10 Things Your Equipment Operators Can do to Improve Reliability

I have always believed that the equipment that makes your products and the operators who operate it are the most valuable assets you have. From the Janitorial Serves to the CEO, unless you are manufacturing product and putting it out the door, you are overhead – just another additional cost that has to be included in the cost of our product.

I often wonder why our most valuable assets receive so little training, are swapped around like poker chips in Vegas, and are often expected to do little more than push a button and babysit the machine. Given this prevalent management philosophy, we then struggle to understand why our continuous improvement efforts fail to take hold and then come to the conclusion that the equipment we purchased is junk and/or our people don’t know how to operate it.

Well folks, it’s time to wake up. Here are the 10 things your operators can do today to improve the reliability of your equipment.

  1. Keep it Clean – I don’t think that in 2014 I need to produce a mountain of data that supports the fact that clean machines run significantly better. We need to give our operators time to clean their equipment and perform routine operator care tasks each shift. These tasks need to be clearly identified with qualitative descriptions that give specifics regarding what type of cleaning agent, what type of cloth, and what the area should look like when the task is complete. If this sounds a bit excessive, I encourage you to try this on one of your critical assets. In three months, I guarantee you will see a return on investment in increased productivity and reduced maintenance costs.

  2. Insist on Training – I visit dozens of plants a year, and within minutes on the production floor, I can determine if the plant manager takes the time to train his/her equipment operators. Trained operators understand how their equipment works and they know the performance standards it needs to maintain to operate properly and how to troubleshoot and address any problem they might encounter with their machine. Those without training fumble through the day; they know where three buttons are on the operator screen: stop, start, and reset. They shut their machine down and contact maintenance for simple problems, and they struggle with product changes. If you are an equipment operator, you have to insist on formal training – watching someone else run a machine for a couple of hours or days IS NOT formal training. Chances are, that person was never formally trained either. Insist for your own safety, because you love your parents, spouse, children, or friends. Operators who are not formally trained are much more likely to suffer a severe injury or fatality on the job.

  3. Stop the Musical Chairs – The theory that we need to train all of our operators to run every piece of equipment continues to cycle through the manufacturing community every few years, so for someone like me, I see this mistake continuously. To any manager who believes in this foolish concept, I challenge you to put on some work clothes, take a month out of your busy schedule, and try this out yourself. See what you can learn in a few days on each machine, and decide for yourself if you feel confident in what you are being paid to do. Having your operators change machines on a regular basis makes about as much sense as it would to have NASCAR drivers drive someone else’s car in the race each Sunday. It doesn’t work well and, once again, it’s not safe! I tell the operators I work with to begin taking data regarding how effectively the machines run when we change operators. In the same way that automated equipment doesn’t like to stop and start, operators are less effective in their work when they are required to change to a new machine. By the way, I understand the need to have a few people who can operate more than 1 or 2 machines; these people are called team or line leaders.

  4. Learn SPC (Statistical Process Control) – The next step beyond learning how to operate your machine is learning when to make adjustments based on operating and product parameters. I learned SPC as a maintenance technician and began trending and predicting chemical reaction times. In doing so, I was able to forecast our production numbers for the coming weeks and months. SPC is a very powerful tool used mostly by the folks who work in product quality, but it can be just as powerful, if not more, when put into the hands of operators who are looking at learning more about the machine or process they operate.

  5. Get Serious About Root Cause Analysis (RCA) – I was at a conference last month and when I made this statement, a couple of experienced operators in the room rolled their eyes and looked away. When I asked them about this reaction, they said; “We have to do 2 or 3 RCAs a week and nothing ever comes of them. We use a simple 5 why process and most get filled out just to meet our manager’s goals to say we are doing them.” RCA has been getting a bad name lately, and in most cases, it’s because the triggers are set way too low and because people rush through the process and look for a single solution. Your lead operators or team leaders should be leading your RCAs, and if you didn’t find the correct solution, it’s because you didn’t identify all of the causes.

  6. Bring Precision Into Product Change – More than half of my customers report that they struggle with product changes. Even stranger than this, the companies who do the most product changes tend to struggle the most. Now, one would think that if performing product changes was a daily part of your work schedule, you would naturally become good at it. However, the reality is that while we expect our machines to perform precision work, we rarely apply precision techniques to our machines when it comes time to perform a product change. Somehow as managers we have come to believe that a Sharpie mark that is nearly ¼” in width on a piece of sheet metal will result in a tremendously accurate product change. Make 6 other marks, in different colors maybe, don’t label any of them, and do this in 6 or 8 different stations –and now sit back in your office and wonder why your operators struggle at each product change. If I were an operator, I would want to bring precision techniques into each product change; the use of jigs and blanks will go a long way in reducing the cycle time for product change and improve the precision to a point of once and done.

  7. Get Involved in the Reliability Tools RCM and TPM – If you are really interested in how your machine was designed, how it was intended to be operated and maintained, volunteer to become part of a Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) or Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) team. Both of these tools take operators to the next level. This past year, I had a lead operator from Honda participate in 5 RCM analyses for critical machines on his line. Following the event, he stated that he had been running the assets for 10 years and had been a line leader for 2 years, and now he understood how the equipment was designed to work and why it was critical to inspect and record things like pressures, temperatures, and flows on each machine.

  8. Drive Decisions with Data – For some reason, those of us who work in the Operations and Maintenance departments believe that if we complain long enough and loud enough about the problems our machines are having, then someone in management will finally do something about it. The reality is that this thinking could not be further from the truth. If you want to see changes, you need to bring data to the table. In your job, you are surrounded by useful data, and each day you record useful data, but chances are that very little is done with that data. Learn the art of business by driving change through data supported decisions.

  9. Make Safety First – While some believe that reliability and safety go hand in hand, the reality is that reliability depends on safety. If your equipment is not safe, then it cannot be reliable. On the other hand, when I work at plants where reliability is a big issue, I have to admit that I worry about the operators. I know firsthand that the pressure is on to keep the equipment up and running and I have seen where people cut corners with safety to maintain throughput. I have seen defeated door safety switches and operators picking up dropped packages and hand stacking, all while a robot was still in operation. It is important for all of us to understand that in order to have safe and reliable equipment, we all have to do the right things when it comes to safety. Cutting corners on safety to keep your equipment running doesn’t help anyone and it puts your personal health and safety at risk. If you have been cutting corners on safety at your plant, do the right thing starting today – shut it off and demand that someone make it right.

  10. Follow the Checklist – If your job is to operate a piece of equipment – it doesn’t matter if it is a Boeing 747, a chemical reactor, paper machine, steam turbine or flour mill – you should be using a detailed checklist to start up the machine, shut it down, make sure it is fit for use, or perform a product change. The checklist wasn’t created because someone thinks they are smarter than you or that equipment operators are dummies; the checklist was created to ensure that we do our jobs in the correct order and sequence to ensure safety and reliability. If you are still skeptical, think for a moment how much training the average commercial airline pilot has to go through to become certified to pilot or co-pilot an aircraft. Does anyone doubt their intelligence? Yet each and every flight, the pilots go through a detailed checklist to ensure the aircraft they are operating is fit for use.

In closing, I would be remiss in not adding that in facilitating hundreds of RCM analyses over the years, I have grown to have the upmost respect for manufacturing equipment operators. The best equipment operators enjoy their work, they see the value in what they do, and quite often, they have some great ideas on how to improve both our processes and equipment – and they do this while working rotating shifts, often scheduled to work while their children and families get on school busses or play in ballgames and concerts. Yet, when something goes wrong in the middle of the night, while us engineers and managers are home sleeping, they are the first people we seek to blame for the upset.

While I have written nearly a dozen of these articles of what we can do today to improve reliability, I have to admit that listing the top 10 items for equipment operators was the most difficult. I have often thought that if I could do 1 thing to improve the lives of everyone who works at a manufacturing facility, I would insist that everyone working at the site have to work at least 3 months of back-to-back rotating shifts every 5 years just so they can learn to appreciate the sacrifices our operators and maintenance people make to keep things running.