Institute Inc., an international maintenance and reliability consulting and training company based in Raleigh, NC. Ross has more than 22 years of experience in maintenance and manufacturing, including with the U.S. Air Force, consumer goods manufacturing and steel manufacturing. He can be reached at jross@marshallinstitute.com .