Management: Conversations of Maintenance

What's the maintenance conversation in your shop?


What stands in the way of us being greater people or even leaders in our field? Is it lack of talent, discipline, opportunity, genetics, contacts or intention? I’d like to take a sidewise stab at this by asking how many of you have raised kids?

Then I’ll ask how many of you have ever argued with your kids for their greatness, competence and beauty while they argued back for their smallness, incompetence and plainness. What is going on here? If you could hear the conversation you would hear the story they tell themselves about themselves that disempowers them.

How can internal conversations make them feel incompetent? These conversations that they are stupid, clumsy or ugly completely inform the limits or edges of what they can do and what they can’t do in the world. The scary thing is that It doesn’t matter if the conversation is true or not. Think about it: if a girl thinks she is ugly or a boy thinks he is bad at sports or reading or whatever, that thought will regulate how they act, what they try. She could be beautiful and he can be graceful and powerful in reality, but that reality makes no difference to the kid. Their thoughts rule. Those thoughts become a prison that takes a great deal of energy to break out of.

What does all this have to do with managing maintenance? Is it possible that the limits to our greatness and the greatness of our department have to do with conversations about maintenance that we believe and repeat to ourselves? What if the reason we are the way we are is because there are conversations that we have adopted?

There are out-front or visible conversations, like ones about driver safety or production. Another way to get at this is, if someone is hired on, what stories will they hear during the breaks and lunches when everyone is just hanging out?

There are also invisible or hidden conversations, like ones concerning who you trust or who is incompetent. What are the conversations that a new manager will never hear? Is there an impact of these behind-the-scenes conversations?

One example of a generally visible, but below the radar, or sometimes hidden conversation is that maintenance is a necessary evil. That translates to the fact that you, on your best day, are just an expense and an evil that is necessary but unwanted.

What impact does this conversation have on real behavior? How do you act as a necessary evil? Is this the basis of a long term powerful relationship? How do you contribute as a necessary evil and why would you want to?

Part of this is that maintenance doesn’t contribute to the manufacture or delivery of anything. We are an expense only. How does an expense act or contribute to the success of the enterprise?

Do you see the uphill battle?

What if the conversation was something like this? We have different groups that support production and each contributes their specific expertise. This expertise is essential to the success and profitability of the organization. Lawyers contribute legal expertise, accountants contribute accounting expertise.

What do we contribute?

Some departments are experts in repairing breakdowns. This is the historical role of maintenance. 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 even essential expertise that is duplicated nowhere else in the company.

Consider that most doctors are also experts in breakdowns. They troubleshoot the problem and, if possible, propose a fix. Some specialize in the instrumentation and controls—the neurologists—while others are plumbers—the cardiologists and urologists—and still others are the carpenters—such as the orthopedists. Very little of a doctor’s training or practice is concerned with health. Mostly they wrestle with and hopefully cure disease.

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