Holding up the Mirror

Bluefield is often engaged by clients to help them with their maintenance execution practices. Our main approach to helping clients improve is through our flagship Bluefield Transformation Projects; we’ve completed many of them over the years.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve been reflecting on these projects, and what we’ve learned from them, to find ways to make them faster, more effective, and more sustainable over the long run. We wanted to share our learnings and how we’re applying them.

Look for Signs that your Work Quality Needs to Improve

There are a couple of ways you can gauge if your work quality needs to improve:

  1. If the root cause of failure investigations/RCA’s keeps identifying poor maintenance quality, but the actions to prevent a reoccurrence ignore systemic and cultural factors, and instead address the contributing factors, such as engineering fixes, training, or administrative controls like signage.
  2. When a breakdown occurs, check to see the last time that area or component was inspected during a PM service. You’ll be amazed at the improvement opportunities that present themselves – either defects weren’t identified, or they weren’t entered into the system as a subsequent notification.

Focus on “the how:” Operational Discipline

The quality of how maintenance is applied to the asset has a great effect on reliability. People and culture are difficult to improve, and as such are usually ignored.  While we acknowledge there are other components to asset maintenance, such as planning, scheduling, stores etc, the Bluefield Transformation focusses specifically on execution: “the how”.

Almost every business has some kind of continuous improvement process that’s linked to their maintenance work management process. However, we cannot improve without the operational discipline to do what we say we will do and to follow simple processes and procedures. We get stuck in an improvement loop that does not deliver sustainable improvement, as shown below. Without first verifying that we are following our current processes, standards, and procedures, we cannot sustain any improvement.

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Culture Trumps Strategy

Our Bluefield Transformation approach is based on the concept of proactive maintenance. Proactive maintenance is simple at its core – it’s about identifying, understanding, and managing failure modes so that defects are identified and corrected early, or prevented altogether.

Many businesses are reactive in their approach to maintenance and asset management.   Failures aren’t managed, at best they are detected, hopefully with enough time to get ready to replace the failed component.

In a proactive maintenance environment, the workforce, supported by effective maintenance tactics aligned to failure modes, is dedicated to maintaining standards that ensure components and fittings are tight, aligned and adjusted, properly lubricated, and clean. In such an environment, the goal is not just to find defects, but to extend asset life.

When defects eventually do occur, they’re identified early and entered into the system immediately. This allows enough time to plan and schedule subsequent tasks and execute them in a controlled manner – not as an emergency breakdown.

Making proactive maintenance successful comes down to building the culture. It’s an investment in people as much as processes or technology.

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Hold Up the Mirror

The critical phase of the Transformation process is the Workshop, where we play our findings back to the client’s team. Clients are often surprised that we don’t include recommendations in these workshops, but we’ve learned to limit our contributions to observations supported by evidence, and allow the team to decide for themselves whether they are acceptable or not.

We call this holding up the mirror. It’s uncomfortable. It’s confronting. But ultimately, it’s effective.

The goal of this approach is to get the team to develop their own action plan and working agreements for how they will move forward and improve. Unless the team owns these actions, it’s unlikely they’ll be implemented and sustained in the long run. And we’ve learned over the years that by holding up the mirror, and allowing the team to set their own standards of acceptability, works far better than the team making improvements because “Bluefield said so.”

There’s No Finish Line

Because Transformations are about cultural change, it’s very difficult to draw a line and say, “that’s it.” We all know how easily culture can slide in the wrong direction; sustainability is critical.

We’ve learned that it can take six months or more for a business to truly transform its culture to the point where proactive maintenance is a sustainable “way of life.” In Bluefield’s experience, the most successful Transformations involve us returning to site at regular intervals to check on progress, help resolve road blocks, and if necessary coach the supervisors to build their skills at things like holding pre-start meetings and having tough conversations with their people about poor maintenance quality.

We said earlier on that the team needs to own these actions and agreements, not Bluefield. So why would we need to keep returning to site? We all know from experience that we’re more likely to sustain changes when we have to report on progress to an external party. It’s exactly how a personal trainer or coach operates. Making these changes is uncomfortable, and it’s easy to revert to the old way of doing things. Our return visits are just about continuing to hold up the mirror.

However, there does come a point where the team feels they’ve reached the level they need to be at to get more from their assets. This is where the working agreements really come into their own. Working agreements are the team’s statement of what is acceptable with respect to maintenance quality. Everyone needs to buy into them, and they contain a mechanism to review performance on a regular (even daily) basis, as well as pre-agreed actions that will come into effect if the team observes that the agreements aren’t being met.

Each site has a different approach to making these agreements work. Some track failures due to poor maintenance quality, others take (anonymous) photos of good and bad examples of maintenance work. The important thing is that the team is committed to an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Once that’s in place, your chances of long-term success increase dramatically.

Flexibility within a Structured Approach.

Based on our internal discussions and sharing of lessons learned, we’ve formalised the Transformation into a five-step process. However, one of the key topics of discussion within Bluefield is the concept of a “cook” versus a “chef.” A cook can follow a recipe, but the chef, based on their experience, knows how to adapt as they go to achieve the best overall result. We’ve built this flexibility into our new “toolkit”

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The five steps for a Transformation are:

  • Prepare - Clarify and confirm the focus areas, request and review documents, plan and organize the site visit activities.
  • Evaluate - Review the site’s performance metrics, maintenance practices, systems & assets, compiling our observed pain points and causes into a workshop presentation for the entire team.
  • Commit - Observed pain points and causes are played back to the whole team in a Transformation workshop. Based on the presentation, the team agrees and commits to making the changes that they believe will improve their business.
  • Transform - The team deploys their agreed actions and works to improve their performance and build a culture of quality, proactive maintenance execution and operational discipline. Progress is supported, reviewed and tracked periodically through Governance process.
  • Sustain - The team embeds their proactive maintenance culture to sustain their improvement and looks for opportunities to reach their next level of value delivery, with new or modified working agreements and actions.

Through the Transformation process, teams will understand that change is uncomfortable but necessary to improve. Importantly, the change is owned and driven by the client, not Bluefield, and this means the success they achieve is more likely to be sustained in the long term.

Watch our NSW Manager, Steve Flannery, talk about his experience with the Bluefield Transformations here.