An industrial power plant at sunset

The Path to Better Maintenance Qualifications & Procedures

I recently saw a poster in a buddy’s garage that said, “Every 20-minute job is a broken bolt away from becoming a 3-day ordeal” and I couldn’t agree more.

For those who have snapped a stud off flush in an engine or a pump casing, it is a sound and a feeling you never forget.  It is also a corrective experience you never want to relive.  Yet, I’m willing to bet that every day there is a novice mechanic out there putting all their weight on tightening the packing of a major valve at the risk of their safety and the plant’s operation.  Snap that stud, and we are suddenly moving into an unscheduled outage or worse.  Why was the new hire sent out to do such a high consequence job?  Don’t they know what could happen?  Until the consequences of maintenance gone wrong are considered, the idea of maintenance qualifications may seem ridiculous.

Certainly, there exist maintenance items that are so benign that you’d entrust your child to complete them.  Conversely, there are other maintenance procedures that only one person on the plant is allowed to perform.  So how and where is the line drawn?  Clearly, a better option would be to have multiple technicians with qualifications to perform even the most specialized maintenance procedures.

In my maintenance days, I was the only person allowed to work on the pneumatic Automated Boiler Controls (ABC) System.  The consequences were high and like most boilers, this one HAD to run.  After a few instances of being called in on my off time to troubleshoot the ABC, I decided there needed to be others entrusted to work on the system; after all, I wouldn’t be there forever.  So we started enacting a program with the idea of training your replacement.

The most well-rounded and flexible organizations are those who have employees with a high level of experience and are universally qualified; that is, regardless of maintenance complexity, as many people as feasible were certified to do the job.  To enact the philosophy of training your replacement, every time a maintenance task was performed, there had to be a technician present with adequate qualifications at the job joined by a relative novice at the procedure.

Once the maintenance task was completed, the novice’s qualification for the maintenance task was documented.  The next time around, they could perform the procedure “under instruction” of a technician qualified on the work as approved by the Maintenance Supervisor.  This was true whether the procedure was simply replacing a ventilation filter or rebuilding a critical pump.

Training your junior maintenance personnel should include training them to perform a maintenance briefing with the Control Room, including providing the Control Room with a brief overview of steps that will be taken, precautions, prerequisites, and an explanation of how risks will be mitigated throughout the maintenance item.  The conclusion of the maintenance brief should always be asking the trainee, “What is the worst thing that could happen?”  From here, you can gauge their level of understanding of the procedure, the plant and their confidence in the job.  Continue probing by asking them, “What controls have you put in place to prevent that from happening?” and “What will be your actions if that happens?”

A side effect of the new method: it quickly becomes clear where maintenance procedures are lacking.  If there is “secret” knowledge that a veteran of this maintenance procedure has – the novice will make the procedural omission immediately apparent and change management can go into effect.  Is scaffolding necessary?  Is it a good idea to pre-soak bolts with penetrant?  Should we soak packing overnight before beginning?  Should we order a bolt that experience has shown is likely to break?  These are all good things to roll into the maintenance database.  Soon, every maintenance technician’s book of secrets is accessible and codified in the procedure from which all can benefit.

Sounds like an administrative nightmare, you say?  It may be, at first.  We don’t have the manpower to cover every job like that!  Could it be that your “best people” are overburdened doing 75% of the work while 75% of your people are doing the easy 25% of maintenance hours?  What if 90% of your maintenance force could do 100% of jobs correctly the first time from a valid, proven, printed procedure?

It would be a rare valid argument from a Maintenance Manager if asked to approve a young technician to observe a complex task.  If you’ve broken a stud off in a pump casing, I will bet you would have appreciated someone who had done it before warning you and recommending you presoak the stud or use heat and counter-torque.  When considering the cost of spending three days doing a twenty-minute job, the cost-benefit of learning is clear.

Qualify your people to do your job, and you will soon find yourself out of that job – not because you have failed, but because you have succeeded in being promoted.