Reliability Engineering Snapshot TM

Illustrated Case Studies in the Industrial World of Failure Analysis, Non Destructive Evaluation, and Predictive Maintenance



Case Study No. 86:

The continuing series ...The successful failure analyst must have the same attributes as a top level manager. When comparing the core competencies required of a top level company manager, there isn't much difference. This month, it's dealing with composure.

Recently, a top level production superintendent moved on to greener pastures. The company posted the job and its responsibilities. It was interesting to see the list of core competencies required for that job. The core competencies highlighted in silver were covered in the November and December PEOPLE articles.

Core Competencies
Integrity and Trust Negotiating Dealing with Ambiguity Composure
Conflict Management Timely Decision Making Decision Quality Interpersonal Savvy
Listening Motivating Building Effective Teams



How does the saying go? "It's hard to see the forest through the trees." After all these years I think I know what that means. I didn't really have an appreciation for composure until I was able to watch a maintenance scheduling meeting from the sideline. Experiencing a maintenance scheduling meeting can be like trading shares on the stock market floor, and in terms of that meeting, everyone is competing against the other when there is no composure. The pace of that meeting, like the stock market floor, is hectic. It can actually turn ugly, if composure is lost. It's easy when the stakes, and the pressure, increase and there's that noticeable tightening in one's chest. It feels so good to become sarcastic when the feeling of frustration overwhelms all sense of logic and forethought. There's a sense of stress relief, for the one being sarcastic. However, the recipient of that sarcasm is taking a hit that can ricochet back if that person then loses their composure and returns the favor with their own bit of sarcasm.

So, how does one lose composure? Here's the typical scene played out in hundreds of industrial stages. Pressure No. 1: The company downsizes because the large overhead costs prevent them from being competitive. It's not because they want to make more money. They simply need to lower their product prices to their customers so that they can maintain their market share and stay in business, period. The downsizing comes in personnel cuts. At first the deadwood goes and nobody sees the difference. But then the second, and the third cuts come and the company goes from "lean and mean" to simply "mean." In many businesses the customer rules, and what the customer wants the customer gets. So if a customer places a new order that might not normally be there, well, that order gets filled even if a scheduled plant shutdown for maintenance has to be postponed, and in some cases, completely skipped. Yeah, those production boys have no respect for maintenance, or do they? Pressure No. 2: O.K., in many cases production personnel do have a great respect for scheduled maintenance, so they go out of their way to squeeze some time between production runs to catch up on overdue maintenance. There's a catch though, it HAS TO BE COMPLETED within a certain amount of time, or else jobs are cut short. In many cases jobs are bastardized because there isn't enough time to do it right. As the saying goes "we never have time to do it right but we always have time to do it over again." Pressure No. 3: Emergency work in the middle of scheduled downtime. This is the mother of all heartburn, it's the problem that makes one chug down a bottle of antacid medicine in one gulp.

The three types of problems mentioned above certainly paint a different background for the maintenance scheduling meeting I first started to talk about. Now you know how easy it is to lose one's composure. The maintenance foreman and planner always says something to the effect "You want to plan to do what?! And where am I supposed to get the people?! Why should I even try to do that schedule when you're going to throw three emergencies on me anyway!" Then the production supervisor will come back with remarks about mechanic productivity and the lack thereof, that's the comment that usually burns the hole through the maintenance supervisor's and foreman's stomachs.

I was completely indoctrinated into this continuous "do-loop" of rhetoric. Antagonism was a part of the daily ritual. What I was seeing was no different than in any of the other places that I had worked over the many years. Then one day at a scheduling meeting I was watching what was quickly turning into a heated confrontation. The usual rhetoric must have been too boring for them both and they decided to turn up the level of sarcasm. However, in this meeting there happened to be another manager who normally did not participate in the scheduling meetings. When he interjected into the heat of the battle you could tell right away this conversation was going to go a different way. It was because this manager had composure. This man was calm, collected, respectfully inquisitive, and facilitated in finding a path through a dead-ended confrontation. I saw the forest through the trees. It was such a pleasure to watch this manager at work. The whole confrontational feel of the meeting quickly dissipated.

Well, what does this long winded story have to do with maintenance engineers and failure analysts? The gist of the story is that it is about people out of control because their equipment problems are out of control. I go to maintenance scheduling meetings simply to play referee. Well, that's what I call it. Actually, the $120 per hour psycho therapists call it "facilitating." Heck, what better facilitator could you ask for than a maintenance engineer or failure analyst that either knows the problem or knows how to actively problem solve through, and with, the participants. Calmly coming to a resolution with a defined path forward that is based on consensus is good therapy. The trick is to get the consensus without coercion and snippets of sarcasm. Think about it. It certainly minimizes those "how was your day" sessions on the couch, with the "doc."

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