MRO Magazine

Get the skinny on Lean maintenance


September 14, 2001
By PEM Magazine

Unlike the many utopian production models that have come and gone over the years, the concept of Lean manufacturing is actually an enterprise-wide approach to integrating efficiency.

Patterned after the popular and highly effective Toyota production system, Lean essentially incorporates proven methods aimed at removing any form of waste from daily manufacturing processes, regardless of department, without necessarily adding any new equipment.

What role should maintenance take in the planning and implementation processes? How should a maintenance manager go about integrating the Lean principles into the department operations? In what aspects does Lean truly impact the maintenance department?

Role in planning
Implementing Lean within any enterprise necessitates the ability of various departments to work in conjunction with one another as a team with a congruent mission or goal. Typically, the initial team planning and brainstorming meetings are referred to as Kaizens. Initially, maintenance will play a key role in Kaizens as the enterprise is restructuring its production environment to eventually meet the overall goal of single-piece flow capability.


According to Sam Swoyer, Vice President of TBM Consulting Group (, a consulting firm based in Durham, North Carolina that helps firms transform their operations into Lean enterprises, "Maintenance is an especially important cog in the beginning of the Lean implementation process.

Using the Kaizens breakthrough process, we create diverse teams that develop methods to capitalize on continuously improve." says Swoyer. "And initially, we work almost exclusively to develop smooth workflow, which in many cases results in the need for the quick movement of equipment to suit the desired need."

One of the key areas of activity for a maintenance department is the ability to support this type of event. Recognizing that the traditional maintenance approach is to take a series of CAD drawings, study the move, brief everyone on the project and make the necessary moves during a plant shutdown, the prompt moves implemented during a Lean reorganization can be quite taxing. So, initially the maintenance organization must be very flexible and be able to prepare for a number of different situations.

Effectively eliminating waste
This is always one of the most difficult aspects of implementing Lean — recognizing how your existing methods fail. In order to recognize waste within the department it may be necessary to rely somewhat on criticism from external departments. Since individuals within these departments are not intimately involved in your affairs they have less of an attachment — much like an editor reviewing a writer’s work. One of the best ways to handle this is to implement a cross-categorical Kaizen blitz to recognize potential areas of improvement.

Once the production workflow is improved it is crucial for the maintenance department to use the same Kaizens to find areas within the maintenance department that need improvement and to develop solutions. Once aware of the areas that demand immediate attention, it is time to draw up a plan of attack.

As Bill Fetterman president of consulting and Lean implementation firm CMD says: "It is crucial for a firm serious about Lean to implement a system for ensuring that maintenance plans and systems meet the needs of the operating teams, thereby guaranteeing that equipment effectiveness is understood, measured and improving; equipment uptime meets the needs of the manufacturing operating teams and systems are in place to monitor equipment performance; and that maintenance activities are reviewed for sufficiency. Undoubtedly, the goal is 100 percent predictability of equipment performance. Remember however that having smaller inventories yields limited tolerance for unscheduled downtime."

Long-term effects
As one would expect, the implementation of such an all-encompassing program will have long-term effects to each department involved. Routinely for the maintenance department, it will entirely restructure the duties of the staff.

Traditionally maintenance departments have been reactive rather than proactive and when fully implemented, the Lean maintenance department will be a predictive group using tables and tools designed to ascertain that costly downtime will not occur. Undoubtedly, downtime does occur, but through the implementation of various Lean principles, maintenance is able to label equipment and provide production employees with the training necessary to understand how a machine is operating which can significantly enhance a maintenance department’s ability to attack a situation before it becomes a problem through proactive operator interaction. Specifically, the training allows an operator to better detect abnormalities that when unnoticed and left untreated can lead to significant downtime.

Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Cascade Engineering is an ideal example since it has been very successful in using Lean to train its operators to assist the maintenance department. As a portion of the training, the maintenance department has effectively labelled all areas of concern on its machinery. The labelling of all aspects of the equipment facilitates easy maintenance and identification. For example, when the rear hydraulic assembly is leaking, the operator can call maintenance and let them know exactly where they noticed a problem thereby eliminating guesswork and yielding shorter downtimes. Furthermore, systematic checks are identified on the machine in red or yellow lettering identifying the necessary order. For instance, weekly check step one would be written inside a box with red lettering.

Over time maintenance’s role can take a drastic turn. According to TMP, "After the initial moves are made and workflow is optimized as far as machinery moves are concern, maintenance gets actively involved in improving fixturing, rebuilding and upgrading tooling, modifying equipment to capitalize on automated processes." In many cases the maintenance department actually must become much more creative in its role.

Such resulting creativity is quite evident in many of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based automotive components producer, Lacks Enterprises. Lacks starting integrating Lean concepts a few years back and has already seen drastic changes within the role of its maintenance departments. Robert Tice, Maintenance Manager at the Barden St. Assembly plant has taken the opportunities provided by Lean to begin implementing more automation solutions. For instance, at this facility, the maintenance department has designed and built a system that uses pneumatics to aid operators in lifting various wheel components thereby facilitating assembly by reducing the amount of time it takes to move components and further reducing the possibility of injury.

Peter Fretty is a freelance writer based in Michigan. He can be reached at