Nobody likes maintenance, except those who make a living from it. Car servicing and repairs not only cost you money—while your wheels are in the garage, your mobility and convenience take a hit, too. There’s just one thing worse than maintaining your assets. Not maintaining them.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
Whatever value your assets generate, they’re not much good to anyone when they’re broken or unexpectedly in the repair shop. It’s the job of maintenance to support production, and we often lose this idea both in the executive suite and within the maintenance function itself. Some beancounter, aided and abetted by a reputable management consultancy, looks to save some beans by deciding that, for example, the interval between major maintenance events can be extended, with the effect of reducing short-term costs.
Things go well for a while. Then Murphy comes to pay a visit—when you least need or want him around. Your production losses turn out to be catastrophic, with rehabilitation of the ailing plant costing twice as much as it would have had you done the work when originally called for. Or perhaps operations falls behind in their production numbers and insist they cannot hand over a particular piece of kit for routine work until they have overcome their backlog. Maintenance shrugs, knowing that they are a cost, and cannot hold sway over moneymaking production, so they stand down or reassign their crews. Murphy once again turns to mock the optimists.
“Murphy comes to pay a visit—when
you least need or want him around”
But, there’s another systemic problem we need to address. No one can know when a particular piece of equipment is going to fail—it’s a matter of probability. Furthermore, even if you have a reasonable handle on the interval between failures, and set your maintenance routines to align within those intervals, you rarely get to run a maintenance event which deals with only one item.
For example, you take your car in for a service. The very friendly mechanic says he’ll phone once he’s done the diagnostics. You get the call and he tells you the tyres all need changing. You give him the OK and, keeping a tally of the cost, you ask if there’s anything else. Adopting a tone of sincere regret, he lets you know that the brake linings, while good for now, have probably got only another couple of thousand kilometres left on them. The frugal you wants to get every last millimetre of wear from your brakes, but the practical you knows that this will mean taking the car back to the garage in a few weeks, with all the hassle that entails.
The truth is that there’s not a maintenance function in the world that can afford all the resources they require to deal with every contingency afflicting production. The real issue is about changing, from the shop floor to the boardroom, the prevailing mindset about maintenance. What is seen by many as a ‘regret cost’ must be seen, through a new lens, as a ‘throughput enabler’. You simply can’t optimise production without accounting for maintenance.
The starting point is to appreciate that, whatever you’re producing, the value created is a consequence of innumerable interactions in a complex system of buying, making, distributing and selling. No matter how complex the system, the Theory of Constraints (TOC) can help simplify sense- and decision-making through its fundamental premise that all systems have a constraint which governs the rate at which value flows.
“All systems have a constraint which
governs the rate at which value flows”
From TOC, we can use the 5-Step FOCUS to find the constraint, optimise its contribution to the goal and collaborate around that proposition, both now and in the future. Appreciation for a system lets ‘maintenance’ and ‘production’ understand that collaboration is a prerequisite of outsized success. TOC provides the practical means by which these two functional silos, together, turn the intention of productive collaboration into reality.
Industrial enterprises need to tightly synchronise how they apply resources to the challenges of production. Are the right people with the right skills mobilised and ready to do the work? Do we have the materials, by way of parts and equipment? Are our finances in order to pay in a timely way for all the products and services provided as vendor inputs? Do our information systems provide us with everything we need to plan the work and work the plan?
TOC has in its armoury three ‘proven’ solutions to deal with the complexity of scheduling: Critical Chain project management, Drum Buffer Rope production management and Dynamic Buffer Management for replenishment. They are proven in the sense that they are grounded in sound reasoning and also have a treasure trove of empirical evidence supporting the claim to delivery of outsized results.
How would a transformation to systems thinking and its practical partner, TOC, be delivered? I have been doing this kind of work for decades now and, unfortunately, there’s no easy off-the-peg solution. It’s as much about cultural and org design changes as about operations. So, you start with a discovery. What’s the context within which your business is currently operating and what are the drivers of success? What are the formal and informal methods you use for planning and controlling both routine and heavy maintenance? What do the people who use the current systems think about it?
Bring a cross-section of maintenance and production folk together into a room and explore the issue from all perspectives: planners, operators, maintainers, asset strategists, engineers, inventory managers, procurement officers, finance people and the like. Be bold and get some of your critical contractors into the room and involve them in the conversation.
“You cannot bring innovation to productivity
without introducing new knowledge”
The truth is that you cannot bring innovation to productivity without introducing new knowledge to the people who will be leading and participating in the transformation. Being intentional in educating your team in the principles and practices of systems thinking in general, and more specifically in TOC, will challenge their thinking. They will then be capable of championing the transition from the generalisations of the methods taught, to the specifics of your particular circumstance. Bringing about a new way of thinking is much more than merely training people in the technique of a given method. Providing education encourages the development of critical thinking skills and sharpens the ability to argue any point, grounded in reason.
All of this effort would amount to nothing if it didn’t address the adverse effects of poor performance: unplanned breakdowns, production losses, unbudgeted costs, unnecessarily long turn-times and late return to service. These negatives can severely impact your reputation and hamper your ability to make a case for a change in approach to maintenance: from regret cost to throughput enabler.
In adopting the systems thinking approach to maintenance, backed up by TOC operations management, you can be sure you’ll achieve better outcomes than you previously believed were reasonable or possible. You can effectively minimise backlogs and achieve extraordinary adherence to schedule, with all of its cost and downstream benefits. Having the courage to bring new ways of working to the maintenance domain will burnish your reputation as an inspiring and capable managerial leader and fill you with a deep sense of satisfaction from the multifaceted achievements of doing meaningful work.
Wouldn’t it be something to go from being a hands-on manager, exhausted by having to relentlessly arbitrate the production versus maintenance clashes, to being an inspiring dynamo who encourages those two worlds to learn how to harmonise their efforts by giving primacy to the whole?
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[Background image: man opening valve on large plant, Shutterstock]
“A gain at the constraint is a gain for the system as a whole.”
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