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Is Your Sky Falling?

Klaus M. Blache | February 11, 2020

Take action to prevent your systems from reaching their tipping point and creating a catastrophe.

Q: Is your maintenance process beyond the tipping point?

A : To answer this, it’s important to understand the concept of “tipping point.” When the tipping point of a system is crossed, negative and mostly unpredictable consequences occur in your process. An undesired practice (more typically many harmful practices) is responsible for pushing the system beyond the point of no return, i.e., corrections are no longer possible with known solutions. Furthermore, these negative effects start to happen more frequently and with more-significant negative outcomes until the process collapses.

This discussion happens regularly about climate change. Climate scientists and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, Silver Spring, MD, noaa.org) have flagged 400 to 450 ppm CO2 (the primary greenhouse gas) as the point of no return. This means that the balance of the interconnected and interdependent processes that make up our ecosystems may no longer be correctable, based on what is known today.

Our climate has several tipping points, such as the total amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, the total amount of melting ice, and the loss of the atmospheric CO2-eating forests (joboneforhumanity.org/climate_tipping_points). Some greenhouse effect actually is needed to keep the earth at a livable temperature. Without it, we would be at about zero degrees F.

Your reliability and maintenance (R&M) process also has tipping points and, if you’re watching, there are indicators that those points are about to be reached. Examples are the level of reactive maintenance performed, PM compliance, maintenance-work-order backup, and activity involving planning and kitting maintenance tasks. Once you cross enough of those tipping points, your R&M process is out of control.

For example, if reactive maintenance is high, you will never have enough spare parts. One poor practice leads to a negative outcome. Since all facets of a system are related, when poor practices increase, negative consequences compound and grow at an increasing rate to a point of no return. The result is catastrophic.

The dynamic systems and processes of the Earth are fairly resilient, but can only self-correct to a point. Over the years, I would always comment that, from my observations, the clouds were getting lower (or we weren’t seeing as many high clouds). It sounds like the Chicken Little children’s story about the sky falling. It’s interesting that NASA has reported that Earth’s cloud height has dropped about 1% (100 to 130 ft.) during the first ten years of this century.

A consistent reduction in cloud height would allow Earth to cool to Space more efficiently, reducing the surface temperature of the planet and potentially slowing the effects of global warming. This may represent a “negative feedback” mechanism—a change caused by global warming that works to counteract it. “We don’t know exactly what causes the cloud heights to lower,” stated Davies (lead researcher). “But it must be due to a change in the circulation patterns that give rise to cloud formation at high altitude.” (climate.nasa.gov/news/688/earths-clouds-are-getting-lower/).

Since the Earth’s climate is a living system, I think that it will try to self-correct to the extent possible. But natural processes are not sufficient. Further monitoring is needed to determine the significance of this observation for global temperatures and its long-term impact.

Similarly, your reliability and maintenance process is a living system that can self-improve through workforce efforts. Individuals are using more technology, working on parts rationalization, and performing PM optimization. Many are realizing some localized benefits.

If too many related daily practices are over their tipping point, however, you are at a point where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make a meaningful (sustainable) improvement without major and all-inclusive changes. How can you properly maintain and respond to production equipment needs if your backlog is out of control? How can you be assured that parts will be available, without excessive overstocking, and/or if parts usage and restocking is not accurately linked in your CMMS (computerized maintenance management system)? Are all of your jobs entered into your CMMS or do you respond to verbal requests? How do you control, plan, and forecast for anything if you don’t trust your data? If you don’t improve culture, how do you expect to get to top-quartile performance?

Realistically assess your current state to decide if your process is fixable with some continuous improvement or requires a total rework. Fortunately in R&M you can start over and fix the system and processes.

This W. Edward Deming quote sums it up, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” If your sky is falling, don’t wait for someone else to fix it. They may not come. Some of the best improvements in R&M processes that I have seen were started and implemented by an individual or small team that followed their vision with tenacity. Doing nothing is a decision and probably not the correct one. EP

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at kblache@utk.edu.

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