Lean Manufacturing Management

Uptime: Curiosity — It’s Fundamental To Reliability Improvement

Bob Williamson | July 12, 2017


Have you ever wondered why something is the way it is? Why is the sky blue? Why does it rain so much (or not enough)? Why don’t “they” understand maintenance?

Consider small children asking “why” again and again and again (often to the dismay of weary parents or caregivers). Those little ones are simply being curious, and for good reason. Curiosity is how humans learn—including in our work lives.

A strong desire to know or learn something.


Think about your plant: Is curiosity thriving there, or is it being stifled?

Frequently, we see what occurred and, sometimes, how it occurred. But how often do our second natures kick in and compel us to explore why something occurred (the cause)? Unfortunately, the real “why” may not be observable—it could be hidden. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for individual and/or implied organizational responses to run along the lines of “it always does that” or “I don’t really know.” Being able to answer “why” questions depends on the curiosity of personnel. I am convinced that being curious is the fundamental ingredient in reliability improvement.

In today’s workplaces, though, curiosity alone isn’t enough. It takes motivation to be curious (motivation to dig deeper into issues). All too often, the motivation (or available time) to ask “why” is insufficient for getting to the root cause of a problem, which, accordingly, is the first step in problem elimination.

Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role, or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal.

Let’s explore these elements of a reliability-improvement work culture.

Reliability and curiosity

Usually, the first response in a plant when equipment breaks down is “fix it.” The typical first question is “What happened?” followed by “How do we fix it?” Only when we ask how and why equipment fails, do we actually begin solving the main problem.

(NOTE: It’s not unheard of for a “what” question to elicit this type of implausible response from personnel: “Nothing happened; the machine is running perfectly.” If true, that would basically reflect a state of reliability at its best, a highly unlikely situation. Be sure to ask why that machine is running perfectly.)

Although curiosity should be used to drive your reliability program, roadblocks are a fact of life. For example, how often do you hear these statements in your workplace:  “We don’t have time.” “It’s not my job to ask why.” “I’ve often wondered why, but every time I bring it up, there seem to be bigger issues.” They’re indicative of low levels of desire to know or learn more about an issue.

why question in wood type

Motivation to be curious

Organizational curiosity is a requirement for improving and sustaining reliability. The question is, how do we motivate individuals, and the organizations they comprise, to be curious?

Benefiting from curiosity in a workplace depends on the work culture that top leaders create. The motivation to be curious on the job is more than an individual factor. While an individual may be internally motivated to be very curious on the job, the organizational (external) motivation to be curious may not be there. Individual curiosity may be stifled, not recognized, and/or not appreciated.

Business author Harvey Mackay described the potential of individual curiosity this way: “Pay attention to those employees who respectfully ask why. They are demonstrating an interest in their jobs and exhibiting a curiosity that could eventually translate into leadership ability.” In other words, curiosity is also fundamental to effective leadership.

High-performing organizations have a passion for eliminating problems, improving performance, and engaging everybody in the process. A compelling business case, in turn, can be a real motivating factor for improving organizational performance and reliability, as well as improving equipment performance and reliability.

Inspiring and enabling curiosity

Leadership is the heavy-lifting component in motivating curiosity. Whether it’s top management or group leaders, plant leadership must be inspirational in the quest for organizational and individual curiosity. Consider the following real-world example.

Serving as a long-term consultant to an established manufacturing operation, I noticed what appeared to be excessive amounts of finished product being discarded as scrap. To be sure, legitimate defects, some big, but mostly small, were leading to the situation. Still, I felt it reflected a waste of good money—in terms of material, labor, and overhead—and a huge loss of equipment effectiveness and sales revenue.

When I asked why those mountains of scrap were being produced and thrown away, the response was typically, “That’s the way it is here.” While the organization, as a whole and individuals in it, clearly understood the scrap as waste, they considered it acceptable, i.e., already built into their costing and production-planning standards. Despite the collection of waste data in production-report databases, no waste metrics were being trended.

At some point, after extensive work with this operation to improve equipment performance, I found a relatively easy way to put a dollars-and-cents value to the waste. It came from asking “why” and exploring the production database for answers. My calculation of the actual seven-figure cost to produce scrap at the plant evidently resonated more with management than the previous reports of waste amounts and percentages. As a result, the site’s C-level leaders launched a waste metric and engaged work groups at the machines and in the manufacturing process to regularly ask “why.” Scrap products are now counted and monetized, something that’s reportedly setting the stage for cost savings.

What about your operations? How can you motivate organizational curiosity and inspire individuals to ask “why.” Consider these tactics:

• To paraphrase W. Edwards Deming, maintain a “constancy of purpose for the improvement of product and service.”

• Become obsessed with the elements of the organization’s competitive advantage.

• Model the way: Walk the talk, ask “why,” and invite others to pitch in.

• Disrupt the status quo as it interferes with performance improvement.

• Celebrate improvement efforts and wins.

In the meantime, never forget that answers to “why” questions are the first steps toward reliability improvements in your plant.





Bob Williamson

Bob Williamson

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