Reliability professionals normally talk about reliability in terms of reliability centered maintenance (RCM), preventive maintenance (PM), root cause analysis (RCA), computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), 5S and a never ending list of other acronyms. What we rarely talk about is the importance of leadership in the reliability effort. Is it because most leaders:
- View the reliability effort as someone else’s responsibility?
- View their participation in reliability as unnecessary?
- Have a lack of knowledge and understanding when it comes to reliability?
- All of the above
No matter the answer, leadership’s involvement and participation is mission-critical to any reliability improvement effort. The old saying “No pain, no gain” is absolutely true for any initiative that involves an effort for improvement. Speaking on professional football, Tom Coughlin, former head coach of the New York Giants, said "Winning is what happens when commitment, desire, talent, preparation, hard work and leadership all come together." The same can be said for winning the battle to improve reliability.
Let’s break down Coach Coughlin’s statement on what it takes to be successful and win:
- Commitment: This is defined as the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc. This is synonymous to dedication, devotion, allegiance and loyalty. Commitment to the cause is absolutely critical to any team effort.
- Desire: This is defined as a strong feeling of wanting to have something happen. Any team requires desire among the team members to be successful. The team must have the vision of a better future.
- Talent: This is natural aptitude or skill. Jim Collins put it correctly in his book, “Good to Great,” when he said you have to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off of the bus. Then you have to get the right people in the right seats. Talent is synonymous to flair, gift, knack, technique, touch, bent and expertise.
- Preparation: This is the action or process of making something ready or being made ready for use. For a football team this is practice, study, practice, study, practice and so on. For reliability, this is primarily rooted in best practice planning and scheduling.
- Hard Work: Any undertaking of any value is usually not easy and requires great effort. This is digging in and pushing through especially when things get tough.
- Leadership: This is defined as leading a group of people or an organization with encouragement and reinforcement. Supervisors are frontline leaders and provide leadership to their respective crews. Frontline leadership is arguably the toughest job in any organization.
Do you see the common thread of leadership in each of these components from Mr. Coughlin’s statement? Where does this needed leadership come from? Leadership must come from upper management and decision makers. It comes from those who have the capacity to remove roadblocks. It comes from those who have a vision for, and a belief in, the future state of the plant or organization. Said another way, if the effort to improve reliability is going to be successful, leadership can’t be passive on a single one of these critical components for success.
The antidote for this common passivity starts and ends with communication. While communication comes in many different forms, verbal communication is the most fundamental and effective way to relay information. It is specifically face-to-face, and often one-on-one, verbal communication that is the most important and the most powerful form of communication. This is the single biggest gap in effective communications inside most organizations today. The right information or message does not get to the right employees because this form of communication is simply flawed.
Many leaders give their direct reports information expecting that it will make it through the rest of the chain of command and eventually to the frontline supervisors. It is assumed that the frontline supervisors will deliver the same message to the craft and operating employees. Unfortunately, it almost never happens that way. Do you remember the test in elementary school where the teacher whispered a sentence to the first student in the class, they whispered it to the next student and it was relayed around the room until the message reached the last student? That student was then asked to relay out loud what they heard. Do you recall the results? Of course you do. What was heard in the end was nothing close to what the teacher whispered to the first student. It has been my experience that a great deal of communication stops at the first level. The message may never go any further than the first layer of communication. It may be because the message is not fully understood or it may be there is no alignment or agreement between the initiator of the communication and the receiver. This is exactly why leaders must speak directly to those who need to hear the critical information. In any reliability initiative, there is a lot of critical information that the frontline employees need in a timely manner. This information has to be absolutely accurate and it must be given in such a way that there is no misunderstanding. This information is so critical it cannot be delegated to others to disseminate. Leadership must directly and purposely deliver this information to the organization.
There are also other more subtle ways for leadership to communicate. It is commonly referred to as MBWA – Management by Walking Around. This is simply getting out of the office and walking among the frontline employees, both operations and maintenance, to observe what is happening on the plant floor. The presence of the plant’s upper management in the workplace, not just when other managers from the corporate office are visiting, is so important. The truth is, most frontline employees will say that they have never seen the plant manager on the plant floor. Many have no idea what the plant manager looks like. This is all too common in the workplace today.
The plant manager executing MBWA should have no agenda other than to simply make contact with various employees or team members. Meeting these employees in their workplace without an agenda is a very powerful way to communicate and a means of gaining some degree of commitment from those employees.
Another subtle way to communicate to the frontline is to simply show up unannounced to routine meetings. Most crews have a “tool box talk” before the start of their shift. This is a great place to catch several team members in a single location. This is a very effective way to communicate because it is an encounter with the frontline employees in their workspace. However, this also comes with a warning. As this type of encounter happens in a group, some people may feel more at ease in a crowd and mention something that could be controversial. Although controversial, what is said may not have been uncovered in a one-on-one meeting, but may be an issue that needs to be addressed. Other opportunities to attend group settings are weekly planning and scheduling meetings, monthly safety meeting and more.
It is understandable that some leaders simply struggle with communication. If that is the case, training or professional help is available. All leaders need to possess communication skills to be effective leaders; however, possessing these skills and utilizing them correctly are two entirely different things.
If you are in a position of leadership, get out of the office and engage in what is happening with the frontline employees. IDCON Founder Christer Idhammer says, “Until change happens on the frontline, change does not really occur.” He is absolutely correct. If you are working on improving reliability, it is essential to communicate directly with the frontline. The organization needs to understand that the impending changes necessary to become more reliable are not optional. The delivery of that message is most effective when it comes directly from leadership.