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.
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.
4. Starting a Lean-maintenance Initiative Before Employees are on Board
The key here is consistency, and again, upper management can be your best asset. When executives endorse a project -- not once or twice, but repeatedly, week after week -- and are visibly engaged, it goes a long way to convince plant personnel that this is not just another project du jour, but a strategy for the long haul.
Support down the corporate ladder is critical, as well. Lean maintenance is built around the notion of employee empowerment -- a concept that can be very intimidating for maintenance shift supervisors who are used to being in charge. By allowing recommendations and changes to bubble up from the lowest level, supervisors can feel they're losing control. To counter this, convince your managers that the net result of a lean program is more engaged, enthusiastic and responsive workers -- something that every supervisor strives for.
Supportive supervisors are more likely to consistently review information, ask questions and affirm lean procedures with your operators and maintenance workers. All it takes is for a week to go by without such interaction, and people will think the program is not all that important. Consistency and reinforcement are essential.
As you accumulate successes in your program, also make sure you recognize the people responsible. Remember, you're changing the culture as much as you're creating efficiency and value. Positive reinforcement, especially for naysayers, is the most powerful tool you have.
5. Relying on Great Intentions Instead of Necessary Resources
As they say, "the road to failure is paved with good intentions." To get your maintenance personnel excited, you have to invest in training and materials, as well as administrative support. Obtain a good CMMS to collect data, and provide your workers with any new tools or supplies that may be warranted.
What's more, if your team is convinced that a structural change is needed -- for example, moving a piece of equipment -- don't dampen their enthusiasm by letting the idea get bogged down in red tape. Gain the necessary approvals to make it happen.
When you talk with a maintenance worker, listen to his ideas and give him an opportunity to implement his recommendations, you'll be amazed at the ideas that arise. There is an enormous amount of potential in your people, but if they're disengaged, that potential may never be realized. In the world of lean maintenance -- as with so many areas of life -- the biggest part of seeing results, is simply asking for it.
Mike Fitzgerald is director of Lean and Reliability Services for Advanced Technology Services, a Peoria, Ill.-based provider of production equipment maintenance services.