Take Nothing for Granted

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a client to improve their production performance. The plant consisted of high-speed continuous process systems that, to say the least, were highly variable in output and operating costs. Shift-to-shift and module-to-module, the output had only one common trait—it was always well below the system designed capacity—ranging from zero to perhaps one-half of design.

The production systems were not new, had been well-used, and perhaps had not been maintained as well as they should have been. In the client’s view the resultant loss of asset reliability was the sole reason for the poor performance. The plant leaders pointed to high faults, such as plugs and breaks, as well asset downtime to support their view. They were absolutely convinced that these systems could no longer operate at, or even near, design capacity.

Our first evaluation of the mountains of data the client provided seemed to support their conclusions. It contained thousands of trouble calls that would seem to indicate excessive downtime and point to asset reliability as the dominant reason for poor performance. Candidly, it would have be easy to simply confirm the client’s conclusion and recommend they rebuild or replace their assets—that’s what they were already prepared to hear.

One thing that I have learned the hard way is to never, ever take anything for granted. Never accept the obvious answer. When I look back over almost five decades of solving problems, every time I accepted the first—easiest—answer or the obvious conclusion, it turned out to be wrong. We are all conditioned to see or hear the answers we expect to see or hear. In this instance asset reliability issues resulting from poor maintenance was a believable answer. 

So, we dug deeper into the historical data, questioned operators and maintenance technicians, analyzed the design, and defined the inherent reliability of the production systems. This extra step resulted in a totally different view of production performance and its limiting factors. Of course there were asset reliability issues. Years of improper operation and deferred maintenance had taken a toll. But the inherent reliability was still adequate to support reliable performance at or near design levels. Lack of standard procedures, training deficiencies and limited supervision led the list of issues that turned out to be the real source of their performance problems.

Believe it or not, the primary reason for this client’s poor performance was the simple fact that management—from the top executive to front line supervisors—had decided that these production systems could not run at design capacity. As a result, they had substantially lowered the target outputs and did nothing to resolve chronic production shortfalls. They had basically given up and just accepted that only a complete rebuild or replacement of their installed capacity would solve the problem. This view had become a shared vision throughout the plant and, as one would expect, had become the reality.

Convincing first the management team and then the workforce that their production systems could reliably perform at design-level turned out to be our biggest challenge in this turnaround. Years of conditioning are very difficult to overcome and cannot be accomplished quickly. But if one follows sound change management practices and makes sure that each step is carefully evaluated—remember, never assume anything—it can be done.

After a few months of concentrated effort and carefully crafted steps to both recondition the workforce and improve production performance, everyone could see measurable improvement. Outputs were substantially higher—not at full design, but definitely trending in that direction. Operators were beginning to believe that their modules could actually deliver design outputs. Some modules had posted shift outputs within 10% of maximum. Overall, production performance (OEE) had improved by 5.3%. At this point, one could assume the turnaround had succeeded and celebrate success, right?

Unfortunately, this was not—and typically is not—true. Changing the conditioned beliefs of the workforce and management team takes proof and time. Careful observations as well as communications with the workforce at all levels revealed hidden resistors who remained convinced that operating these production systems at higher speeds was absolutely the wrong thing to do. While they were not overtly resisting change, their convictions affected their decisions and work executions, and influenced the performance of others.

Success was and is dependent on careful, continuous analysis and resultant actions that assume nothing and question everything. Do not assume anything—especially when it comes to how people will react, think or act.

Oh, the project was successful. It took several years to institutionalize the changes and create a new work culture, but the results were worth the effort. The ultimate solution incorporated workforce-generated standard procedures that now govern all aspects of the production, procurement, materials handling and maintenance activities that had contributed to the plant’s poor performance. The heart of their turnaround is the workforce-driven continuous improvement culture that now permeates the plant. Now the workforce—from executive management to the factory floor—believes that design-level performance is possible and can be maintained.

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

"Take Nothing for Granted, Question Everything."

Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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