Not long ago, the maintenance manager of a world-scale petrochemical plant located off shore sent us a distress message. He detailed the long-term effects of “reengineering” by blindly downsizing the reliability assurance and improvement function in a number of modern plants.
“We are continuously plagued with problems associated with plant rotating equipment and turbomachinery,” he wrote. “The quality of maintenance on our rotating equipment has deteriorated to the point where we suffered severe losses, including fatalities … To this end, I am seeking assistance, support, and guidance in how I should proceed.”
This manager deserves considerable credit for recognizing the seriousness of the situation and asking for help. Encouraged by our quick response, he sent additional details. He candidly outlined what went wrong, his current competency gap, and how he planned to recover, suggesting the following:
- Carry out an audit of his maintenance systems, procedures, and personnel specific to rotating equipment maintenance.
- Set up a team of professionals and experts to work with him for an initial period of 6 months.
- Provide consulting support and follow-up service for some period thereafter.
He continued by highlighting the overall purpose of the team—“to complement the existing maintenance team by injecting professionalism, quality, experience, and expertise” in the following disciplines: rotating equipment maintenance, electrical and instrument maintenance, maintenance supervision, and maintenance planning.
For members of the rotating equipment team, he specified:
- 10 to 15 years of hands-on experience in maintaining and overhauling rotating equipment, including general purpose steam turbines, high speed/high horsepower turbomachinery, pumps, compressors, blowers, gearboxes, lubrication systems, bearing maintenance, mechanical seals, alignment, and leak repairs.
- Mechanical engineering technician diploma as a minimum requirement.
- Systematic approach to troubleshooting and diagnostics of problems associated with plant rotating equipment, through quality procedures and checklists.
Requirements for the other disciplines were equally rigorous—10 to 15 years experience, technician diploma, etc. Furthermore, he specified that all members of the team must be between 35 and 45 years of age; able to communicate professionally to all levels of the organization; proactive in their approach to work; able to adapt to the local environment and local organizational and societal culture in a very short time period; and more.
We simply couldn’t help but notice the age qualifications sought in this instance. The expert retiree is ruled out, and one might wonder as to which qualified 35- to 45-year-old resident of North America or Western Europe is willing to take on the cultural, technical, and procedural challenges that were laid out or implied by the client. Which brings us to the point:
Where were the maintenance and reliability professionals to come from?
Many managers are unaware that best-in-class companies routinely design-out maintenance at the inception of a project. That, clearly, is the first key to highest equipment reliability and plant profitability. Whenever maintenance events occur as time goes on, the real industry leaders see every one of these events as an opportunity to upgrade. Indeed, upgrading is the second key, and upgrading is the job of highly trained, well-organized, knowledgeable reliability professionals.
World-class performance is impossible to achieve without qualified professionals, and the notion that these professionals could always be hired on a moment’s notice is unrealistic. Similarly, the idea that contractors can fill the gap surely lacks merit. Where would the contractor’s young engineers have received their training?
And, while we will do our best to work with this client, here’s our advice to the plant manager who understands the value of a thoroughly well-trained maintenance-reliability work force: Develop them and hold on to them.
Start by compiling a role statement, then progress to mapping out a training plan. Interview a number of interested candidates and select the right ones. Give them periodic performance feedback, defend their goals and contributions as necessary and appropriate. Don’t ever allow the trained reliability professional to become just a pair of hands, or a person whose entire time is spent fighting repair deadlines rather than being immersed in proactive failure prevention. Groom this reliability professional’s abilities, judgment, and motivation; do it by encouraging access to his or her peers. Ask this person to use analytical skills to the utmost, to read, to write, to communicate. All parties will benefit if you carefully and consistently implement this “grow-your-own” formula.