Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Maintenance

Nobody can schedule unplanned events that will affect power generation. And no one wants to start a day expecting an emergency to occur. But when critical systems fail in the power supply system, it’s time to respond. That’s a given of power plant maintenance.

For plant managers faced with economic constraints and regulatory mandates, a common topic of discussion is the need for power plants to cut costs and improve maintenance. Yet a deeper understanding of the advanced processes where true return on investment (ROI) exists eludes many. There are plenty of enterprise asset management (EAM) webinars and analytics training courses out there, but often it is the underlying attitudes—the fears, presumptions, sheer crush of work to be done—that can keep plants stuck in reactive maintenance.

For many plants, changing from reactive to proactive maintenance means challenging old norms, communicating change management benefits, and correcting improper uses of the system. These problems can include bad data; a system designed and led by the information technology department instead of functional users; and having no business analysts, business rules, computerized maintenance management system expert, analytical reports, or long-term road map.

Too Busy to Be Proactive?

In every plant there are seasoned staff who know the equipment, know the systems, and are quite capable of “putting out fires.” Yet all too often, when asked how well they use their EAM system, power plant maintenance managers concede they are too busy maintaining with far “too little staff” to do much beyond using the system to create tickets for items that need to be addressed. This forms the cycle of reactive maintenance.

As a business process improvement consultant, I am often met at power plants by planners/schedulers with a common complaint. It goes something like this: “We cannot perform any advance planning; we’re fully utilized already. We have so much emergency and urgent work, it requires our immediate attention. On top of that, we are the main point of coordination when it comes to EAM system input and output. It’s too much!”

Under the “tyranny of the urgent,” all work is treated the same—although some of it gets done quicker. This also means you could have self-inflicted reactive maintenance. The overall result is mismanagement of the maintenance backlog, resulting in unnecessary costs associated with reactive maintenance. The primary benefit of creating a schedule is to align departments, coordinate crafts, ensure job safety, minimize risk, and minimize delays.

Without more staff, some planners/schedulers cannot visualize a world in which they can proactively manage data to reduce reactive maintenance. Rather than look for efficiency with “advanced processes,” they revert to “we need more staff.” But with no budget for hiring, the situation is at an impasse.

Power plant workers have long-held misconceptions about what an EAM system is or can be. Most see it as a work order number provider that gives them a number “to charge time to.” From this perspective, why should they look for failure trends and worse offenders or reexamine preventive maintenance (PM) frequencies (maintenance strategies)? When stuff breaks, they fix it. Organizations have been operating like this for so long that there is no memory of any other viable approach.

Enterprise asset management requires teamwork. Source: Cohesive Information Solutions Inc.

Create a Comprehensive Vision

My on-site customer observations confirm that there is a common problem: the general lack of a comprehensive road map to clearly define the end game, link inputs to outputs, and provide clear business rules for roles and responsibilities. The planners are often consumed with reactive maintenance. Work orders are initiated but not properly categorized or prioritized. Work is performed but lacks proper feedback as to asset condition, recommendations to prevent future breakdowns, design flaws, and maintainability issues. Ownership of the backlog is lacking, which leads to incorrect asset numbers, inaccurate statuses, duplicate tickets, and stale work. When basic processes and foundation data are suspect, it is very difficult to take that next step to fully leverage the EAM system.

Often, it isn’t the lack of staff or lack of time at all; it’s a lack of knowledge—or even a lack of belief in the feasibility—of how to put EAM to work to proactively manage assets across the entire enterprise.

It’s commonly stated that reliability is everyone’s job. That said, the maintenance and upkeep of the EAM system should also be everyone’s job. For the EAM system to be a true knowledge base, there has to be buy-in from all levels of the organization, including maintenance, operations, engineering, supply chain, and management. Ideal duties and roles are shown in the table.

Six Questions

It’s time for the power industry to move beyond theoretical discussions and take on the real-world problems faced by power plant planners, operations, and maintenance managers. Answers to the following six questions for the power plant maintenance manager can quickly identify the maturity of a plant’s maintenance approach:

  • Other than emergencies, do you plan work? For example, do you enter job steps and craft estimates on your work orders? Are you tracking the amount of reactive maintenance?
  • Do you have a way to mark work orders “fully planned”? If yes, what percentage is planned (>90%)? Are the work order priorities valid? Are you conducting regular reviews of backlog?
  • Do you have a work order feedback loop by which you continually gather input from the crafts and improve asset performance and reliability?
  • Does a reliability team exist that proactively looks at the worst offenders, initiates root cause analysis, and the like? Are recurring problems being identified and managed within the EAM system?
  • Have the planners/schedulers been trained on EAM system use and proactive maintenance techniques?
  • Has the power plant ever performed EAM system benchmarking? (Have you visited other power plants to learn their approaches?)

If most of the answers are “No,” then there is a problem; the majority of practices are stuck in reactive maintenance management. A formal and thorough review is warranted.

Common Power Plant Assumptions

Many power plant staff recognize that problems exist with their EAM system, but there may be confusion over whether those problems are software, or data, or process related. Most managers would embrace change, but their misconceptions and assumptions are entrenched. For example, consider the following assumptions, which often go unchallenged:

  • Change is too hard. A power plant cannot change without a universal desire to become more proactive. The need for change needs to be understood.
  • We have planners, therefore we plan. Planner positions may exist, but planners are not fully effective in their positions if they lack training in and understanding of proactive concepts. A job planner should not be asked to perform nonproductive tasks such as material expediting, picking up parts, getting involved in emergency work planning, performing maintenance work, or entering actual labor hours.
  • Business rules exist, but only verbally. Different work groups may have different processes and procedures. For an EAM system to have full support and interaction, these rules must be clearly defined and understood.
  • There are barriers against bad data. It’s common to assume that the EAM system, if set up correctly, will automatically prevent bad data from being entered. This is far from the truth.
  • Standard reports work. It is rarely true that the EAM system has all of the reports needed. You need to link up analytical report needs to the goals and objectives of the organization.
  • We don’t need more training. More often than not, training on the EAM system is navigationally based. Key processes and roles are left out of the discussion. This approach leads to bad data on day two.

Facing Fears

Unspoken fears can also hinder proactive maintenance. Many power plant managers and supervisors do not welcome criticism. They may not be keen on setting up advanced key performance indicators such as percentage of reactive maintenance, weekly schedule compliance, and backlog growth trends. Similarly, managers may fear that creating an EAM work order (and entering actuals) for all their work means they will come under constant and potentially crippling scrutiny. The best advice is to get 100% on board and dive into the process. The primary purpose of measurement is to find opportunities for improvement in a very competitive world.

Getting Started

To institute proactive maintenance, power plants need to clearly define their goals and objectives, and from this, all of the prerequisites to reach those goals. It is important to remember the EAM system is much more than software. Eighty percent of all potential improvement lies in process and procedure. Be absolutely sure that working-level staff are on board and fully committed. Verify key processes to be adhered to via spot checks, auditing, work sampling, and EAM system error checks. Tie all of these actions together using a road map for the future. And remember that real ROI comes with implementation of advanced EAM processes, which include work order feedback in support of reliability centered maintenance, basic failure analysis, maintenance planning/scheduling, and (major) project scope/cost control tracking (including outages).

Gather up all of the representative user groups and form a Core Team. From this team, create formal business rules and EAM system operating procedures. Identify “sore points” in the form of inadequate training, missing foundation data, or missing reports. Even the meaning of planning and scheduling must be defined. The definition of planning can be quite involved, but for the purposes of this article it includes task steps, craft/skills codes, number of workers, and estimated hours and materials.

Reality Check: Key Points

Some power plants will only focus on emergency/urgent work and never choose to plan any work. Some plants may plan work, but never schedule work. Some plants might not have any records in their maintenance backlog. In this case, a paradigm shift is needed. Not all power plants have a full-time planner/scheduler or reliability engineer. Yet, for an EAM system to contain accurate data, someone must accept responsibility for data input and analysis. Clever and efficient use of the system requires your input.

The overall maintenance program needs to include a proper balance of preventive, corrective, and emergency/urgent maintenance. Worker feedback should be enabled and expected. Through a formal feedback loop, the maintenance strategy should be continually reviewed and refined. All PM templates should be fully planned (including those for labor and parts). PM schedules should be near 100% compliance. Emergency/urgent work should have quick response times, but all other work should be planned and scheduled. Key performance indicators should help identify areas of (needed) improvement.

Operational Excellence Is the Goal

Power plant maintenance is necessarily complex and carries significant risk and responsibility. Yet, much of the promise of an EAM system in terms of efficiency and reliability gains has not been realized by the industry. As the energy industry faces a transformative 21st century, power plants that are not fully leveraging their EAM system risk falling behind the industry average. Changing culture is hard and may take months (or years), but it is never too late to start trying. To ensure success, power plant leaders must begin with process improvement initiatives, carefully manage and implement changes, and follow up with periodic audits. By creating a long-term strategic road map, power plants can achieve operational excellence, optimize expenditures, and provide a substantial return on investment.

—Contributed by John Reeve (jreeve@cohesivesolutions.com), manager and senior consultant for Cohesive Information Solutions Inc.