Improvement: What Comes First?

Improvement: What Comes First?

Christer Idhammar, Founder IDCON INC

I often receive the question: What do we improve first? Do we start with root cause problem elimination (RCPE) or do we start with preventive maintenance and planning and scheduling?

I use the term RCPE because it is a waste of good initiatives and time to only find the root cause of a problem but not fix it. I like to use the word problem; a more common terminology is root cause failure analysis (RCFA), instead of failure because the word “failure” often leads to a focus on equipment and maintenance. The word “problem” includes all operational, quality, speed, high costs and other losses. To eliminate problems, is a joint responsibility between operations, maintenance and engineering.

Preventive maintenance and planning and scheduling might be two or three different reliability and maintenance processes, but one can not be effective without the other, so here I bundle these processes into one.

The proponents of RCFA often argue that it will solve most problems. Thus, this activity always must come first. I am an advocate for both RCPE and preventive maintenance and planning and scheduling, so I see myself as objective when answering this question.

My viewpoint is that one activity does not exclude the other, but if you do not do your PM and planning and scheduling well, the results of a majority of RCPE work will show the fact that the root cause of many problems is the lack of PM and planning and scheduling. You can always do RCPE on select repetitive and costly problems, but if you want to become as good as you can be in this area, you need to free up time so that your front-line leadership, operators and maintainers acquire necessary skills and have time to solve problems as part of their daily work.

I believe that up to 30 percent of all maintenance hours should be devoted to RCPE. This will be possible if the basic operations and maintenance processes, including PM and planning and scheduling, are executed very well.

To gradually be able to move more effort hours to RCPE is the next step in very good manufacturing organizations. Clearly communicating this as a strategy will remove the threat of becoming more efficient and the perceived negative consequences this can have for a maintenance crew. You will change from a “doing” organization, to a “thinking and doing” organization.

In summary, you need to start with improving PM and planning and scheduling and gradually move more efforts into RCPE at the same time you do RCPE on major problems.

To decide which problems will be the subject of RCPE, you need to set up some triggers to initiate this activity. In a paper mill maintenance organization, the following triggers are often used:

  • High risk for personal injury and/or environmental damage.
  • Production loss in time, quality or speed equivalent to more than three hours production loss in prime tons.
  • Cost in excess of $25,000.

When any of these triggers occur, a problem owner is assigned and a first RCPE report is due within 96 hours.

Recently, I had a follow-up meeting with three different paper mills that had followed this advice. Two of the mills mentioned that to be able to solve any problems at all, they had to raise the trigger from a level of three hours of equivalent production loss in prime tons to the equivalent of eight hours prime tons production loss.

It is important to be realistic and start on the right trigger level and then lower this level gradually as you become better in executing your PM and planning and scheduling.


Christer Idhammar

Christer Idhammar started his career in operations and maintenance 1961. Shortly after, in 1985, he founded IDCON INC in Raleigh North Carolina, USA. IDCON INC is now a TRM company. Today he is a frequent key note and presenter at conferences around the world. Several hundred successful companies around the world have engaged Mr. Idhammar in their reliability improvement initiatives.


  • He received the coveted EUROMAINTENANCE Incentive 2002 award during the biannual EUROMAINTENANCE 2002 conference in Helsinki in June 2002. Among 19 member European countries he was nominated and received the award from EFNMS – European Federation of National Maintenance Societies – for outstanding achievement and worldwide accomplishments in the field of reliability and maintenance.
  • In 2008 he received the Salvetti Foundation Best Speaker all categories award among 154 speakers at Euromaintenance 2008 in Brussels, Belgium
  • In 2013 he received the “Best presentation award” among 120 speakers at Reliability 2.0 conference in Las Vegas.
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