Zen and the Art of Managing Maintenance

by Paul V. Arnold, MRO Today
Posted 9/18/2003

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 worst enemy.

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 last year.

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 (MTSC).

“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 and professionally.

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 country.”

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 (MaX) Diagnostics;
  • 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, Okla.

“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 management positions.

Universal truth No. 3: “Become one with the activity, engage in it fully, to see and appreciate all details”

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 same routine.

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 says.

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 Chaus.

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:

  1. Equipment availability: The amount of available time actually used for production.
  2. Performance efficiency: The rate at which the equipment ran compared with its design speed.
  3. Quality rate: The proportion of mail processed without problems.

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 Dierks.

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 hear it.

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