The 5 Habits of Great Reliability Engineers
Peter Horsburgh, Reliability Extranet
The author’s fascination with technology dates back to his youth. His father was a blacksmith, an engineer of metal work, and was instrumental in helping the author discover his love of creation through construction. He also passed on his passion for airplanes, which led the author to a career in aeronautical engineering, where he first encountered aspects of reliability. A subsequent career in reliability guided him along a path of confusion, frustration, curiosity, learning and change. Although still going through those stages constantly, they taught the author the five habits presented in this article. Now, those five habits make achieving meaningful change that much easier.
First off, the 5 Don’t
The five habits are great successes curated from many failures. However, in order to understand these good habits, you must first understand the bad habits they cancel out.
- DON’T KNOW – Many problems you are experiencing are ones you aren’t even aware of. They’re either invisible enough that you don’t realize how much time and resources they’re costing your plant or organization, or they eventually pop up at the most inopportune times. Good reliability engineers solve problems as they appear, but great reliability engineers catch the problems before the problems catch them.
- DON’T UNDERSTAND – Acknowledging a problem and understanding a problem may sound similar, but they are radically different. Too often, engineers apply a solution without bothering to understand the problem intimately enough to know what would be effective. Just like a bandage won’t do much for a venomous snake bite, one has to wonder why some engineers are treating certain issues like minor puncture wounds. Once you think you’ve solved a problem, it will once again become invisible on your radar, however, when it resurfaces, it could result in greater costs to your company. This is why understanding a problem is so important, because often it will need a custom-made or carefully selected solution.
- DON’T QUESTION – One noticeable thing about reliability engineers is that they’ve become too comfortable with the established, unchanging rules. Even if they understand the problem, they’ll select a solution from a stale collection. None of the solutions can actually solve the issue, but they’ve managed to solve everything before, right? Wrong. Reliability engineers must reject routine. The rules in place prevent them from doing their jobs to the best of their ability. They discourage them from searching elsewhere for alternatives that can yield fantastic results.
- DON’T USE DATA – Businesses are built on data. You’ve found a problem, you’ve found a solution and you’ve found resistance from your superiors and coworkers because you haven’t given them a reason to believe that your smashing status quo solution will work. What reason do they have to trust your word? You haven’t presented them with facts. You haven’t used data.
- DON’T CHANGE – In any plant or organization, bringing about change is a team effort. It is impossible to achieve change on your own if your changes are going to affect others. Your colleagues might believe your solution could work, but they don’t care enough to put in the effort. Passion encourages collaboration, so it is your job to ignite that passion in your workplace to convince them these changes will be positive for everyone involved.
Good reliability engineers SOLVE PROBLEMS as they appear, but great reliability engineers CATCH THE PROBLEMS before the problems catch them.
The 5 Habits
Now, let’s focus on the five habits that will turn good reliability engineers into great ones.
Habit 1 – Identify Issues
If you don’t identify issues, you might as well be flying an airplane without a compass. Yes, you can look where you are and compare it to a map, but all those green fields look very similar and you will lose your way.
So, why are some issues hard to find? Sometimes, they could be small enough to remain undetected. For example, you don’t realize how a small rise in operating temperature that reduces productivity by only two percent each week can add up over a year. Other issues might be apparent, but are seen as natural flaws of the machine. For example, if a machine vibrates itself to bits, you might just think it reached its “best before” date (like how some technology is allegedly designed to break so you’d have to buy a replacement). But really, there’s an underlying issue causing the vibration in the first place.
So, what are the symptoms of underlying problems? How do you find them? Here are some questions to start asking yourself:
- Does your plant have unplanned failures?
- Where is the money spent?
- Are production targets being hit?
- Are there any irregularities in the data around:
- Cost of production and maintenance;
- Production downtime;
- Maintenance overruns;
- Maintenance schedules?
Following these trends and clues will help you hit a gold mine of issues to dig into.
Habit 2 – Understand Issues
A pilot might know what the destination is, but might not automatically know the route to get there. Trying to fly an unmemorized route without a compass or map will, most often, result in getting lost, no matter how sure you are of the direction you’re going in. Like an airplane that needs to arrive at its destination, a reliability engineer needs a reliable direction. By understanding the issue, it sets a clear direction on where to go.
Is it a yellow orange or a round lemon? The only way to find out is by cutting it open…
But, some problems are difficult to understand and sometimes they’re easy to misinterpret. Is it a yellow orange or a round lemon? The only way to find out is by cutting it open before you use the zest in a recipe. Sometimes, there are certain undetectable or unfamiliar nuances surrounding a problem, so they can’t be easily categorized. Treating a problem as its own distinct thing is something many aren’t accustomed to doing.
To fully understand an issue, the most important aspect is to find the root cause. For this, one form of root cause analysis (RCA) is the 5 Whys. The 5 Whys work by simply asking “Why?” five times. Here’s an example:
- Why is the machine breaking? It’s vibrating itself to bits.
- Why is it vibrating so much? It isn’t properly lubricated.
- Why isn’t it lubricated properly? The oil is contaminated.
- Why is the oil contaminated? Because it has water in it.
- Why is there water in it? Because the containers storing the oil are exposed to the weather.
The solution for this example is to put the containers indoors.
The aim of dissecting a problem is to understand what triggers the chain of events behind it. If you do not address the trigger of the problem, it will happen again. And again. And again. RCA author Dean L. Gano describes it as a “continuum of causes and effects,” meaning for each problem, there is a trigger. Then, that trigger has a trigger that triggers the problem you encounter. Addressing the root cause temporarily solves the issue, but addressing every level of it prevents it from happening again.
Habit 3 – Find Alternatives
While reliability engineers may have found many effective solutions to recurring issues at your plant, you’ll often find they are unwilling to find and implement alternatives. This is a real shame because they are fencing themselves off from a range of resources that could make things easier for themselves, their colleagues and their plant.
Why are reliability engineers so unwilling to explore beyond their boundaries? One possible reason is the lack of global communications in a consistent language within the reliability engineer community. There is no sharing of lessons learned by other engineers and different languages, terms and definitions are used from plant to plant to describe the same things. For example, you will find people confusing failure mode and failure cause. Some people argue they are the same, while others say they’re different. Generally, failure cause is the reason for the failure mode. However, you need to be aware that people think of them differently. You may need to switch from “cause” to “mode” to be understood. It doesn’t matter how you personally define the words, you need to adapt to another’s language.
This communication struggle stands in the way of so much valuable potential. Many years ago, Ron Moore, an internationally recognized authority on reliability, manufacturing and maintenance strategies, taught Industrial Roundtable members the enablers of reliability growth: planning and scheduling of work; root cause and defect elimination; and maintenance strategy implementation. Despite the drastic changes in technology over the years, the information is still invaluable and holds relevance today.
There are many more reasons why engineers resist finding alternatives, like how change takes courage and effort. They often don’t realize that the effort it takes to implement a change could save a lot more effort later on. Another worry might be that if they ask for help elsewhere, they will appear incompetent at their job. Finally, it is difficult to implement changes in an environment so used to routine and unwilling to take risks.
Reliability engineers who are open to exploring alternatives should search outside the industry they work in. Talk to engineers from other plants, even in other countries. Also talk to people from other departments or young newbies with fresh ideas. A reliability engineer with experience and a reliability engineer with new ideas can make an excellent team if they are willing to listen to each other. Search various groups online, like Reliabilityweb.com and Maintenance.org, to learn how other people have solved similar issues to yours. See what kind of changes people from all around the plant want to see and figure out how to include them within your own agenda.
Alternatives reduce costs and time and effort, encourage innovation and increase efficiency. Given that reliability engineering is becoming a world village, learning from others becomes easier each day. To illustrate, a working tool that automatically formats long text in a computerized maintenance management system was recently developed as a result of two reliability engineers from different organizations discussing a problem and sharing their knowledge. All reliability engineers should be encouraged to learn and form business relationships with others and combine it with their own experiences to become a truly unique force to be reckoned with.
Habit 4 – Decide With Data
Given how integral data is within the reliability field, it is disappointing how many engineers undervalue and ignore it. Data is the most valuable tool at your disposal. It helps you and other people understand an issue and communicate value. Analyzing data helps you find an issue before it finds you. Data justifies the changes and solutions you want to implement to the people who have the power to green light it or work with you. Data also is valuable as a past record to understand a plant’s history, which could help solve present issues.
Often times, engineers skip data because it is difficult to find, collect, or interpret. It can take time to gather sufficient data, which seems like it delays the actual solving of the problems. However, launching into an issue without sufficient data to understand it usually results in wasted time and resources. Solutions are found to be ineffective because no one made sure they were the right ones for the job. Without the use of data, a lot of issues pop up without warning and are more complicated to deal with than if they were found and corrected early on. The absence of data also makes it difficult to justify the actions you want to take to management and/or colleagues.
So, what data should you use to spark change in your workplace? How can you tell an engaging story? Here are some examples for guidance:
- Compare the data to other companies to understand what you are doing better or worse;
- Use past data to show improvements and/or declines at your plant;
- Highlight trends that tie in with what your colleagues have been dealing with;
- Focus on significant events and changes to illustrate the effect they’ve had on your plant;
- Present a scenario where 50 percent of the issues you experienced went away. Would you have broken a plant record?
Habit 5 – Facilitate to Implement
You might have good ideas, but no one else knows how good they are. Having data isn’t enough if you can’t work with your colleagues to implement changes. You can factually prove that your idea will work, but convincing others to change with you is another story. They’re apprehensive, they don’t want to be bothered, they’re intimidated, they’re confused about what role they should play and they are hesitant about asking for help. As the one who wants to implement change, you must not only ignite passion, but provide guidance. Whether it is direct or not, you need to ensure there is a system in place where everyone is confident in their task.
Who do you need to convince to join you on this journey? It depends. Obviously, whoever has the authority to green light the change, but also anyone you need to collaborate with or seek help from in other departments or even potential customers.
Here’s an example to illustrate: A company was introducing a new vibration tool that had a live feed. The tool was hooked up to a test rig to measure vibrations. In a meeting, the results were projected on a screen as the presenter described the tool to the audience and suppliers present. When the presenter tapped the test rig, it measured the change and projected it onto the screen. One engineer was so impressed that he asked to give it a try. The presenter agreed and soon others followed in trying out the tool. The conversation quickly turned to how many of these new vibration tools were available and how long it would take to supply this limited stock device to each eager customer. Note how demonstration, engagement and interactivity were the key to success here.
Get in the Habit of Becoming a GREAT RELIABILITY ENGINEER
Bad or average habits can be hard to break, but the effort to replace them with good or great habits is a valuable investment of time. No matter how often you catch yourself making the mistakes you were trying to avoid, do not be discouraged. The 5 Habits take many years to perfect, but in the end, you will learn better, faster and smarter.
Peter Horsburgh is Founder and CEO of Reliability Extranet, an online platform providing knowledge, tools, and data for industrial reliability engineers. Mr. Horsburgh has been an engineer for over 20 years, working with plants in the mining, smelting, and power generation industries and has a passion for machine reliability.