A chain is only as strong as its weakest link -- but first you have to find the link. For manufacturers embracing lean manufacturing concepts, it often takes months if not years of effort before they realize that machine maintenance is holding back their broader lean goals.

Mike Fitzgerald

It's not uncommon for companies to jump into the lean philosophy, yet not understand how far it will reach into the organization. Equipment maintenance can lie at the very heart of productivity, but at the same time, those responsible for maintenance are often the last employees to be identified and included. Training, motivating and equipping operators and maintenance workers to proactively complete the tasks needed for reliable production capacity is key to successful lean implementation.

With that objective in mind -- and realizing that lean has a cultural as well as functional aspect -- here are five of the most common errors companies make when instilling lean maintenance precepts:

1. Inadequate Measurement Before and After Lean Maintenance Implementation

It's not uncommon for some manufacturing operations to not measure the maintenance function at all. As with all aspects of lean, measurement is critical to continuous-improvement efforts and the sooner your organization begins, the better.

While manual alternatives exist, the best, most efficient and convenient way to track maintenance is with a Computerized Maintenance Management System. With one tool, personnel can compile maintenance records, review work orders, track spare-parts inventory and much more. A CMMS also enables management to make informed decisions about buy versus repair, investments in preventative maintenance and so forth.

If your CMMS doesn't contain timely and complete information, it won't provide the necessary value to your lean maintenance efforts. Therefore, it's important to spend the time creating the work processes and training your workers in order for your CMMS to correctly inform decisions affecting overall operational performance. If you do, the system will give you the metrics you need for process improvement.

2. Lack of Corporate Coaches and Mentors

As anyone with an understanding of lean manufacturing and maintenance principles will tell you, rules and procedures without active management support simply turn into words on a page. Every lean strategy depends on a cultural change at the front lines. To accomplish that, you need coaches and mentors who have the backing of upper-level leadership.

Fancy job titles don't matter for effective coaching. More important is a passion for the process, as well as a thorough knowledge of how to deploy relevant tools and procedures. In a large company, the right person might be a continuous-improvement officer; in smaller operations it might be the plant manager. Either way, an overriding passion is critical in order to help workers weather the hurdles and setbacks that will occur.

3. Starting with the Wrong Project

Oftentimes companies choose something that is too big, too complicated or that impacts too many people, as their first lean maintenance project. Trouble is, if the project plays out poorly the repercussions can jeopardize the future of all your lean initiatives.

Instead, start with a smaller, more achievable project that will be meaningful not only to those who execute it, but also those who are watching. Your more modest success will be an encouraging sign to everyone -- and it will build momentum rather than stall it.

Remember that your maintenance staff can be among the most skeptical workers in your factory. Lean principles can be a tough sell. If you deliberately plan a string of successes, you stand a much better chance of gaining converts and rapidly energizing your transition to lean. Moreover, you'll be more likely to engage your leadership in the success of your lean maintenance efforts.