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Why Reliability Improvement Projects Often Fail

Why Reliability Improvement Projects Often Fail

Torbjörn Idhammar is the president of IDCON INC in Raleigh NC, USA, a reliability and maintenance training and consulting company to manufacturing and process Industry worldwide since 1972.

Unfortunately, I am no longer surprised to see plant reliability and maintenance improvement initiatives abandoned before achieving substantial results. Many organizations we visit recognize the importance of improved reliability and maintenance, but very few have the endurance and focus to achieve long-term results.   

Reliability and maintenance improvements are one of the last major improvements opportunities left in the industry. (Read More) Everyone with access to capital can buy the same equipment and technology, but how productive your plant is will largely depend on the reliability of your process and your equipment. If your equipment runs, you turn out product. If it does not run, employees work harder, your costs are higher, but you are not at peak production. So why does top management not reinforce that even the most basic maintenance practices are better executed over long periods of time, which in turn yields financial results? Perhaps it is lack of patience and reinforcement.
As an example: I recently received a call from a client at a chemical plant in Houston, Texas that IDCON worked with 2003-04. Let’s call him John. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you remember all the hard work we did in 2003?” John said. “We implemented inspection routes, really good planning with a library of standard job plans, we held weekly prioritization meetings and we even analyzed most breakdowns using your ‘How-Can’ method for root cause?”
“Of course, I was there with you,” I responded.
“It’s all gone,” he said.
John explained that they had changed management, and he had no support from corporate. The new plant manager didn’t believe in planners.
“And there you have it,” he said. “You need to come visit. Time to start over.”
The conversation went on, but key is that it only took a new plant manager about 18 months to ruin 11 years of internal improvement work and two years of actively working with a consultant firm (IDCON) implementing a new plan. On a somewhat sad note, this is how maintenance management businesses like ours continue to thrive. If companies stuck with a true reliability course of action, we wouldn’t be needed.  The lack of corporate beliefs regarding reliability is about as close to a root-cause as we can get in identifying unsustainable initiatives.

A comparison between Reliability and Safety

Let’s compare the outcomes of safety improvements with reliability and maintenance improvements: In 1994 the average overall incident rate was 8.7. (Incidents per 200,000 working hours.) Today many plants we work with have an incident rate of below 1. In 23 years this industry reduced overall safety incident rates by about 87 percent.

A study by the University of Tennessee shows that organizations with a high level of reactive maintenance has an OSHA incident rate of 4.36, while top performers with much less reactive maintenance come in at 0.11.

Imagine the results if there were the same focus on reliability. Could you reduce preventable maintenance work and down time by 80-, 50-, 20 percent? A majority of maintenance work is preventable. It can also be executed in half the time—I have seen it happen. The key to such success is long-term consistent leadership, support and reinforcement. In addition to better maintenance productivity and overall higher production, things would be safer.

The phenomenon of safety success and reliability, “flatline,” is recognized by many of us in reliability and maintenance management. This brings us to the first point as to why reliability improvement projects are seldom sustainable.  The lack of consistency and purpose when it comes to reliability and maintenance, not only for plants but also from a corporate perspective.  

Training and Implementation

The fascinating findings illustrated in the graph below are from the American Society for Training and Development. It illustrates what happens if training is not followed by immediate practice and reinforcement. The findings show that 87 percent of what you learn is lost within 30 days—without follow-up. The graph also shows clearly why so many reliability and maintenance improvement initiatives deliver good results, but only about 50 percent of the overall improvement potential.

Training is very good for awareness and understanding, it is a starting point for improvement. However, training without reinforcement is likely to fail. Both reliability and maintenance improvements are behavior driven. If you look at successful safety programs versus unsuccessful ones you will quickly notice that the successful ones focus on individual behavior. The same goes for reliability improvements. At the end of the day, it comes down to the behavior of humankind. For example, you may have documented a perfect inspection route, implemented good KPI’s, trained the worker, etcetera, but if the individual executing the inspection routes doesn’t perform well, a lot of your work is wasted.  

It may help to think of a situation where we try to lose weight or become healthier.  You can probably get information about what to do quite easily.  Most of us need to eat less sugar, less saturated fat, less carbs, more fish, more veggies, and we typically need to exercise more. Overall, these facts apply to most of us.  So, the question is, why don’t we actually do it? It is behavior!  To successfully becoming healthier, most of us need a good coach or manager that follows-up and pushes us. That is why every running team, hockey franchise, and boxing club employs coaches.

Neglecting reliability behaviors and individual performance management is another reason why so many improvement projects fail.

What can organizations do to improve?

I believe the lack of consistency around reliability and maintenance from a corporate level and neglecting individual follow-up in implementation support, performance management, and coaching are major factors that need to be considered in improving today’s industry.

Ideas on Improving the Consistency from Corporate around Reliability

One suggested first step is to create basic reliability beliefs for the corporation. They have to be practical and easy to understand.  They also have to be used as a guide when hiring new personnel, when financial decisions are made and in day-to-day operations.

Focus on what the organization should do, but avoid describing exactly how.  For example, a reliability belief could be: “Work orders will be well planned before they are scheduled” or “We will have clean lubricants in our equipment” or “We will follow the designed work management flowchart.” Focusing on the result instead of telling the plants exactly how to do it, helps organizations as it avoids getting tangled up in partial goals. It will also encourage taking ownership in designing and executing the process.  There may be some corporate standards for doing certain things for the sake of cost efficiency, but reasoning “we have to do it exactly the same way we always have” will yield in no improvements.

The beliefs must be communicated and followed-up on, but most importantly, they have to become a part of the organization.  So, when a plant manager, CEO, or COO is hired, they should first sign off on following the company’s reliability beliefs. Successful companies have implemented reliability beliefs that include training and communication for everyone, of every position. One plant we work with requires reliability training for all employees when hired—they even recently trained their new president.

Ideas on Improving Follow-up, Coaching and Personal Performance

Establishing one-on-one follow-up is crucial for every successful plant.  Some call this performance management, IDCON’s consultants use “RACI follow-up” or “A-R Follow-up”, from the Accountable to Responsible relationship in a RACI chart. Document a work process that defines the agreed-upon way to do work in the plant, where it is clearly defined who is responsible for each step. From these work processes we can create job descriptions for each role in the plant. Ask yourself how often each manager follows up, one-on-one, and how well each person performs in the work process. This is not an annual performance review or a salary discussion, but something that needs to happen more often and in alignment with your organization’s particular ongoing improvement work. Think of it as a discussion a manager has with his/her subordinate in order to remove roadblocks, and check performance based on the agreed-upon work process.
I know you are thinking that I am about to recommend hiring a consultant in the early stages of an improvement initiative—and you are right. Getting an outsider’s expertise can help an organization improve reliability quicker. We have helped hundreds of plants, mines, and mills improve on a much faster track than what can commonly be done internally. Typically, plants need to improve preventive maintenance, planning and scheduling, and spare parts management. But what’s really interesting is that most plants know they need to improve in these areas before the consultant ever steps foot inside. So, if we if know what it is we need to improve, why haven’t we done it already? A consultant can help move things along, infuse new approaches and offer fresh perspectives.

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