Uptime: Wanted — Maintenance and Reliability Leaders

EP Editorial Staff | June 19, 2014



By Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor

As I travel across the U.S. and Canada, I continue to hear about maintenance-related skills shortages in plants and facilities. It’s indicative of a crisis that will only get worse before it gets better—something I’ve written about many times in this publication. What I have not explored with our readers in great detail is the more frightening shortage of “maintenance and reliability leaders.” These are the individuals who spearhead maintenance and reliability actions, missions and projects. They have the authority and the responsibility to guide, direct and influence their teams and work groups. Quite often, they “lead” the way on the basis of their education and/or prior experience.

We have an opportunity and an obligation to select and develop these leaders. But first we need to identify them: Where do they come from? How can we get more of them? Should we/can we grow our own? Is it possible to predict who has the inherent and learned talents to succeed as a maintenance and reliability leader? (In answer to this last question, I say “yes.”)

Keep in mind that maintenance and reliability (M&R) leaders do not work exclusively at the top of an organization— you find them in a wide variety of roles. For example, Lead Mechanics and Maintenance Supervisors are both examples of M&R leadership positions. Planners and Schedulers play M&R leadership roles, too, as do Maintenance Managers and Lead Reliability Techs. Likewise, Reliability Engineers and Maintenance Engineers are also M&R leaders.

“Leadership” comes in different shapes, sizes and situations. The common factor is the human element. People—men and women alike—who lead the way are invaluable in any endeavor. In the field of M&R, leadership is a differentiator that separates the best-of-the-best physical-asset-intensive businesses from the rest of the pack. 

Job-performance requirements for leaders are relatively easy to define. The skills necessary for M&R leadership at various levels go well beyond the technical and “craft” sets. M&R leaders have the responsibility to not only be the best they can be from a technical perspective, they must be able to influence, encourage, coach, challenge and lead their peers and teams to reach levels of performance they wouldn’t normally achieve by themselves. In short, leadership calls for a mastery of people skills.

Leadership and teamwork

Teamwork requires focused, decisive and purposeful leadership. As Andrew Carnegie famously said, “Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to achieve uncommon results.” Still, not everybody is comfortable, qualified or capable of being a successful leader. 

There are certain inherent character traits, learned behaviors and communication styles that characterize effective leaders. Furthermore, effective leaders must have attitudes, beliefs and opinions that are conducive to their respective roles and responsibilities and compatible with their work groups and teams. Identifying leadership candidates with these traits and “self-management” abilities will go a long way to successful job performance, personal satisfaction and improved business performance.

Maintenance roles vs. reliability roles

The subject of maintenance and reliability job roles has long been a topic of discussion among those wrestling with skills deficits in the workplace and the responsibilities of educational institutions. Because of the many misconceptions surrounding “maintenance” job roles at any level, there appears to be a trend to re-label them as “reliability” job roles. Confusing? Yes. There is a difference between maintenance and reliability work, and it is far more than an issue of re-branding.

Let’s look at two different M&R job roles for clues: Maintenance Engineer vs. Reliability Engineer. The authors of a 2005 survey conducted by two prominent Australian universities (Ref. 1) found no consistent distinction between the two job titles among surveyed practitioners. But they did emphasize the need to draw a distinction between them when creating the next generation of Reliability Engineers. Here’s how the researchers described those distinctions:

Reliability Engineers: Overall focus on strategic programs for the maintenance framework rather than day-to day operations:

  • Reliability-focused design specifications
  • Reliability assessments of in-service equipment
  • Determine optimal condition monitoring requirements
  • Ensure machine longevity
  • Consolidate reliability characteristics at the disposal (decommissioning) phase

Maintenance Engineers: Overall focus on maintaining equipment functionality rather than a strategic reliability emphasis:

  • Day-to-day operations-phase maintenance
  • Coordinate with production operations schedules
  • Manage resource availability: staffing, parts/materials, job duration
  • Create long-term maintenance strategies deployed in cooperation with reliability engineers

While the skill sets for Reliability Engineering and Maintenance Engineering may be closely aligned, and in some cases identical, the job-task focus is considerably different, but complementary. 

Likewise, the skill sets for Maintenance Technician vs. Reliability Technician may be closely aligned, the job-task focus is considerably different, but complementary. The overall focus of a Maintenance Technician is the day-to-day operations phase of equipment and facilities, maintenance, shutdown/turnaround work and projects. A Reliability Technician focuses on the early detection of equipment and component deterioration and prescribes reliability improvement actions.

Maintenance and reliability career ladders

The future of M&R leadership at any level depends on the availability of qualified people in diverse job roles. Given the growing shortages of candidates, we must pursue multi-pronged recruiting, training and retaining approaches. That starts with defining the various M&R job roles, then developing “career ladders” designed to facilitate talent growth and development.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The accompanying chart is a first draft of an M&R Career Ladder. Entry-level M&R jobs begin at the bottom and progress upward. General-education requirements are listed on the left. The dotted lines connect to other jobs in the M&R Career Ladder. Note that specific certifications and licensing options may apply to some of the job roles. These are indicated in the starbursts attached to the job-role title. (Production Managers and Supervisors often migrate into comparable M&R job roles.) 

Tell us what you think of this M&R Career Ladder draft. Next month’s column will focus on “Selecting and Nurturing the Next Generation of Reliability Leaders.” Meanwhile, for more information on how to strengthen your organization’s commitment to reliability, and a detailed training roadmap for development of productive Reliability professionals, be sure to read this month’s cover feature by Heinz Bloch. MT


Creating the Next Generation of Reliability Engineers, M.R. Hodkiewicz, J.Z. Sikorska, & P. Simpson; School of Mechanical Engineering, University of Western Australia, and Downing Teal, Perth Western Australia.

Robert Williamson, CMRP, CPMM and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Email: RobertMW2@cs.com.




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