Professional Development: The Brain Drain
By Jerry D. Cederstrom
Published in the February 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Next month, Eddie and Chuck will retire from the maintenance department. Who is going to replace them and their knowledge? What will happen when one of the pieces of equipment they serviced is in need of repair?
These questions are being asked by facility managers (fms) in most U.S. plants today. Every manufacturing facility has its distinct set of maintenance challenges that depend upon one person’s many years of experience. There are certain shutdown procedures that are only handled by one champion. And some temperamental machines will only work when the right person nudges them back into service. So what happens when that person leaves?
There are numerous articles and studies that confirm the loss of skilled personnel (aka the “Brain Drain”). It is a known industry fact—availability of experienced maintenance personnel is a serious problem, and it will only get worse as Baby Boomers leave the workforce.
Companies are incorporating new training programs and trying to adopt apprentice programs, but the die is cast. The near term outlook is not encouraging. It is a simple fact: there are fewer people with the required experience to replace the key individuals who are gone (or will retire soon).
It is possible to overcome the “only Chuck can fix it” syndrome, but it does require an investment of resources. However, in the end, these resources can eventually help to such a degree that numerous “Chucks” will be available to assist with the repair of temperamental equipment or irregular maintenance challenges. In addition to bringing more “Chucks” to the rescue, the incorporation of a smart asset management program can slow the overall loss of critical experience through the infusion of additional knowledge.
Most asset management programs save companies money in the following ways: they reduce overall excess inventory and storage requirements; they help fms evaluate repair of existing equipment (when compared to the purchase of new); and they ensure that stock and parts are available when needed.These are tangible savings, but there are other, more abstract cost cutting advantages that can actually help fms overcome this loss of skilled, critical maintenance technicians.
With a smart asset management program, the human repair experience factor is added to a typical inventory based program (like one described in the previous paragraph). The program then assigns suitable tasks to staff members with the appropriate skills, thus cutting ineffective work hours and costs.
In other words, an asset management program can assignexperienced technicians (or outsource specialized tasks to experts)just like it would track physical parts and equipment. For example,experienced lab technicians or outside experts could take over certainone-time repairs, thus freeing up the plant maintenance workforce forcritical downtime projects or ongoing tasks.
Smartasset management programs strive to achieve the working atmospherewhere the most critical plant maintenance resources are being usedwhere they are most needed. It also means having time and people whocan perform preventive maintenance activities so reactive tasks arereduced.
Effective asset management programs must work in conjunction with talents and skills associated with members of the maintenance staff, so their efforts go beyond the mere replacement of a broken part. A smart system uses the power of specialized software and effective communication programs to analyze why the breakdown or loss of efficiency occurred.
With proper day-to-day recording by a member of the asset management program team, the software can provide reports for review by plant personnel. Program reports would become the focus for discussion in sponsored activities like lunch and learn discussions or continuous improvement meetings.
Most advanced programs rely on professional, on-site account managers who interface closely with the fm and bring key plant personnel together periodically to discuss and address trends observed in the program reports. The account managers also bring specialists from the various supplier repair laboratories to discuss trends appearing in the reports. These experts can then pass along new techniques to maintenance staff memberswho inherit responsibilities after older coworkers retire.
Effective programs offer several methods for developing smarter repair practices. Frequently, there are factory situations where parts/components are not suitable for the application because of improper design or hard use. Having historical failure data, repair lab feedback, and good plant communication increases the effectiveness of the repair.
This important information allows the program supplier to suggest different repair procedures (or the fm can opt to use alternative parts to improve the component fix and lessen plant downtime). The program supplier will have experienced technicians with specific test stands and environmental chambers to simulate real world conditions. This focus and specialization would not be a practical in plant repair situation.
The philosophy of advanced type programs goes beyond a cost-effective, ready inventory of properly repaired parts.They reinforce the plant maintenance group with an analytical evaluation of repairs so they can be managed—and ultimately reduced.
Obviously, the goal of the plant is to work with equipment that experiences minimal downtime. This becomes increasingly possible with a smart approach that brings resources to assist the maintenance personnel in making repairs that are as effective as possible. Plant technicians know that the replacement part is not just a simple swap; ideally, it is something better suited to the application.
Beyond the value of smarter repairs, it is important to pay attention to the subtle, yet vital, communication and resource sharing aspects of a plant asset management program. Having planned improvement meetings and open discussion type activities can help bring a critical level of experience to prevent the Brain Drain from disabling a facility.
Cederstrom is a business development manager for Aztecnology Systems, LLC, basedin Brea, CA. More on the company’s services, including the S.T.A.M.P. Smart Total Asset Management Program can be found at www.k-and-s.com.