Why PM Checklists Have Become Ineffective in Managing Failure Modes

Sep 11, 2018 10:29:52 AM

We have done a significant amount of work through our Bluefield Transformation Projects to enable people to improve work execution quality. A large part of the work execution task requires quality completion of the PM checklists.

It is amazing how ineffective these checklists have become. Some examples of what we commonly find are:

  • Often, PM checklists are completed as if the equipment is completely fine. However, when the machine is physically checked after the inspection, the reality is quite different.
  • Or alternatively, the inspections are done very well with defects identified, but they are not then added into the ERP system so that they can be planned and scheduled before they become breakdowns, or even worse, significant incidents. Therefore, defects are found with no subsequent work orders or notifications able to be identified in the maintenance system.

Two examples of these problems are shown below.


So… in order to solve this problem, we have to ask why? Why do we use checklists at all? Why, when we have them, do we not do the most basic thing required to manage failure modes adequately, and execute them well?

I recently listened to a podcast that explored the origin of checklists and the effectiveness of them in other industries. I encourage everyone to listen to this podcast and look for the parallels to maintenance and reliability. From the work we have done to assist companies to achieve good practice in maintenance execution quality and improve plant reliability, I found the discussion in this podcast very much aligned with our learning.

The podcast can be found here: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/27/642310810/you-2-0-check-yourself

  1. Checklist execution cannot be mandated.

We have seen all of the efforts over the years to try and mandate checklist execution, including getting the signatures of all and sundry. What we have seen is when people focus on just getting signatures, they will only get the signatures. When you actually look at the documents, you find that they have just been ticked, flicked and signed. We found clear problems on one checklist some years ago even though it had been signed by the supervisors, planner and engineer. The signatures do not drive genuine checklist completion. What works is creating a culture where:

  • People know why they are executing checklists and agree it is the right thing to do
  • They understand and can see the reliability benefits that come from this culture
  • The ownership of the checklists sits within the execution team

One method used in the military to enable this culture is to tell stories about the crashes that resulted from not ensuring the checks have been done adequately (this is detailed further in the podcast linked above). Similarly, by sharing with people how breakdowns and component failures have occurred due to lack of adequate PM execution, we have seen  positive effects on reliability. Also, sharing examples of good execution practice drives improved execution quality and reliability outcomes.

  1. Checklists on top of checklists – Where is the balance.

Another problem that we have identified is when people put in place more checklists to overcome a cultural problem. An example of this is the checklist that often gets created to check a truck before it leaves the workshop. I recently reviewed an extreme example of this where the site had implemented a full A4 sized checklist to be completed before the truck went back to the go line. We found that this checklist, which included many checks that were already part of the service sheet, also included defects and reflected a tick and flick approach. Effectively, this just created more admin and added no value. The only way to address this problem adequately is to actually engage the people and give them the ownership.

When the problem is related to the culture and care factor, an additional checklist does not solve that problem. The podcast linked above also shares examples of this in the medical industry, where the use of checklists was mandated but there was no ownership, and therefore no benefits arising from this approach.

  1. Checklists are not a substitute for knowledge and experience.

While checklists that are executed correctly are able to prevent many of the failure modes that we see, they are no substitute for people who know the machines and look at the machines regularly. When the same person does the same inspection tasks on the same machine regularly, they will identify changes occurring to that machine that cannot be written on a check sheet. They can see the rate of degradation and also the factors that influence the conditions. It is essential to have an experienced person, as well as the right amount of information in the checklists. Experienced mechanics often say we don’t need to be told how to “suck eggs”. This is valid, no one wants unnecessary bureaucracy and there needs to be a balance between too much and not enough paper involved. In one project we did recently, our client wanted a very detailed process/procedure document laminated in the workshop for people to refer to, but with just the essential checks and measurements on the checklist that the mechanics have to complete each service. This is a good approach to getting the balance right, while also providing detailed information for the people that need it.

Making checklist execution quality visible and giving the ownership to the execution teams is key to improving the results that are generated from our checklists.

By: Gerard Wood