Zen and the Art of Managing
Paul V. Arnold, MRO
For a half-century, the United States Postal Service hired
so many maintenance employees with military experience that
it was seen as the final tour of duty for many technically
oriented American servicemen.
Maintenance managers - some of whom were former officers
in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines - generally led with
the same abrasive, authoritative style that worked to prepare
soldiers for battle. Maintenance departments were structured,
disciplined and technically excellent, but as flexible, nurturing
and cooperative as a Sherman tank. Managers were their own
So here's Rex Gallaher, the manager of the United States
Postal Service's Maintenance Technical Support Center - figuratively,
a commander in the USPS maintenance corps - addressing industry
leaders at a professional organization's national conference
Gallaher states: "Our approach to employees should be to
embrace their diversity, know their needs, understand their
motivation, provide work and an environment that allows unfettered
expression and creativity, and realize that the end result
is spiritual satisfaction for the employee and high-quality
work for the company."
Unfettered expression and spiritual satisfaction? How does
this relate to managing a maintenance department, especially
one in the U.S. Postal Service?
Open your mind. Take a page from the Zen Buddhist monks who
preach: When you are quiet and listen, you become aware of
sounds not normally heard.
USPS maintenance leaders are listening and beginning to understand
that maintenance success doesn't come through closed minds
and closed doors.
It comes through addressing the needs of others. It comes
through a series of Zen-like universal truths.
Universal truth No. 1: "Change
comes from within"
Perhaps the best example of the Postal Service's altered
approach to maintenance management is found at its 318,000-square-foot
processing and distribution plant in Salt Lake City.
There, Dennis Dierks oversees a crew of 163 maintenance workers.
The former Air Force serviceman recently replaced another ex-USAF
airman, Ray Darragh, who was promoted to field support specialist
for the corporate-level Maintenance Technical Support Center
"The organization's military atmosphere worked just fine
for me. I was used to it," says Dierks. "But, the generation
gap is very large now (50 percent of Salt Lake City USPS maintenance
employees will reach retirement age by 2005). Very few young
people coming in have been in the military. That's totally
foreign to them. What I grew up with and what was OK for me
won't work on these people."
Darragh adds: "I used to be very regimented. But to survive
as a manager today, you have to utilize the soft skills."
In other words, talk and listen to employees. Understand
their fears, wants and dreams. And, help them grow personally
Such tenets are incorporated into the Salt Lake City maintenance
department's mission and vision statements. Included is management's
role in developing employees by fostering an environment of
continuous learning, empowerment and teamwork.
Added to the technical skills always present in USPS maintenance
employees, it's turned a very good team into one plant manager
Gus Chaus says "matches up with any maintenance crew in the
Universal truth No. 2: "Pulling out the weeds gives
nourishment to the plant"
The U.S. Army is famous for its "be all that you can be" slogan.
But, a wide variety of manager-sponsored learning opportunities
helps USPS maintenance workers in Salt Lake City be all they
want to be.
"We challenge people to learn more, so they aren't stagnant
and doing the same things over and over," says Darragh.
Continuous learning is emphasized so much that the maintenance
department often looks like a college campus.
Workers stop by a maintenance library whenever they have
a need. The library houses:
- shelves of technical journals;
- computers with access to MTSC's Web resources, including
Maintenance Information Online (MIOL) and Maintenance Expert
- a television to watch distance learning classes from the
Postal Satellite Training Network (PSTN);
- and, a VCR to play technical or safety training tapes.
Workers also receive instruction through the Postal Audio
Training Network (PATN), distance learning classes utilizing
a speaker and microphone system. Managers also regularly schedule
workers for training at the National Center for Employee Development,
the Postal Service's state-of-the-art training center in Norman,
"It's like they earn a full scholarship when they work for
us," says Darragh. "We pay for everything."
While employees can volunteer for as much training as they
want, Dierks tries to schedule four to six training opportunities
per employee each year.
"This is an extremely high-tech plant," says Darragh about
the facility, which houses 44 pieces of automation-heavy production
equipment and major systems. "Without good, educated, trained
employees on the floor, this plant wouldn't function."
Workers benefit since this education gives them marketable
skills within and outside the company. And, a Maintenance Leadership
Development Program prepares exceptional students for USPS
Universal truth No. 3: "Become one
with the activity, engage in it fully, to see and appreciate
During his stint in Salt Lake City, Darragh also worked to
remove drudgery and increase employee creativity by developing
equipment reliability groups.
In the past, says Darragh, maintenance employees punched
in, received work from supervisors and worked on equipment.
They got additional work orders from bosses later in the day
and punched out at the end of the shift. Every day was the
In the equipment reliability group (ERG) system, a team of
three maintenance workers (a Level 5 and Level 7 mechanic and
a Level 9 electronics technician) is responsible for a group
of equipment. An ERG makes its own schedule for a shift, tackles
work that must get done and has the latitude to change standard
procedures for maintaining and optimizing those machines.
"They like it because they have a say on what's going on," he
Universal truth No. 4: "You cannot bend the wind;
you can move the sails"
Limiting the team concept to maintenance would only address
half the equation. Communication breakdowns also occurred between
maintenance and operations.
"Maintenance's idea of what its role was supposed to be differed
from what operations believed maintenance's role should be," says
Maintenance was focused on equipment uptime, doing preventive
chores and fixing machines.
Operations wanted maintenance focused on getting mail out
the door. It wanted maintenance to track customer service,
and machine productivity and throughput.
It created a sizeable rift.
Teamwork began to take shape when Darragh instituted ERGs
and followed it up with cross-department Automation Proficiency
Improvement training. Support from operations managers Walter
Lujan and Jerry Johnston triggered API's success.
"It's important to train maintenance and operations employees
at the same time on the proper way to care for the equipment," Lujan
says. "They have to speak the same language."
The logical next step was adopting one trackable, meaningful
performance metric for both departments. Darragh introduced
overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). This metric is a combination
of three factors expressed as a percentage:
- Equipment availability: The amount of available time actually
used for production.
- Performance efficiency: The rate at which the equipment
ran compared with its design speed.
- Quality rate: The proportion of mail processed without
Salt Lake City OEE, currently greater than 70 percent, has
risen more than 20 percent in the past year. World-class OEE
is 85 percent.
"With OEE, everybody has a voice and everybody is heard," says
Adds Chaus: "Maintenance employees get feedback from operators
now in regard to how they're doing. In the past, I don't think
the general electronics technicians on the floor ever got any
feedback on how they individually contributed."
Dierks gets philosophical in describing the current setup.
"I view it like we're a NASCAR team," he says. "Plant management
is the cars' owners, the operators are the drivers and maintenance
is the pit crew."
Led by its managers, this maintenance department is marching
to a different beat. If you're quiet and listen, you can probably