Basic solutions that limit the involvement of a slowly dwindling staff are ideal
by Chris Eckert
May 30, 2013

It seems strange to be thankful for problems. However, solving problems is what maintenance professionals are paid to do. Whether it is finding ways to make a facility run more reliably, designing a structure with limited time and money, or managing a group of 75 employees, each day the average employee is faced with multiple problems that must be resolved. Those who are successful at solving problems are usually successful in their careers. While not new, the strategies that successful people use to solve today’s problems are changing.

Doing More with Less
A dynamic in the new industry reality is the change of pace at which improvements and problem solving is expected to occur. Another is the rate at which the resources available to solve them are becoming harder to secure, especially human resources. “Do more with less” is now business as usual. Increasingly, the strategies that delivered yesterday’s solutions are not working as well, or they are becoming more difficult to implement.

As an engineer on the front lines at a large chemical manufacturing company 25 years ago, I had many internal experts available to help with the challenges I faced. I had no idea how lucky I was. If I needed to know the best alloy to use in a hot, high-pressure, caustic environment, or the most effective way to execute a specialized weld repair outdoors in -20 F temperatures, all I had to do was walk down the hall or, at most, make a phone call. I normally had my answer in minutes or hours. Because of this, my solutions were expert- and skill-centric. I had many bright and talented people who were available to help, so I used them and their skills to craft my solutions.

Today, while people are just as bright and talented in the workforce, less of them are employed. Those who are still in place have less time to help. Accordingly, one’s ability to access the right skills and expertise has been reduced.

Also, fewer people are available to fill the slots where problem solving occurs most effectively—on the front line. When problems are solved at lower levels, they do not grow into larger problems. Because front-line employees are picking up more work that was previously covered by other staff members, their expertise and experience is spread thinner. Another issue is that more time is spent in meetings. The disappearance of skilled trades and technical experts as more baby boomers retire and strategies to combat this drain have been chronicled by maintenance and reliability expert Bob Williamson for the last few years.1

 If this trend continues, what does it mean for tomorrow’s solutions? In short, many good solutions are still available. If maintenance professionals are documenting the causes of their problems, they have options. However, they will be looking at and attacking different causes than they did a few years ago. With decreasing numbers of skilled craftspeople and experts, maintenance and repair professionals must now look for lasting and robust solutions that rely less on people and more on systems, hardware and automation. This trend has been growing for years. However, now it should be one of maintenance professionals’ first considerations. Solutions that begin with “Create new procedure,” “Implement new preventive maintenance (PM),” “Stress the importance of…..” are increasingly less effective and should be avoided if possible. One major reason is that, progressively, these types of tasks are not being accomplished.  

Case Study
As an example of how solution strategies change, consider a problem from the past. A large, multi-belt-driven centrifugal fan using pillow block bearings to support the off-hung fan wheel experienced repeat bearing and belt failures, which resulted in significant downtime. Because of the relatively high speed and operational loads, the bearings were already heavily loaded and had experienced prior lubrication failures.

The installation and tensioning of belts is critical. Too much tension results in additional radial bearing load and accelerates failure. If too little belt tension is applied, the belts slip, resulting in premature belt failure. Figure 1 illustrates a basic cause-and-effect chart.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Fan failure basic cause-and-effect chart


Note: Transitory causes in Figure 1 are related to “changes” and are often the result of forces applied, movements, actions, decisions, etc. Non-transitory causes are related to the status, properties and conditions of objects or the operating environment at the time the change takes place.

The past solutions were:

Assure that the bearings were of the proper speed/load rating.

Work with a lube technician to implement new PM to grease the bearings on a specific interval with specific volumes.

Work with the machinists to deploy a written and specific procedure for initial belt tensioning with a follow-up re-tension after run-in.

Today, when faced with the same problem, the same solutions should not be implemented. First, the maintenance professional should go back to the cause-and-effect chart and drill deeper (see Figure 2). He/she should look for additional causes that can be attacked with solutions.