Answers on LinkedIn: Lean, Continuous Improvement and the Maintenance Department

(Note: this is an occasional series in which I review a question posed in a LinkedIn group I belong to. In the group, I provide a brief answer and I expand upon it here. This question was posed in the Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma and Lean group.)

Question: How Do Continuous Improvement Management Philosophies Relate to the Maintenance Function? Most of us have heard terms such Lean Manufacturing, the 80/20 rule, TQM (Total Quality Management), TPS (Toyota Production System), Kaizen, 5S and TPM (Total Productive Maintenance). They are all management philosophies that can be applied to the practical aspects of a business including the maintenance function, but quite often maintenance becomes a passenger in a business’ effort to apply new philosophies.

My Expanded Answer: most maintenance departments would be happy to find they were “only” passengers in the business’ effort to apply Lean or other programs. More commonly, maintenance departments find themselves deluged with work orders and requests to move, remove and fix items to make other departments more functional.

But Maintenance can play a major role in the improvement process—and be a beneficiary of the improvement processes being implemented.

A critical component of an organization-wide improvement focus is recognizing the value of internal customer service. This is often referred to as “hearing the Voice of the Customer.” Most organizations can identify essential supplier-customer relationships within. Most see Maintenance as a supplier: Maintenance supplies the other departments by keeping machines and facilities in good working order. But in every supplier-customer relationship, there is a reciprocal supplier-customer relationship. So while Maintenance is a supplier to the other departments, it is also a customer to those same departments.

Let me give you a simple example: Maintenance gets a call from Production; “my machine is broken, fix it!” Reasonable request, so Maintenance arrives with a cart full of tools and parts, not knowing which tools and parts are necessary (or if other tools or parts will have to be retrieved). Now if Maintenance received a more detailed explanation of the problem, their job would be easier (bring the right parts and tools to the job) and the Production group would have its machine back in operation.

At the core of any supplier-customer relationship is understanding exactly what the supplier brings to the customer (think in terms of a product, even if the “product” is a service). In terms of Maintenance, the product they deliver to other departments is maximum operational time (up-time). So what does (or can) Maintenance receive as a reciprocal customer to improve their customer service?

There are a few answers, most of which fall under the category of “information.” Of course, getting a clear description of what has broken would be more helpful than “my machine is broken.” But Maintenance’s customers can supply much more information. For example, they can learn the signs of deterioration of a component, watch for the signs and alert Maintenance in advance of an actual breakdown. They can also take on some of the less rigorous and involved preventive maintenance actions. Many of you reading will recognize I am discussing elements of Total Productive Maintenance.

Maintenance, like any department in the organization, plays a significant and unique role in the department meeting its mission, even though they may not produce or ship the organization’s product. For a continuous improvement initiative to achieve its full value, every department (including Maintenance) must identify its role and how it aids the other departments in meeting their missions. There is no room for passengers on the Lean bus.

Additionally, there are many tools that can be implemented within the Maintenance department (i.e., physical location) that make for a smoother, cleaner, safer operation. 5S is an excellent example. But the tools should be the dependent variable: the mission and how to best accomplishment must be the focus of improvement, and tools brought to use only after the benefit from use of the tool is defined and quantified.

I hope this is helpful. The same principle (the reciprocal supplier-customer relationships) applies regardless of department. Achieving lasting, meaningful continuous improvement depends on these relationships being identified and maximized. Please respond with your thoughts,

Mr. Procedure

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About Tim James "Mr. Procedure"

A communicator; all-purpose capability in writing, designing and presenting training for all facets of organizational function. While my focus has been manufacturing, my training/development experience includes supervisory and lead person development, audit processes, continuous improvement and Lean, and Quality Management System implementation.
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