Lean Manufacturing Management On The Floor

Develop An Operator-Maintenance Partnership

Klaus M. Blache | April 5, 2020

Q: What is the role of the operator in reliability and maintenance?

A: Although TPM (total productive maintenance) has been around for more than 25 years, very few companies have implemented Autonomous Maintenance or Owner Operator as a position/responsibility/title. Doing so can deliver substantial benefits.

In the past year or two, it’s being described as operator-driven reliability (ODR). I like to call it operator-maintenance partnership (OMP). Both have the operator doing visual monitoring/inspections and minor maintenance, if trained. The main deviation from autonomous maintenance is that in OMP the operator notifies the trade/technician for major repairs. In textbook TPM, the operator can do major repairs if qualified. You can implement with whatever work-practice guidelines best fit your organization.

If you are implementing OMP, are the operators incentivized and trained to better understand and value, not just the equipment they work on, but the overall manufacturing process and the impact it has on effectiveness and efficiency? Is their role in the process valued? Are operators clear about their role in daily operations and the “big picture?” Beyond the required safety placards and training, are the operators able to detect early signs of something going wrong with an asset? They, most likely, already can hear unusual noises, smell new odors, feel more vibration, and see/sense that something has changed. But do they know what to do next or care enough to speak up? If they do say something, are they listened to or ignored (so the next time, they won’t speak up)?

Based on local contractual agreements and/or plant-floor culture, the operators can and should play a vital role in supporting the overall operation. Let’s compare this to a football team that is allowed to play with a certain number of players to accomplish a goal. What good is it if you have a great blocker, but the team gets penalized because he plays by different rules? What if you have this same issue with all of your front line? Even if you have the best offense, it can’t perform well without a cohesive front line. Similarly, your operators are your first line of defense against degrading asset performance.

Questions to ask are:

• Do your operators understand the overall process and specifically what affects equipment and operations?

• Are your operators viewed as the first line of defense to maintain uptime/capacity?

• Are operators able to detect asset abnormalities such as machinery that is running too hot and/or vibrating excessively? Can they distinguish between normal and abnormal conditions?

• Do your operators know when and why to call for help?

• Are operator discoveries turned into work orders?

• Have operators been properly trained to perform PM rounds?

My data shows that operator involvement is directly related to improvements in maintenance costs. Companies that have operators perform “regular PM checks and do some repairs” result in maintenance cost savings to as much as 50%. Just having operators involved in regular PM checks/visual controls gets you halfway there.

Of course, the biggest benefits are the associated improvements in uptime and throughput. However, remember that the goal of maintenance is not to fix things, but to make sure that they don’t break in the first place.

At what level is your operator-maintenance partnership? Following is a 1 to 10 scale, with the items being cumulative (all previous items should be performed).

Do operators:

1. Run the equipment (or only load parts)?

2. Start and shut down the equipment?

3. Do PM rounds to monitor visual controls/aids for possible abnormal conditions?

4. Read meters, adjust valves, look for leaks and kinked/plugged lines?

5. Collect information and respond accordingly?

6. Receive training on the process—critical functions and understanding of the overall impact of downtime or problems elsewhere in the system?

7. Perform functions such as making minor adjustments and lubrication maintenance?

8. Assess their equipment from a reliability and maintainability viewpoint to assist/perform continuous improvement?

9. Contribute regularly to reliability and maintainability initiatives to improve safety, uptime, cost, and product quality?

10. Participate as full partners with the maintenance department to ensure uninterrupted operations?

Properly focused operator rounds can prevent many issues with early detection and ongoing continuous improvement by those closest to the operation. The term “owner operator” is used with TPM to signify the operator caring about the equipment they work on or near. It’s also important that the operator views that his/her effort is meaningful and valued. That means operator reports are converted to work orders and feedback results in improvements and benefits. This greatly enhances the team culture between maintenance and operations.

The best companies view reliability and maintenance as a seamless process i.e., no silos. They function with operations and maintenance as a partnership, supporting a shared vision and goals to enable best return on asset investment. 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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Klaus M. Blache

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