In my book, “Uptime – Strategies for Excellence in Maintenance Management”, I describe a number of successful practices in physical asset maintenance and reliability management. I also discuss reviewing or assessing current state and comparing with those practices. This implies to many that a formal assessment is needed. In fact that is a first step in many very standard consulting projects – determine where you are as a prerequisite for determining where you want to go and how to get there. However, I believe there is a better approach in cases where you will need to gain widespread support for any change initiative that will follow.
It’s based on a simple premise that we are basically quite good at change, but terrible at being changed. None of us likes to be told we are doing poorly, and then told how we should correct that performance. However, throughout life we have all set our own goals and determined what we will do to achieve them. Whenever the desired change is our idea, we tend to follow through and achieve it, sometimes on our own, and sometimes with help.
As management consultants we are pretty good at helping others make beneficial changes happen, yet most of us have struggled with issues of change management. Why?
Conventional consulting approaches
The client has a problem that must be solved. Generally they know that something is wrong and they are stuck without a good idea of how to solve it. They ask us for help. We often start with an assessment which largely serves to get us up to speed on their problems and the reasons behind them.
Assessments determine the current state of affairs, judge what’s good and bad about it, give it a score, provide a long list of recommendations and then build an improvement strategy based on the outcome. Following that we might facilitate a strategy workshop with a a select leadership team, work up a detailed plan, pilot or begin a “big bang” style roll out throughout the organization. Then the fun really begins!
We need a lot of change management. In part, that is because we know we will run into resistance. Consider that a lot of that resistance is because we’ve ignored the above premise – none of us likes to be changed!
If your client already knows that performance isn’t good enough, knows they are doing something wrong (but maybe not what), and the leadership is looking for answers, then consider an alternative approach.
Assessments create animosity and resistance
The conventional approach of assessing, recommending and building an improvement strategy has a major flaw when dealing with people – it often leads to feelings of animosity towards those who carried it out. The process requires that judgement be applied to what is observed. That judgement usually takes the form of “this is good” or “that is bad” and likely includes some sort of score to reinforce just “how bad”. Head office (those who usually commission the assessment) and the consultants (those who carry it out), can become alienated from the site being assessed in the process.
At the corporate level, when dealing with broad external and systemic internal factors where no-one is to “blame,” this can and does work. In those cases where people are sufficiently isolated from blame for the problem the assessment doesn’t generate animosity.
However, when dealing with specific functional areas like maintenance, MRO materials management, purchasing, etc., we are dealing with technology, processes and PEOPLE. Consider too that the people in those functional areas may have had a lot to do with the current processes and even the technology (whether it works or not). There is usually a degree of “ownership” in the status quo, even if that status quo is far from ideal. Ownership of a change is needed, and ownership of the status quo, gets in the way. Challenge the status quo, and you are challenging the owners!
So why use an assessment?
Assessments will give you a score – quantify what you already knew was bad, but do you really need the score? If you knew things were bad enough to warrant the assessment, don’t you already have a business case for change? Even if you can’t quantify it precisely, you already know roughly what the problem is costing the business. You also know that the cost (financially, reputation, etc.), is sufficiently high to warrant some effort to change it.
Consider that your clients’ people already know what they are doing and in all likelihood can see ways of doing things better. In all likelihood, if the executive can see a problem, it’s really bad at the shop floor and there may even be frustration that nothing has yet been done about it.
What is often lacking however, is a good idea of what works well and what does not. They may not know “what good looks like”.
Example: I’ve met many materials managers who truly believe they are doing a fantastic job by keeping the dollar value of inventory levels down even though service levels (as determined by asking mechanics about their store room experiences) are poor. Money is saved by reducing parts inventory but lost due to the lack of productivity on the part of the tradesmen who then spend too much time looking for those missing parts. Perhaps the inventory that was removed didn’t belong, but the solution is to get the right parts, not just remove the wrong ones. I’ve met many maintenance supervisors and trades who are proud of their ability to get parts “in spite of” the storeroom’s poor service performance. That shows that they care, but it also reveals a deep problem in maintenance planning and its integration with supply chain processes.
Example: Maintenance supervisors, trades and managers are often proud of their ability to put out fires – get repairs done rapidly under arduous and emergency conditions. Operations is halted due to some equipment breakdown and needs to come back up rapidly. Perhaps they have egos that crave to be recognized for a job well done. Consider that poor maintenance is one of the likely causes of the failure – the reward for doing a bad maintenance job is being praised for fixing things when they break. The wrong behaviour is being rewarded. The business would benefit more if the failures were avoided instead of repaired. But if no one at the facility is aware of how to be proactive and avoid those problems, then break then fix then reward is a easily implemented (but wrong) strategy.
Both of those examples are very common. Knowing what good looks like would really help. An assessment by an unbiased third party will reveal the problem but if we reveal successful practices to those who live in that environment day to day, they too will come up with solutions.
Teach and then ask
No one likes to be told they are doing poorly, yet most of us seek continual improvement (change). Our behaviour changes if our thinking changes. Our perspectives change through learning, observation and experience.
Your clients have part of the experience (usually the bad part), they have some knowledge (but probably not enough if they need help) and their experience has been bad, yet they have observed enough elsewhere to know that it can be improved.
Several years ago I postulated that if we ditched the assessment and went straight into training in successful practice, we might get result more quickly and with less resistance. Using that approach has indeed proven to work well in the maintenance, operations and reliability realm. I believe it can work well elsewhere that “shop floor” (or equivalent) help is needed to implement changes successfully.
The training we deliver up front is relevant to the problems that need to be resolved. Making sure of that requires a relatively brief conceptual assessment to make sure that the customer isn’t trying to solve the wrong problem. Example: one client, a major mine operation, was unhappy with reliability of its shovels (a key piece of equipment that virtually all production depends upon). Over the phone we discussed the shovel problem and helped the mine manager realize that it was only a symptom of a much broader problem with reliability, the maintenance and even operational practices. I find that often the client focuses on the symptoms and not the underlying causes and it is usually pretty easy to help them see that. Arguably that is an assessment of sorts, but it takes place in a single or very short series of conversations as part of the consultative sales approach that we use.
The technical solutions to the reliability problem on the shovel are easily identified but they won’t be solved if we don’t address those deeper issues. Addressing them as a pilot won’t work either – you can’t expect to change behaviours when the people involved are surrounded by many others who have not changed.
The engagement that follows is usually much larger than the original “shovel solution” would have warranted on its own, and it will deliver far greater results and value. Those initial discussions reveal that we need to correct problems with knowledge, practices, possibly systems, possibly skills, and in both maintenance and operations. There may also be problems with supply chain, training approaches, human resource approaches, etc. In order to change behavior, we must first change the thinking.
Unlike an assessment that could be shelved, training add value right from the start. We show them what “good looks like”. As they learn about “good” or “successful” practices (note – there is no “best”), they get ideas. They know what they are doing today and they cannot help but compare current practice with what they are learning. They have ideas. We make sure to gather those ideas during the training. Imagine walls papered with improvements in their handwriting on flip charts, or plastered with sticky notes that they’ve written out. Some of what is identified will address other initiatives that may be on the go, initiative overload problems, leadership and communication problems.
In one case, a municipality, we did this with four different groups made up of people from mixes of different departments. The more technical ideas tended to be department specific but the leadership, communication and human resource ideas that emerged were remarkably consistent. When the municipality’s various departmental directors hear about this coming from a “maintenance training session” (the first one), we started to see them show up at the subsequent sessions. The ideas that emerged were a real eye-opener for the leadership team. Initially most of them had deemed the training to be too “tactical” for them to gain benefit by attending. After that first class, word got out (without even trying), senior management and executives began attending. Culture was already starting to shift.
In an assessment, it is pretty common to get improvement ideas from the people you interview – that’s essentially what we are doing in the training, except it is done with a group and often accompanied with a discussion that can add considerable insight (more ideas) into what must happen to facilitate the change.
We are delivering training and facilitating the gathering of ideas. We are not “observing and judging” we are “teaching and asking”.
The training expands their awareness and changes their perspective on what they see as good and bad. The lists of ideas are often staggering – and many of the ideas are easily implemented. We’ve been using this approach and found that once we open that idea tap, it won’t be turned off. Even people who come into the training skeptical and determined to resist any attempts to change, catch on to the energy in the room and join in. In a couple of cases we’ve experienced militant union leaders who actually got onboard with the whole program intention and became valuable contributors and later, leaders of the change.
This approach unleashes creative talent. The lists of ideas are the equivalent of the consultants’ list of recommendations found in what would otherwise be a rather dull report at risk of going nowhere.
Development of an improvement strategy from that point on-wards is easy. What should we do with that creative tap – use it, encourage ideas and act on them. One important caution - if you use this approach, you will get lots of ideas, and if you don’t at least begin to act on them, you’ll risk creating resistance to yet another “program of the month”.
We use this approach to avoid the animosity that can be generated as a result of assessment work. It avoids a common and significant hurdle at the beginning of many corporate transition programs. By taking improvement ideas generated by plant employees we ensure that the transition is theirs from the outset. Any good change manager knows that if the ideas come from the people who must implement them, they are far more likely to make it work, than to give up. What’s more, the ideas are based on years of their observations – they are highly accurate. A consultant doing an assessment in a compressed time frame can easily make mistakes.
Unlike a consultant who is there for a short time and invariably misses something or misses the underlying reasons behind current practices and why they are the way they are, the outcomes are based on deep insight and experience.
Consultants can be terrific teachers, observers and facilitators but they can’t replace the knowledge and experience that our customers’ workforce holds close. Consultants can help them tap into it, and quite easily, even if the customer’s own management team can’t seem to get co-operation. Consider this powerful approach for the value it can generate quickly and for the changes that it helps to spark which will then stand a very high chance of being sustained.
About the Author
James Reyes-Picknell is the Principal Consultant and Co-Founder of Conscious Asset. He specializes in the management of asset, maintenance and reliability and leads the process improvement efforts and delivers much of the organization’s training. He is a Professional Engineer, Certified Management Consultant, and Certified Asset Management Assessor.
James has co-authored “Reliability Centered Maintenance – Re-engineered: Practical Optimization of the RCM Process with RCM-R®“, in 2017. And he is the best-selling author of “Uptime – Strategies for Excellence in Maintenance Management“, 2015, several other books and many published articles in a variety of magazines. James is a teacher, trainer, speaker and management consultant who focuses on finding hidden value in his client' operations.
To learn more, visit: https://consciousasset.com/
 John D Campbell (d) and James Reyes-Picknell, “Uptime – Strategies for Excellence in Maintenance Management”, 3rd ed., 2015, Productivity Press, NY