Shock Treatment

Sometimes you need a jolt! Sometimes a perfectly healthy person will jump out of an airplane or go on a rollercoaster. Well, sometimes a maintenance department, even a well-motivated one, needs a jolt, too.

Is it time for an intervention to get people’s attention?

In selected settings letting the people see the boss as a person can be an excellent intervention. Joe Costa, a lead mechanic at Angus Biotech Inc. in California, felt motivated when one of the bosses took off his suit and got down in the ditch.

“It was a hot, sweaty, filthy job,” Costa said. “We were working 12 hour shifts seven days a week to complete the shutdown work. All of the upper management would walk by and criticize this or that but never got too close. The chief engineer decided to jump in and work with us. He supervised from the inside, took his meals with us, and worked shoulder to shoulder with the men. Morale skyrocketed. Our whole view of top management shifted. He really showed us he was a regular person and could keep up with us to boot.”

Challenge is a great way to jump-start projects. Competition between groups can be effective and enlivening for the workgroup. William Castro, the maintenance manager of Ibis Systems, set up the following challenge:

“I gave each person an area of responsibility. We developed a Trouble Failure report that indicates the amount and reason for downtime. Each area competed for the lowest downtime statistics. People really started to take an active interest in the areas after the competition started.”

Sometimes the challenge is against bringing in an outside contractor. The maintenance workforce is told, in so many words, they are not trusted for this important job. Charles Jones, a first-class maintenance mechanic for E-Systems Melpar Division in Virginia, relates an unintentional challenge that was an effective motivator:

“Last summer our 450-ton chiller went down. The manager panicked and wanted to immediately call a contractor. I convinced them that we had the skills to do a good job in less time at a substantial savings. I told our people that management didn’t think we could do the job. We rebuilt the motor and had the chiller back on line within one day at significant savings.”

Sometimes when there is a problem the supervisor needs to ‘hit everyone over the head with a 2X4’ through the judicious use of drama. Continental Mills in Seattle had such a problem with wasted product. The plant engineer, Dave Sloan, related this story:

“The president called a plant meeting and explained that we were losing $45,000 worth of product each month. He opened a case and proceeded to dump 45,000 one dollar bills into a garbage can while saying ‘this is what we are doing with our product.’ The impact was amazing. Our waste dropped 50 percent the next month and has continued to improve since.”

When motivation within a work group is undermined by an abrasive personality, reassignment, rotation, or transfer of the discontented party can restore the workgroup’s motivation level. Ron Vanderpool worked with a shop steward whose nit-picking attitude affected the crew in a negative way. The organization was also suffering from quality problems. Ron suggested that management “Appoint an hourly employee to the quality program at the finish end of the process (where the steward was senior).” He then sold the program to the steward, who really liked this type of input. Quality went up sharply while the steward got to nit pick in a way that helped the organization.

Survival is a powerful motivator. When threatened with certain lay-off, C. Bostic of Hercules, Inc. went to management to save his people’s jobs:

“We formed a seven-person central day crew to do construction jobs presently being done by contractors. Management bought the idea and started the project the very next week.” The supervisor solved the lay-off problem and management looked good to the workers.

Sometimes low motivation levels are the result of work which underutilizes people’s capabilities. Marvin Barry from Ocean Construction Supplies in Maple Ridge Canada remembers when “Our mixer operators were becoming tired and started missing lubrication points and missing inspections. To create more interest we rotated the people through several parts of the plant and through some nearby plants. The rotations seemed to spark enough interest that the work was done well and the people seemed happier.”

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.