Maintenance = Value

If maintenance departments are an expense only, how does an expense contribute to the success of the enterprise? A good expense is a dead (zero) expense. Do you see the uphill battle implicit in changing that conversation?

When we look at other businesses we can see this idea at work. It would be pretty crazy to look at your 40-man football team and tell the defensive players that they don't add value to the product (value in this case being the points on the scoreboard). The owner could save some real money on salaries without all those defensive linemen (not to mention the reduction in catering costs if you don't have to feed them).

OK, let's admit it would be crazy to run a football team without defense. If we translate the way companies view maintenance to the way football is managed, we would want as few defensemen as possible, pay them as little as possible, maybe even be creative and make one defense squad play for two different teams. By the way, if the team loses we would downsize the defense.

Plays would be handled differently because of course we wouldn't try to design defensive strategies. If there is any defensive design it would be done by the defenders themselves without resources or support from management. From a management point of view, when the ball is snapped the whole squad should run howling toward the ball (they are sure the howling would help morale).

Forget training and recruiting; just hire bodies. Especially forget respect. These folks don't contribute toward the score on the scoreboard. If times get tough, get rid of them altogether. It seems pretty silly in football. It's not silly in maintenance; unfortunately it is a way of life for some of us.

The all-too-frequent conversation of being a necessary evil greatly limits the contribution of maintenance to the success of the enterprise. We have to think up new conversations to take the place of the old. We have to think up new conversations that make more sense.

We could try out some new conversations right here. What if the conversation went something like this: We have different groups that support production and each contributes their specific expertise. The only issues are, "Does each group's specialized knowledge and skills contribute more to the bottom line than their cost? Is their expertise essential to the long term success and enhanced profitability of the organization?"

Let's look at a few of the players in a typical corporation. Lawyers contribute legal expertise. Accountants contribute accounting expertise. This seems pretty simple. If you have an accounting question you ask one of their experts. Likewise if you have a process question, an environmental question, or even a question about trash, you go to the person who covers that area. The trend today is to get rid of the expertise and use outside consultants. The outcome is the same; you want the specialist's advice to be more valuable than what you pay.

Of course at different sizes of organizations different expertise becomes important. In the 1980's I worked on a project to computerize the fleet maintenance operation of Federal Express. At the time FedEx operated 47,000 light trucks. They bought software from COSTROL, designed by Jay Butler, and it was the most advanced package of its day. Yet FedEx spent the money and time to continually tweak the package in order to wring out a few more percent of benefits. After all, a small increase in the savings for 47,000 vehicles was quite a bit of money. In the case of large companies the specialized knowledge was worth it since the potential savings was so large.

The whole issue of using experts is not black and white. Business needs may trump expertise. For example, the lawyers say that such-and-such is the way to structure an acquisition deal, but the president decides to structure the deal differently. As long as the decision is within the law, the lawyers will support the CEO.

We have to answer the question, "What do we contribute to the success of the organization?" Once we identify the contribution, are we positioned to make a maximal contribution based out our present skills, knowledge and attitudes? We also return to the question, "Does this specialized knowledge and skills contribute more to the bottom line than its cost?"

Some departments are experts in repairing breakdowns. This is the historical role of maintenance. They can fix just about anything. They have deep and subtle expertise in broken things, how things break and how to put them back together. And especially they know how to do that in the shortest time and with the least cost. There is no dishonor in contributing this expertise to the success of the organization. Fixing breakdowns is a real, valuable and essential expertise that is duplicated nowhere else in the company.

Consider this: most doctors are also experts in breakdowns. They troubleshoot the problem and if it is possible, propose a fix. They are done with their work (you are discharged) when the disease is gone from your system. In truth, very little of a doctor's training or practice is concerned with health. Mostly they wrestle with and hope to cure disease. And often that's enough; believe me, when you are sick you don't want a lecture on preventative maintenance telling you that you should have given up smoking 10 years ago. You want action now.

Yet medicine is changing, as is maintenance.

The new, improved conversation might revolve around the idea that the contribution of the maintenance department to the success of the company is its expertise in asset, machine and unit health. We know how fast and how long to run the equipment in order to maximize profit. We are the folks who know what should be done for maximum equipment life, minimizing long term cost. In short, we are the high priests of the balance between production and equipment integrity.

Joel Levitt has trained over 6,000 maintenance leaders from over 3,000 organizations. Since 1980, he has been the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services a variety of clients on a wide range of maintenance issues.