MRO Magazine

Can you be great?


Human Resources Machinery and Equipment Maintenance Operations

How many 10-year-olds at school, when asked "What would you like to be when you grow up?" would reply "A maintenance manager." A safe bet is that the answer is none.

How many 10-year-olds at school, when asked “What would you like to be when you grow up?” would reply “A maintenance manager.” A safe bet is that the answer is none.

How many 10-year-olds would have any idea what a maintenance manager is – or how many 20-year-olds or even 30-year-olds? When you think about it, there is no real way that those not directly involved in maintenance management could understand what it is.

When was the last time you saw that a superhero’s alter-ego as a maintenance manager? What’s the title of a romantic movie where the dashing white knight came in the guise of an asset reliability professional? I love to imagine a new television series entitled ‘Miami RCM’, where teams of investigators rush out and do vibration analysis. Then the team gets together to examine infra-red footage, and I just can’t wait for the close-up shot of the oil analysis slide under the microscope.

Am I dreaming? I must be. But my thoughts do raise some important questions.


1. Who are the people that become maintenance managers?

2. How does it happen?

3. What is it exactly that they do?

Let’s take a look at the typical answers to these questions and then take an alternative view to answering the third question and see if it has an impact on the other questions.

Question 1: Who are the people that become maintenance managers?

 The people who become maintenance managers tend to have a background in one of three scenarios.

a. The largest group already work in the maintenance environment as tradespeople, planners, and so on.

b. They are engineers who decide that they wish to take their expertise into the maintenance field.

c. They are project managers/engineers who stay behind after machinery and equipment installations.

Question 2: How does it happen?

 For each answer to Question 1, there is a different route.

a. They were good at what they did. They were the ‘go-to’ guys when you needed something fixed. They knew more about the equipment than anyone else. They, and management, believed that these attributes meant they deserved to be maintenance managers.

b. They found that there were limited opportunities for true engineering and figured their design and theoretical knowledge of equipment and systems would hold them in good stead in maintenance. Management really liked the idea of having an engineer in maintenance because of that knowledge.

c. Having spent incredible energy and time on the project, they decide to stick around and see the fruits of their work. Management is delighted that ‘the guy who installed it’ is going to be around if something goes wrong.

Question 3: What is it exactly that they do?

This is the big money question and the answer really depends on who you ask, but here are some typical responses:

i. They keep the plant running.

ii. They fix machines.

iii. They provide a service to production.

iv. They look after the tradespeople.

v. They ensure reliability.

I’d like to suggest an alternative, less common, answer to Question 3: They manage people and systems. I would also suggest that the skills and attributes required to be successful are not the ones usually asked for in job postings for maintenance managers.

If a job posting were to really reflect the requirements for a maintenance manager it might look something like the Help Wanted ad shown on this page. Let’s take a look at why the atypical skills listed in the ad are important to being a maintenance manager.

Amateur Psychology: “There is not enough time in the day to do everything I need to.” I’ve heard that comment so many times from maintenance managers and it’s true – if they try and do it all themselves. Successful managers only do those things that they alone can do. Everything else, they manage through their people – and that’s where psychology comes in.

Let’s look at two definitions of psychology:

1. The emotional and behavioural characteristics of an individual or group.

2. Subtle tactical action or argument used to manipulate or influence another.

Understanding definition Number 1 and knowing that it changes from day to day will allow you to modify your response. Late nights, domestic upsets, etc., result in different attitudes and require different approaches to get the same outcomes. Knowing this will, in turn, allow you to exert definition Number 2 and that enables you to get what you need done.

You cannot do everything alone. You need your people on board and you need to know what makes them tick. Situational Management courses can help you to learn to use psychology to move your under-achievers to self-regulating performers.

Conflict Resolution: “Night shift didn’t do anything.” “That’s not my job; it’s electrical.” “If they knew how to operate the machine, this wouldn’t have happened.” Who hasn’t heard comments like that? The conflict between groups ends up taking too much time out of your day and prevents you from getting done what you want. Most of us are so busy tha
t we just deal with the surface issue, the sticking point, the symptom. We never take – or think we have – the time to look at the underlying causes of such conflict. Because of this, we’ll likely be facing a similar problem the following week.

There are usually a number of root causes for conflict, but there is one that occurs in every mix of people, and that’s communication. So if we take the time to resolve the communication problem, then we will help resolve the issue before it becomes a conflict.

Initially, the biggest part of communication is listening. This will not only allow you understand the actual cause of the conflict, but it will also show those involved that you to care about their problems. There’s that good old Amateur Psychology again.

If there seems to be systemic conflict, then approaches like multi-discipline teams or holding combined meetings (e.g. Mechanical and E&I, or Maintenance and Operations) will help bring the groups closer together. Once people are aware of each other’s challenges, then there is room for compromise and that, in itself, will reduce conflict.

Mind Reader: “Sorry, but we’re running that equipment today after all.” “I know it’s not working properly – it’s been like that for months.” If only we could read minds, then we wouldn’t bring in an army of contractors, only to be told the first excuse. And we wouldn’t need call-ins to deal with the second problem.

People tend to be concerned with what is important to them and do not always consider their impact on others. A way to reduce the need for the skill of mind-reading is to show others the impact of their actions on you, on themselves and on the company – and remind them about it every time they forget.

Having people understand that it’s not what you know that causes problems (it’s what you don’t know) will help them to communicate better.

Prioritization: “I need it done now!” “I want that report tomorrow!” “Daddy, when will you be home?” Being a maintenance manager means that your priorities are only a part of the process. You have to take into account the demands of tradespeople, production and your boss when you develop your priorities. These demands are sometimes unreasonable and can be great stress inducers, so staying calm becomes a necessary asset.

For those people who always have a million priorities, here’s just a calm reminder that yesterday, when they gave you another 10 ‘top priorities’ to deal with, while you really want to satisfy them, you need to have them tell you which is their ‘top’ top priority. That may diffuse the situation.

Even your boss will come to accept this approach – as long as you remain calm. While you’re having this discussion, why not prioritize the next five ‘top priorities’ and then send the boss a copy of the list that’s been agreed to. Invite the boss to prioritization meetings and if he or she is too busy to show up, then document that fact in the minutes of the meeting. Prioritization is far more difficult if you haven’t mastered the skill of Amateur Psychology.

Last, but most important, is prioritizing your work-life balance. You may get another job, you may earn more money, but you can’t gain back time.

Motivation and Inspiration: “But we’ve always done it that way.” “I don’t understand this new-fangled technology.” “This is boring!” People become complacent or at least comfortable in their work life. There’s nothing more challenging to that comfort than change. Change happens, change is constant; it’s how we transition after change that makes it good or bad.

You need to be the champion of change for the maintenance group. Whether it’s different equipment, different strategies, a new CMMS, or just a change in a procedure or policy, you need to demonstrate how you will embrace it. Only then will you be able to motivate others to accept change.

On a day-to-day basis, you need to show that you’re prepared to go the extra mile and that you’re right there with them in their efforts. There’s no better motivator than recognition (money is short term), so make an effort to give recognition to people every day. It can be a simple thank-you, tickets to a ball game or whatever is proportional to the effort. But also make sure that it is appropriate for the person being recognized. Not everyone likes public recognition, so maybe a quiet word will do. For those who do like the publicity, the middle of a full lunch room is the place to be. Giving Argos tickets to a Tiger Cats fan will defeat the objective. It’s that Amateur Psychology again!

Being enthusiastic, energized and always willing to help will lead you to become an inspiration for those working with you. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, stop doing it – life is too short and you certainly won’t inspire anyone else.

Communication Specialist: “What’s the point? They never listen!” “Nobody told me about that.” As mentioned under Conflict Resolution, poor communication – or a complete lack of communication – can cause many problems, so this skill is essential to a maintenance manager. Being a good speaker certainly helps but being a good listener is even better, as it’s not all about you.

This is still only half the story. When you’ve listened, respond. Do something or do nothing, but respond! Always get back to them, even if you know they won’t like what they’re going to hear. Set the ground rules for that by establishing that there will be issues that the group controls, issues that they will be able to influence, and issues that they will just be made aware of. Communicate reasons for business, department or personal decisions. Attempt to meet with the group every week, together or in smaller groups, where you need to present the three I’s of communication:

• Involve them – ask opinions, discuss any options.

• Interest them – make it interesting, give them background, reasons, constraints.

• In it for them – tell them how they’ll benefit, if possible, or how they’ll be affected.

Try to start your meetings with some high notes. Get into the meaty part and then leave on a light note. Sending the group out in good humour will increase productivity.

Prima Donna Management: “Go get Joe, he’s the expert.” Every plant has at least one ‘Joe’ – the person who fixes certain problems and often little else. He can put out fires quicker than anyone else, but don’t ask him to do a mundane PM. He enjoys the glory and keeps the knowledge to himself.

The secret is to use Amateur Psychology to get him to be recognized for doing the things you want him to do. For example, if someone else gives some training, heap on the glory. If you want him to move to being more proactive – to prevent fires – then make that the glamorous job. There are also Prima Donna departments who want to be considered differently. To break down barriers, locate shops next to each other and hold multi-discipline meetings. When people are forced to interact with one another, the barriers come down by themselves.

Interpreter: “The ROI is dependent on your OEE and will be influenced by your MTBF and MTTR, and will result from your PM, PdM and RCM programs, with any FMCEA carried out.” Say what?

If they can’t understand what you’re saying, how can they help you achieve your goals? Interpret what the maintenance gurus are saying into practical, everyday examples. Interpret the consequences of what the tradespeople do or don’t do into something meaningful to them.

As with communication, the listening side of interpretation is more important than the explaining. Many times, tradespeople throw up an argument about something that is distant from what’s bothering them. They’ll complain about how the area is dirty, when what they really are mad about is schedule changes, but if you don’t’ push and try to interpret what the real problem is, you’ll never remove the root cause.

Bilingual: That means you must be fluent in accounting and one other language. Accounting is the language that counts; it’s the language that is understood from the shop floor to the board room and it transcends departmental boundaries. If you want to change something in the department, give the information to your boss in dollars and cents and then use the same dollars and cents to explain why it’s happening to the people on the floor. Plant managers and accountants may not understand the tools or tactics you use, but they will understand the financial implications.

“If we increase our PdM and lessen our PM, our MTBF will lengthen and with some training and early intervention, our MTTR will be reduced” means nothing to them. Better is “If we do what we want, we’ll make more money.”

The best translation that all will understand goes like this: “If we invest $5,000 on vibration analysis per year, we will increase uptime by 2% and realize an increase in revenue of $25,000 based on today’s production rate.” Discussing the total cost of a work order, including labour, cost of lost production, parts, etc., will be much more meaningful to the tradespeople. I’ll guarantee that after a few discussions, you will start to get really good cost-reduction ideas.

Philosopher: Let’s take a look at the definitions of philosophy.

1. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.

2. The critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them.

3. A system of values by which one lives.

Now let’s expand on these.

1. This is about you – get out there and learn about what other people are doing in maintenance. Attend conferences. Develop your own thoughts on how you can apply this wisdom.

2. The more you know and understand about the basic principles of your chosen field, the more you will find ways to improve it. Remember, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward – because everyone else is moving forward.

3. You spend more time at your place of work than any other single place, so why would your values be different at work? Trust, integrity and appreciation are words that should form part of your maintenance dictionary.

You will need this final skill to turn your philosophies into practices.

Visionary: None of the previous skills will mean much unless you develop the final, yet most important, skill –being visionary. You have to push the envelope, think out of the box, reach for the stars or boldly go where no one has gone before – or use whatever cliché you like.

You need to have a vision of where you want to take the maintenance department. Through a vision or mission statement, you must paint the picture of the future of the department – not just what it looks like but also how you will get there, incorporating all of the skills and methods listed previously. If you want people to join you on the journey to excellence, they need to know the route and what they can expect to encounter along the way.

You will also need to develop norms and standards around the values you propose. It’s no good if one of your values is, “We will trust our people,” and then you institute a rigid timekeeping system. It’s no good if you say, “We will value everyone’s contribution,” and then you ignore them every time they suggest something. If there is any doubt that you will be able to support a value with a norm or standard, don’t put it out there.

You need to demonstrate values through your actions, not through t-shirts or colourful wall posters. No amount of sending memos or having discussions will reverse any bad feelings your actions have caused. As the sign that hangs on my office wall wherever I go says: “You can’t talk yourself out of a situation you behaved yourself into.”

The next time someone asks you “What exactly is it that maintenance mangers do?” I hope you’ll reply, “We manage people and systems. Let me explain.”

Cliff Williams is the corporate maintenance manager at Erco Worldwide in Toronto, ON, and a consultant with TMS – Total Maintenance Solutions Inc., Markham, ON. Your comments on this topic are encouraged and should be sent to the Editor at


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