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The Five Steps that ensure major maintenance success:

It was simply a mistake. Our people worked so hard to make this year's shutdown the best ever. It was well planned and staffed by our best maintenance supervisors and skilled tradesmen. For the past s...

November 1, 2005  By Pulp & Paper Canada

It was simply a mistake. Our people worked so hard to make this year’s shutdown the best ever. It was well planned and staffed by our best maintenance supervisors and skilled tradesmen. For the past seven days they worked long hours and put the job ahead of everything else in their lives.

We selected the most experienced outside contractor we could find — even though they were not the lowest quote. We selected them because we knew them far better than the others and had successfully worked with them for many years. We had a control centre manned 24 hours a day complete with major job Gantt chart tracking and hourly status posting. It seemed we had done it all. And yet, it was just bad luck. But despite the problems, I am still proud of everyone’s effort.

Unfortunately, the above is not an unfamiliar conversation. Too often many of us find ourselves attempting to explain away a substantial completion delay or major start-up failure following an annual maintenance overhaul or process upgrade. There is both folklore and hard data that clearly supports the position that the most dangerous and potential “off quality” process time occurs directly after major maintenance. This period might appropriately be labeled the “trap of unintended consequences.”


In the search for a reasonable explanation for such reoccurring frustration in the midst of such effort, we examine what are proposed as the Five Most Important Steps to Ensure Major Maintenance Success.

* Follow formal, documented work selection process

* Develop work sequence and staffing

* Conduct formal “How-to” and “Why” technical review

* Formally anticipate potential problems

* Track, document and ensure preventive action compliance

Certainly the vast majority of experienced maintenance managers would immediately nod knowingly as they review the general theme conveyed in the above list. Many might scratch their heads, wondering just how much knowledge can be assumed and how much must be addressed each time a major project begins. Therein lies the essence of process vulnerability — how much do we have to carefully plan, train and audit throughout the process, versus how much can we assume?

These Five Steps are not a revelation. They are a proven work sequence that can be used to double check current major shutdown practices and procedures.

Within each process step there are several key success elements and several potential “Gotchas.” The challenge is to complete the task with a clear focus on the success elements while avoiding the damaging “Gotchas” that inevitably result in a major process shortfall.


Work priority setting is a well-accepted, critical path, planning step in all maintenance projects. There is little disagreement on the priority order of work selection. Work priorities start with items related to safety and immediately sequence to process stability, productivity and cost reduction and finally, if required, enhanced capability.

There are two primary success elements in this process step. The first is to accurately identify the needed projects and to establish a sound understanding of the work scope, cost and resource requirement. The second step is to ensure a broad-base expectation agreement. It is a consistent management need, no surprises. It is one of the most important success elements of any major undertaking.

There are also two high potential “Gotchas” in this first step. The first lies in underestimating the breadth of each project, thus resulting in constant “on the project” work re-evaluation, reprioritization, and resource changes and reallocations. The second “Gotcha” in large maintenance undertakings are the many, most often small, undocumented “ease of operations” and “improvements” locally initiated by foremen, operators and tradesmen. For the most part, these projects do not make the master Gantt chart for a variety of reasons. But they usually add undocumented variation into the process while always consuming far more resources than initially anticipated. They will “Getcha” every time.


The value of a disciplined planning process is indisputable and is the basic success element of any major process. In major maintenance planning it is Gantt charts and “War Room” follow-up that leads all success. They are both givens. Sequencing major work, planning lockouts, analyzing resource requirements, reviewing equipment and work documentation, and anticipating work interferences are typically planned, rehearsed, and team reviewed.

The “Gotcha” in the planning process is that the Gantt chart and planning process too often becomes an end in itself. Large, colourful charts with carefully drawn and computer generated symbols cover the walls. The plan, as depicted, is flawless. The obvious pitfall, however, is that by the time all the “required” planning and management audits are complete, there is little time and energy left for action and careful follow-up. It is then assumed things will go well. There is also a trust issue. While organizations typically have little trouble reviewing and contributing to the planning process, they hesitate to be proactively involved in the execution side of the equation. It is truly an enigma that will “Getcha” every time.

The second potential “Gotcha” during the planning process is the lack of realism that creeps into such plans. Simply stated, most organizations try to “get too much done,” leaving little time for detailed work-quality auditing, variation improvement validation, or even adequate start-up testing. The plan to start up is as important as both the plan to shut down and the detailed work planning sequence.

The basis for this lethal “Gotcha” is audible; it is the “Can Do” syndrome. “We Can Do It — It’s only a 10-day period and we cannot reduce the scope of the work. We’ve waited all year for this… yada, yada, yada.” (“Gotcha”)


The success element of step three is ensuring that all concerned have “profound” knowledge of each process step. The key is to assume nothing.

There is also no more serious “Gotcha” potential than in assuming people know exactly what to do and how to do it. This is especially true for those infrequent jobs that are, “No problem. It is what we do every day.” The simple facts are that most skilled tradesmen work all year in a firefighting mode, where the primary objective is to simply get production back up and running as soon as possible. Getting a process back up and running is worlds apart from the actions required to reduce process variation and to improve capability.

In the process of major maintenance, one can take nothing for granted. Even one’s best contractors who “have done it 100 times” may not have the same workers, supervisors, or technical support they had in the past. Checking and double-checking is the key element to maintenance success.

Since the presence of detailed job-by-job Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) leads to success, it is not surprising that one of the highest potential “Gotchas” is in assuming know-how and in not developing a WBS for each job. It is simply impossible to follow work progress or to adequately plan preventive action without such detailed planning.


The two most important of all success factors in major maintenance are:

* making sure the plan is knowledge-tested

* ensuring the completion and implementation of reliable risk analysis.

Not an easy task. If taking the time to develop a detailed work breakdown structure is a difficult task, getting highly skilled, talented, and experienced employees to assume things will go wrong and plan for even the most improbable, high
risk problems is almost impossible. Carefully defining “What Could Go Wrong” is one of the most threatening of all process steps. And if stopping and thinking through potential problems is a challenging task, it is nothing compared to dedicating the resources required to establish and implement a concrete preventive action plan.

The first step of risk analysis requires that the most knowledgeable workers and supervisors stop long enough to think through each step in the process.

What if the crane cable breaks? How do we measure the critical bolt torques and bearing seatings? What if the new part on the right side puts the system concentricity out of acceptable limits? What if the new lining material does not properly adhere to the weathered vessel casting? What if the inner housing is cracked and cannot be properly secured after the tension is released from the main shaft housing? What if it takes twice as long to disassemble and disconnect the central drive motor? Most maintenance failures come from forgetting something, assuming something, or just plain not knowing.

If the organization cannot complete a full, meaningful risk analysis, they will inevitably become a “Gotcha” victim.


Success is risk assessment in taking preventive action. Without action, the whole process is simply “talking.” Nowhere is it more important to translate process planning to action than in documenting and implementing risk analysis preventive actions.

Taking action is the key success element. The lack of action is an assured “Gotcha.”

Double-check all lock-out compliance. “Hard secure” all compression points. Audit ventilation, electrical voltage and work practice regulations in all confined spaces. Audit all critical equipment installation WBS steps (sign off for quality and completion). Check all specified torques, bearing and shaft alignment. Ensure that no one works more than 10-hour days or six-day weeks, no matter how critical the work timing might seem. Check and monitor the skill and experience level of outside contractors daily. Assign someone full time to monitor and ensure implementation of all preventive actions. Conduct a detailed review of all, “new or unanticipated added work.”

The ultimate “gotcha” is in avoiding the fact that all this really matters, and assuming that one’s highly skilled, hard-working, tired employees will make no mistakes and need not be encouraged, supervised and process audited during each step of the process. It is not personal. It is process discipline. It also leads to maintenance success.

Test yourself and your people. Without total dedication to the above five steps, any major maintenance project will “getcha” sooner and later.

George Elliott is CEO of Elliott-Luepker & Associates, a consulting firm based in Ponte Vedra Florida that specializes in organizational redesign, reducing organizational structural costs and implementing, and supporting a High Performance Involvement Culture. He can be reached at 904-285-9264 or via e-mail at gcellio@attglobal.net.

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