The dollars and sense of work management

David Bair, a project manager with Reliability Management Group, writes about establishing effective methods of managing labor and other costs.

By David M. Bair, Reliability Management Group

September 26, 2001 — Many people have sat at home in the evening working on the household budget. As the numbers in "costs" column reliably exceed the "income", we respond, "If we only had a little bit more money." This is the mantra of many lives in this material world.

What gets us into this mess is usually a lack of discipline. This discipline may be in accounting for our spending, living within our means, or the all too common credit card. As our debt grows, so do our expenses as we pay more and more in interest and less and less toward the actual products we purchased.

This situation is very common for many of us in our personal lives, but we often neglect noticing that this same type of thing is happening in our plants. It doesn't matter whether your plant is power generation, chemical, petroleum or in-line manufacturing. The symptoms are the same across many different industries. When it comes to maintaining our equipment, there never seems to be enough manpower to do all the work. How many Maintenance Managers have uttered, "If only I had a couple more guys." In this analogy, labor is the commodity that we are budgeting, just like the dollars in our household budget.

Often times we are in a situation where we are paying the interest of maintenance (Emergency work) more than we are paying on the principle (Proactive Maintenance) of the equipment. This means that we are investing resources, but we are not increasing reliability. While some may wish for more maintenance resources to combat the ever failing equipment, others would suggest that better proactive maintenance practices would solve the problem. While this sounds like good advice, we are left with the question, "How can I invest in my preventive and predictive programs when I can barely keep up with the emergencies?"

The answer is a short-term investment in improving overall work management practices, especially work planning and work scheduling. Better planning and scheduling is a proven aide to improving maintenance efficiency. This improved efficiency enables the additional investment in the effectiveness strategy: proactive maintenance and problem solving.

Just like we may be willing to get a second job or work overtime for a while, we must be willing to invest the additional effort to improving work management in the plant. Typically, a good work management improvement effort takes anywhere from nine to eighteen months of focused dedication. While this may seem like a long time, benefits are often seen within the first six months that can mitigate the additional effort being applied. The choice is to live in work-debt for years or commit to a relatively quick recovery.

So, how does better planning and scheduling actually help eliminate emergencies? There are several direct ways:

* Solve the root-cause problem the first time.

* Use the right resources to do the right work at the right time.

* Work on the most important work, not the most urgent.

* Break the schedule only for true emergencies

Solve the root-cause problem the first time. If the job is properly scoped and planned, then the real problem is more likely to be identified. For example, a work request may state that a valve is leaking. The real problem may be that the valve is not rated to handle the pressure fluctuations in the line. Therefore, the solution may be to install a pressure regulator in the line or a valve that is designed to handle that environment. However, without planning, it is more likely that the valve will be repaired just like it has been every other time it leaked. In that example, a few minutes planning could save many hours of rework and many dollars in parts.

Use the right resources to do the right work at the right time. Improved scheduling allows the right resources to be applied to the right work at the right time, and at the same time. This means reducing the amount of time lost to searching for parts, waiting for equipment to be ready, or waiting on the support craft. It is typical for a craft to spend numerous hours in a week searching for parts needed for a job. If those, and other details, are coordinated ahead of time, then the time to do the job can be reduced. Also, if work is scheduled, then the best craft can be assigned the job rather than taking anybody who is available at the time of the emergency.

Work on the most important work, not the most urgent. It is very common that the most vocal department gets the best response from the maintenance department. Also, the work that gets done today is the work most recently identified that seems very urgent. The price of this practice is that the important work of preventive and predictive maintenance gets delayed. "No big deal, we can change the oil tomorrow just as well as today." While this may be true, tomorrow never comes and the oil never gets changed, leading to eventual equipment failure. This applies to corrective work orders as well. Remember that work was identified because it needed to be done. The longer the backlog is neglected, the more that work becomes emergent.

Break the schedule only for true emergencies. Scheduling is as much a practice of commitment as it is an organizational skill. The technical aspect of scheduling may seem overwhelming to some and commonplace to others. This aside, the real success of scheduling comes when everyone in the plant is committed to protecting the schedule. Often times, this commitment shows that what appeared to be an emergency in the past really is not all that important, or urgent. In the past, it was easy to call maintenance and have them come running to fix every little thing and there was no accountability to the added cost of reduced efficiency. If all departments commit to the schedule, and are held accountable to it, then the small "pet projects" get pushed back to their rightful place in the backlog rather than being first on the list.

While planning and scheduling may be the way out of our debt, it is not the whole solution to the problem. The real key to long-term success is to improve equipment reliability. Planning and scheduling helps overall reliability, but only in small ways. Equipment reliability is truly affected by problem solving and better proactive maintenance.

The danger with knowing this is that many people attempt to implement better proactive maintenance without mastering the basics of work management such as planning and scheduling of work. Companies initiate an RCM program hoping it will solve all their problems, then discover that they do not have the foundation to support the program. If the work management process lacks the discipline required to plan and schedule work, it is unlikely that the results of the RCM analysis will be effectively implemented and sustained. Proactive maintenance programs are extremely desirable and profitable, but they are not the first things to fix.

So, when we realize that our labor "budget" is out of balance, our first response may be that we need more resources, but that is not a likely solution in today's business climate. What is needed is to make more resources available to work on important tasks. This efficiency gain can reliably be made through better planning and scheduling of our daily work. When this efficiency is realized, we can then focus our new-found time on reliability enhancing processes such as proactive maintenance and problem solving. This focus on improving our work effectiveness helps to reduce emergencies and therefore frees up even more lost time. Once this cycle is properly implemented and instilled in the culture, then the plant can experience a spiral of continuous improvement, rather than the all too familiar spiral of decay. Just as we are willing to commit to providing the best for our families, it is time that we invest in improving our work place as well.

David M. Bair is a Project Manager with Reliability Management Group. He has experience in managing computer systems and work management implementation projects. At RMG, he has worked with power generation, oil refining, paper and chemical industries working on operational and organizational reliability. For more information contact him at 952.882.8122 or dbair@rmgmpls.com.

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