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Maintaining World-Class Reliability During the COVID-19 Economic Downturn

Key components to get through downturn, be in position for success

TULSA, Okla. — Since the COVID-19 crisis arose earlier this year we have seen unprecedented impacts and upset conditions take place with our booming economy, impacts that have been felt across all businesses and market segments.

Companies are being forced to reduce staff, either through permanent layoffs or “temporary” furloughs. It seems no job position is immune from these cuts.

During this time, plant managers and operators will be tempted to reduce maintenance tasks, maintenance staff, and delay critical maintenance and reliability efforts in order to reduce costs. 

In many cases, as processed volume turns down and hours are reduced, it may seem the right thing to do, but in the haste to react to the current conditions an unfortunate short-sightedness may cause some to neglect the most critical of items that can have negative effects down the road. 

The decisions involving the deferral of planned maintenance and critical tasks need to be made systematically and carefully, considering the impact on future financial implications as well as the impact on safety.

A world-class reliability program is built around a number of key components that need to be assessed during this time. A shotgun, shoot-from-the-hip approach, which is so common when these decisions to make operational changes have to be made, is not conducive to the long-term viability of a manufacturing or processing operation. 

Let’s look at a few areas of importance that can help get us all through this economic downturn and poise us for success coming out of it on the other side.

STAFFING

Staffing with skilled multi-craft maintenance professionals was a challenge for companies worldwide prior to this crisis. Companies were pulling out all the stops to recruit, hire, train and retain key players on their reliability teams. 

Reliability managers were working with colleges, universities, vo-tech schools and technical colleges, trying to refill the pipeline with a properly trained next generation of technicians. We should not stop those efforts, or we’ll find ourselves right back in the same condition soon after the crisis abates and we get back to work.

Maintenance and reliability employees have not been immune to the staffing reductions that have driven millions of workers into the rank of “unemployed.” If your company does need to reduce staffing levels, consider the following options.

For those team members you want to be sure to retain, consider relocating them temporarily into another position. You’ll need to work with human resources (HR) to find a spot that may require a bump or cut in another area, but one that will be easier to back-fill later on when you can move your reliability employee back into his or her normal role.

It may not be in the maintenance and reliability team for a while, but you keep them on staff and they’re there when you want them back. Consider how you can protect their compensation package, tenure and benefits, but keep them on your team.

Furlough vs. RIF. This is a tough one. Many companies over the past few weeks have implemented a furlough option vs. a standard layoff or reduction-in-force. This is a good option, particularly given that in many cases benefits and length-of-service are protected, and the CARES Act provides a significant, albeit temporary, bump in unemployment pay. 

For your key employees, if you can’t find a temporary spot elsewhere in the company, consider a furlough as a good option to keep them available to you for later callback.

Stay in touch with those employees that are either RIF’d or furloughed. Your personal contact and touch during this time will endear them to you and be a benefit when they have a choice to return or not. You may be able to connect them with free or low-cost online training tools that will help them enhance their knowledge and skills while they are away from you.

You’ve worked really hard over the past several years to build your maintenance and reliability teams and systems. Right now, more than ever, we need to work harder to keep them intact inasmuch as is possible given the current economic conditions. Work to protect your teams and systems.

PLANNED CONTRACT MAINTENANCE

Many in our industry use outside contractors for planned maintenance. This includes monthly boiler and steam system evaluations, water softener service, wastewater and wash alley evaluations, inventory checks for chemistry, HVAC service, and other specialty tasks. 

My recommendation is that you do not discontinue or defer these services. Deferring maintenance and reliability assessments and check-ups on these critical systems in your plant only serve to create a situation that will be regrettable later on.

Monthly boiler rep visits generally include more than just a check on your inventory of chemistry levels. These specialists will evaluate your daily test logs, look for patterns in the test results you may miss, and will work with your team to assure your boiler continues to run at peak efficiency and safety.

HVAC service is important, especially as we get ready to go into the summertime period. Your plant employees will appreciate HVAC systems that work as they are supposed to, and morale can be kept at high levels. Inoperable HVAC systems can result in safety concerns in the summer—you don’t want employees dropping out in the heat due to the impact on their health during the workday.

Keep your regular service from your wash alley chemistry vendor in place as well. Not only do they check chemical inventories, they will titrate loads and make adjustments in formulas that will keep your quality levels high. This is important now as many markets are transitioning from winter formulas to summer formulas and product mix may be changing. 

Access into your facilities may be limited now with all the new guidelines and restrictions on social distancing and limiting exposure to others. Typically, a visitor to a plant, even those who come monthly or on another regular schedule, will be checked in at the front door and then authorized to enter the area where they are doing this work. Consider other methods to allow access and limit exposure.

Have your tech rep visitor call you from the parking lot or foyer, at which point you can authorize entry to them through a back door or other entrance where minimal contact with other employees is possible.

Have them follow your company’s rules on personal protective equipment (PPE), which may now include the wearing of face masks and gloves. Avoid contact and maintain social distancing.

Upon completion of their work, they can debrief with you via phone or leave the report in a designated area for you. Their exit may be the same way they entered, and they should advise you when they leave, to maintain proper security measures for your facility.

Don’t neglect your planned maintenance and reliability tasks and systems assessments by outside vendors. They play a very critical role in the ongoing reliability and safety of your equipment. Taking a short-sighted approach to this and deferring or discontinuing this service during this time will cost you later on.

IN-HOUSE PREVENTIVE MAINTENANCE & RELIABILITY TASKS

With the reduction in processed volume across our industry, and the impact on staffing, processing hours, and reduced equipment utilization rates, this is a great time to consider some important opportunities that you may have not had previously.

If your team has had trouble getting into the wash alley for preventive maintenance (PM) activities or major projects such as a bearing replacement, seal job, or whatever, now is a great time to schedule that work on straight time vs. overtime or Saturday. Many plants don’t generally get the advantage of having a machine down during the week for long enough to execute all the tasks they truly should be doing.

Clean, clean, clean! This is a good time to tear open a dryer and complete a thorough cleaning of lint from all those nooks and crannies where it hides. This is the source of many dryer fires and is often a neglected process. While you’re at it, check door seals, thrust wheel condition, tune up that burner, clean out those exhaust ducts and assure your dryer is running at peak. Same goes for your tunnel finisher.

Evaluate your equipment for corrosion removal and painting. 

Evaluate your PM task lists. PM optimization is one of the key uptime elements related to preventive maintenance and now is a good time to begin that assessment. 

Work with your reliability team to evaluate your PM tasks and truly determine which tasks are necessary and which are not. Before discontinuing any particular task, though, check with your equipment manufacturer for their input. Don’t make these decisions in a bubble.

Evaluate the possibility of assigning some PM tasks to select operators. This may be your chance to implement an operator care program. TPM (total productive maintenance) engages all employees in the execution of reliability and maintenance tasks.

You may find that you can have employees do light greasing, oiling, checking levels, completing visual inspections, and other non-intrusive types of tasks that will relieve your now-reduced maintenance staff and give them time back to complete the more critical tasks.

Whether your maintenance and reliability task schedules are time-based or usage/frequency-based, be sure your team is evaluating any decisions to defer, suspend or delay any individual task. It is short-sighted to cut critical maintenance tasks in a vacuum. Each task needs to be properly evaluated and assessed in view of the overall production schedule, volume, needs, and future impacts on cost, operations, and safety.  Just be sensible and organized in your approach to any decisions regarding this important area.

In all these areas, consider the safety of your team, the proper operation of your equipment, and the future financial impacts on your company. Making the wrong decisions in regard to reliability and maintenance today is no different than it was in January of this year—there is an impact on your profits, your customers, your quality, and your employees.  Straying from the right decision path now should not be an option.