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Manufacturing Workers - These Superheroes Keep Factories Online



Superman, Wonder Woman, or Spider-Man action figures may have captured your attention when you were a kid, but did you ever see action figures for Maintenance Man or Maintenance Woman?


I didn’t think so.


Rarely cast as heroes, members of the maintenance department come to the rescue when a machine is down and it takes superpowers to get it back online. They respond to a crisis with their super-strengths, which include inventiveness, know how, and a wide range of technical skills. Then, like Clark Kent, the maintenance men and women go back to their roles as ordinary characters.


In reality, however, the best factories seem to need no heroic action. Work flows smoothly. Every machine seems to be available when needed and capable of performing its required tasks. There’s no visible drama. No special effects. That’s a sign that maintenance, operations and continuous improvement are going hand in hand. It’s been said that Toyota believes maintenance is one of its hidden weapons. Because it’s invisible, it’s not easy to copy—a reason why the company allows so many visits to its plants.


In the best manufacturing organizations, a maintenance VP sits at the management table along with finance and manufacturing leaders. At those companies, maintenance excellence has management support and adequate resources to keep equipment in good shape and to hire and train engineers and technicians.


Back in 1991, Terry Wireman, consultant and author of 12 books on maintenance, said that manufacturing management saw maintenance as a necessary evil, an overhead expense to be minimized, or a continual cash drain. He felt optimistic, however, when looking back at the 1980s, the decade when quality went from neglect to being Job One. Wireman predicted, “The same transformation will take place with maintenance in the decade of the 90s.”


He was wrong. A couple of decades later, not much has changed. There’s the same reactive maintenance philosophy, no training for operators on proper care of equipment or what to do in abnormal situations, small problems growing into big ones, machines being run to failure. If manufacturing leaders and managers were to dig into the principles of maintenance excellence, they’d find they could save millions in lost productivity and downtime, and eliminate the frequent machine stoppages and occasional catastrophic failures that occur now.



Image Source: Getty Images


Maintenance Man and Maintenance Woman can still put on their action hero capes when they are included in kaizen events—or better still, the continuous form of kaizen. They can fabricate the many visual management tools and mistake-proofing devices that add up to produce peak productivity. They understand how to make machines more reliable and accurate to reduce defects. They improve problem solving because they help teams find equipment-related root causes faster. They understand the importance of standardizing daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance activities, and can teach machine operators how to do many of them.


Shining a spotlight on members of the maintenance team won’t put them in the movies, but awarding them the respect they deserve will go a long way toward achieving manufacturing excellence.

(Click here to read more about Total Productive Maintenance)


Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years. She publishes the blogs, Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.




    November 01, 2012

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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