MRO Magazine

No Wrong Decisions

By Cliff Williams   

Machinery and Equipment Maintenance Operations Mining & Resources

This article is part of an ongoing series. The introduction appeared in Machinery & Equipment MRO's February 2005 issue and the series has run in every issue since. Previous instalments are archiv...

This article is part of an ongoing series. The introduction appeared in Machinery & Equipment MRO’s February 2005 issue and the series has run in every issue since. Previous instalments are archived online at this issue, we pick up where we left off in the April 2009 edition, as maintenance manager Bob Edwards and members of his team visit a US paper mill.

A fter lunch, Alan, the US mill’s mechanical team lead, took us back to the maintenance complex where we found a group standing in the shop.

“These are some of our maintenance technicians and they’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have,” he said.

Stan, our millwright, jumped right in, “How do you find working here? Lots of freedom, lots of responsibility — isn’t it a bit scary?”


“Not at all — we all like the way things are here.”

“Of course you’re going to like things with this gentleman standing here,” I laughed, pointing to Alan.

“Hey, there’s an easy way to eliminate that influence. I’ll be upstairs when you’re done,” Alan said as he turned and headed to his office.

“Okay guys, what’s it really like, now that he’s gone?”

“As we said, we all like the way things operate around here. It’s completely different to other places any of us have worked — but different in a good way. We do have a lot of responsibilities but we also have the freedom and authority to meet those responsibilities. As long as we can deliver profits, there’s no reason to imagine that we’ll change.”

This supported what Alan had told us over lunch.

“What do you mean by responsibilities and authorities?” Stan asked.

“Well let’s take the off-shifts — there is no real supervisor. The paper machine operator has the ultimate responsibility for reporting any major upsets, but that is usually done through our online log book. We only call management if the mill has been down for more than four hours and we’re still not certain when we’ll be back up. If we’re down for eight hours, we call the production manager to inform him of what we’re doing and what we’re going to do.”

I wondered what Fred, our production manager, would think of this, since he insisted on being called for every little thing. I decided that this approach was a result of everything else they were doing at the mill and not a tool to achieve it. We had a lot of work to do before we got to that stage.

“We used to have two millwrights, an electrician and an instrument technician on shift, but now we have just one millwright and the electrician, and their responsibility is simple — keep the mill running — not just on their shift but the next shift as well. In the rare occurrences that they need help, the guys have the authority to call in whoever it is they need, whether it’s our people or contractors.

“Whenever we do a breakdown analysis, we always include the people who worked on the shift prior to the breakdown so we can find out if there was any change that led to the breakdown. If there is something, we incorporate it into our checklists.

“The same applies to parts, as we partner a lot with our suppliers and they hold a lot of stock for us, so the shift guys just call when it’s necessary. Although that worked pretty well for us in keeping our inventory down, we have just modified the program.”

Carol seemed really interested in this and asked, “When you say you’ve kept inventory down, do you have any idea what your inventory turn was last year? “

That was something we’d been trying to get to grips with back in Toronto.

“We can do better than that,” and we were guided towards the big KPI (key performance indicator) board.

On the board was a section for stores where they had the monthly spending itemized by area of the mill, along with a year of trending data. Then we saw the inventory total for each month and a running inventory turn measure. We could see that the number had improved from a decent turn of 2.2, to the last month where they had an excellent 3.2 turn.

“We started out at around 1.5 turns when we first did the calculations, but when we began partnering with suppliers, it jumped significantly. So we’ve been adding items to the partnering and started to move towards single suppliers. That’s how we got to 3.2.”

“You said you were modifying the system? Why, as it seems to be working spectacularly?” It was Carol again.

“The danger in using any measurement in isolation is that you don’t always see the impact elsewhere, but we’ve never done that here. We always look at the measures we have as a whole and we noticed that there was a slight increase in call-outs for parts on the off-shift. They didn’t incur much more downtime, as our suppliers have a better delivery record than Pizza Pizza! But the potential was there — we were relying on our suppliers to be efficient in helping our efficiency and any slip-up on their part would adversely affect us, so that was declared an unacceptable risk.”

The way the guys talked about the plant, the efficiency and the measures totally re-enforced the idea of ownership and pride in being part of the organization. This made me feel jealous and motivated at the same time. I couldn’t wait to get back to Toronto.

“We had a couple of brainstorming sessions around how we could mitigate the risk of not having a part on the shelf but still increase our inventory turns. When one of the operators mentioned that his wife ran a Previously Enjoyed Clothing Store and she stocked her shelves but never paid for anything until it was sold, he got our attention. We had never discussed the idea with our suppliers of having parts on consignment, and when we did, they were a little bit sceptical at first. However, I think we’ve got most of the agreements set up now, so we’ll end up with all of our parts on site and all it costs us is some real estate.”

You could almost see Carol’s brain turning over. She had mentioned the possibility of partnering with suppliers a few weeks ago, but now she was clearly invigorated by what she had just heard. When I caught her attention, she just nodded and smiled.

Stan hadn’t said much since he’d asked about responsibilities, but I could see that he had something on his mind, so I asked. “Have you got something you want to know, Stan?”

“Well, Bob and Carol know that I’m a very recent convert to our improvement program and I guess I still have some small doubts. You guys say you make all of the decisions yourselves. What happens if you make the wrong one?”

“That’s a good question, Stan, but let’s clear up something first. There are some decisions we don’t make. In fact, there are three forms of decisions made here. The first is that we have input and have responsibility for making the decision. The second is when we have input, but the ultimate decision lies with someone else — someone like Alan. And the third is when the decision is made by someone else and we only get to learn the rationale behind it.

“Now, about making the wrong decisions, there’s really only one rule about decision making — make one! Again, as we don’t operate in isolation, we get the facts and opinions, and make the decision based on those.

“If it turns out not to be the best decision, we don’t call them wrong; we just figure out why it happened and try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It may take training, knowledge transfer or just more information, but what is not acceptable is that people continue to make ‘not best’ decisions. That’s an indicator that the system is failing or we have someone in a position with the wrong ‘fit’.

“The whole focus is to have the decision makers as close as possible to the issues. That’s why we’re heavily involved — we’re on the front line. There’s no stigma attached to making a ‘not best’ decision, as we share all of them throughout the mill, and we view them as great tools for preventing similar circumstances.”

At this point, Alan came down the stairs. “I think you’ve got just about enough time to see the rest of the mill before you have to leave — if you want to catch your flight.”

We thanked everyone and followed Alan as he headed toward the paper machine. As we had come to expect, everything was spotless and in its place. I noticed that everything was not just in its place, but its location also was the optimum for its use, so I mentioned this to Alan.

“5S is not just about housekeeping, although that’s a mistake many people make. It’s also about having things where it makes sense to have them and that’s where you use them, so when we do floor plans, we always take that into consideration.”

Every area we walked through exuded pride and care. The control rooms were bright and airy, each with a number of information boards. The satellite lunch rooms had everything found in a modern kitchen. But perhaps the most telling was the people. Everyone had a smile on their face and seemed keen to talk with us about how successful the mill was and how the bottom line was what counted. A couple of them talked about how well they were treated. It was clear that the message that the operating model was to make a profit had been loudly communicated.

As we said our goodbyes to Alan, he commented: “Now don’t forget to invite us up to Canada when you’ve made all of the changes you’ve been thinking about, as there’s nothing more rewarding for the guys than going to see how their ideas have helped elsewhere.”

I didn’t know when that would take place, but I made a mental note to do just that.

Cliff Williams is the corporate maintenance manager at Erco Worldwide in Toronto, ON, and a consultant with TMS -Total Maintenance Solutions Inc., Markham, ON. He can be reached by e-mail at


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