Evolution of the “Grease Monkey”

by Joel A. Leonard, Plumlee & Associates Inc.

When historians review manufacturing in the 1990’s, they could easily call it the “Era of Efficiency.” Over the past decade, organizations have endured unprecedented pressure from a variety of sources, including domestic and global competition. Employees in Asia are compensated as little as 15 cents per hour, while the average American makes $15 per hour. Many companies must compete against newly automated facilities that produce–with a staff of only 50 people–the output of a 200-employee operation of the past. Most markets are buyers’ markets; even brand-name products have faced adversity. In addition, businesses must comply with–and document compliance to–new and rigorously enforced regulations and tax requirements.

To compete in this adverse environment, companies switched mantras, from “do or die” to “do more with less or die.” Every year, the bar of acceptable performance is raised. Employees are challenged to achieve these objectives with fewer resources. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1981 and 1996, the total number of workers who lost jobs they held for three or more years because their plant or company closed or moved was nearly 18 million.

Within this harsh economic landscape, maintenance has been viewed as a cost center, not a profit center, which has made it an easy target when downsizing takes place. Rather than providing justification to keep valuable employees, most maintenance managers simply have complied with top management edicts for meeting workforce reduction quotas. As a result, many companies are experiencing the effects of smaller maintenance staffs. Often, these companies are not able to achieve profitable production levels or keep their equipment maintained to reach its full life expectancy.

Despite the popular perception that maintenance is simply a cost center, it is not. Maintenance is, in fact, a profit center that generates production capacity. As such, it requires an attitude of professional excellence and promotion of its corporate value. Maintenance managers have had difficulty collecting information that documents their true contributions and presenting that information in a way that proves their department’s value to top executives. But every department within a business must justify its value: Value = benefits/costs.

Obstacles to maintenance success

If maintenance is so important, why is it considered a cost center, a necessary evil? One reason is, to date, maintenance departments have been able to quantify only their costs, not their contributions to profitability.

Other common problems in maintenance are the focus on today and not planning for tomorrow. Maintenance typically operates by the belief, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” To be successful, however, companies must not only focus resources on improving current systems but also on installing technologies for the future. Implementing preventive maintenance programs have proved to reduce emergencies, downtime and maintenance costs.

Ways to show your customers you care

  • Perform regular customer surveys.
  • Provide customers weekly and monthly project status reports.
  • Provide management a balance sheet displaying costs and contributions of maintenance.
  • Create a “brag board”–a bulletin board for all the critical maintenance measurements.
  • Use a digital camera to take “before” and “after” shots to chart your progress on projects.
  • Bring in college interns to fill labor gaps.
  • Reward and applaud internal customers for their assistance.
  • Build team morale and company image by volunteering maintenance services to charities and not-for-profit
  • organizations.
  • Create a quarterly newsletter to communicate new activities and successes.

Yet another obstacle to maintenance success is the traditional image of maintenance professionals–often viewed as “grease monkeys.” To help change this external perception, maintenance professionals need to correct some of their own views that perpetuate this negative view of their profession. These include the following:

  • My job is only to fix the machines.
  • I don’t have to care what production thinks about my performance.
  • I don’t need to know how to use a computer; I know how to turn a wrench.
  • Why should they care about the way I look or dress as long as the machine works?

The fact is: machines don’t sign our paychecks, people do. Maintenance professionals must become more sensitive to the known and latent needs and desires of their internal customers–whether in production, management, engineering or wherever. The quality and level of responsiveness of the maintenance group is its best sales tool. By exceeding the expectations of internal customers, maintenance will come to be viewed as a valued resource.

Providing reliable care

The “reliable care” process includes the following steps:

  • Talking to customers and employees.
  • Setting service goals and rewards.
  • Observing and measuring service quality.
  • Handing out the rewards.

To become customer-focused, maintenance professionals must learn to look at themselves through their customers’ eyes. Internal customers are not dependent upon us; we are dependent upon each other. They do not interrupt us; they bring us their wants and needs. They are not people with whom we must argue or match wits; they are people whose problems we must resolve into a mutually profitable solution.

Internal customers do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. To show you “care” is to be:

  • Credible – Customers need assurance the job will done right.
  • Attractive – Sloppiness opens up questions of overall quality.
  • Responsive – When machines are down, the company loses potential revenue.
  • Empathetic – Put yourself in a your internal customers’ shoes.

Ask your internal customers . . .

  • How well do we deliver what we promise?
  • How often do we do things right the first time?
  • How often do we do things on time?
  • How quickly do we respond to your requests for services?
  • How accessible are we when you need to contact us?
  • How helpful and polite are we?
  • How well do we “speak your language”?
  • How well do we listen?
  • How much confidence do you have in our services?
  • How well do we understand and try to meet your special needs and requests?
  • How would you rate the appearance of our facilities and people?
  • Overall, how would you rate the quality of our service?
  • What do you like best?
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