Beyond Autonomous Maintenance -

Okay so you’ve achieved and are sustaining base condition across your entire plant, now what? Does Continuous Improvement end there? Machines are running in peak condition and unplanned failures are at an all time low. Meanwhile you’re getting higher OEE results than you’ve ever seen. Even changeover times, safety, and quality incidents have come down dramatically. You’re thinking – this is fantastic! It feels like the plant has turned the corner and we’re finally winning. But then you get the news. Your products aren’t doing well and the market and the business is failing. The plant may be shut down if drastic action isn’t taken. “But how can this be?”, you ask. The plant has executed AM to perfection. What could possibly be beyond Autonomous Maintenance or is there something we’ve missed along the way?

Okay let’s just go through the checklist:

AM Step 1) You’ve eliminated abnormalities (defects) and installed centerlines – check

AM Step 2) Sources of contamination have been identified and rooted out – check

AM Step 3) You’ve implemented a Cleaning, Inspection, and Lubrication plan that operators are executing to perfection- check

AM Step 4) Operators are completing general and component-level inspections to identify and repair defects there as well – check

On top of that, operators are now capable of doing over 75% of the work that mechanics use to spend their time doing a year ago. Some could quite possibly be qualified as mechanics fairly soon here. Even the plant’s Preventative Maintenance program has reached a state of maturity. How is is possible that we’ve become a World-Class Manufacturing organization and are facing shut-down?

This scenario, as dire as it may seem, is becoming more common, especially in fast-moving markets. Autonomous Maintenance is a powerful method of helping operations to achieve and maintain base condition, or peak machine performance, by developing operators to become more autonomous from the maintenance function. But does that guarantee long-term success and viability of the business? This article covers how Continuous Improvement goes beyond helping operations achieve more autonomy from maintenance and why it needs to.

What’s Beyond Autonomous Maintenance?

In the scenario above, the plant successfully progressed through AM Step 4. Although this is excellent progress and produces incredible benefits in itself, there are still 2 inherent vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. Let’s cover each:

AM Steps 5, 6, and 7 (Autonomous Management)

Beyond AM Step 4 is where operators, or the people working directly to create value for the customer, start to become more autonomous from the Management function. Up to this point, management has probably been engaged in some form of Leader Standard Work in order to drive AM progression. Management has been performing routine reviews, coaching, and perhaps some degree of intervention to keep the good work from backsliding. What happens when those highly competent managers move on or there’s a reduction in salaried staff? Many times plants do begin to regress in their AM progression over time. This is why AM Steps 5, 6, and 7 exist, to put the mechanisms in place to perpetuate operational excellence at the value stream level despite what is happening at the administrative level. This includes building capability into the workforce to make key decisions, solve problems, and sustain base condition with limited or no management input. Information technology and artificial intelligence has aided dramatically in making autonomous management easier to reach.

Market Mis-Alignment

Even when all is well inside the business, there could be complete turmoil on the outside. There are 6 rights that keep the customer happy. Those are: right product, right price, right place, right quality, right quantity, and at the right time. AM (and TPM in general) only enables four of these rights: quantity, quality, time, and price (indirectly). Failing to address the others means failing in the market; and the others (product and place) are where many established companies are being killed by upstarts. These two items are the reason why Jeff Bazos is now the richest man in the world – because he closed this gap that many companies have left wide open. Lean Manufacturing is intended to bring value to the customer, not only by achieving internal operational excellence, but by keeping the internal operations in perfect synchronization with the needs of the ever-changing market.

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How to Achieve Autonomous Management?

When operators struggle to meet the demands of daily operations autonomously, managers spend too much of their time fighting fires. This requires managers to “take their eye off the ball”,¬† meaning to lose touch with which way the market is moving. This also makes them incapable of developing and / or deploying winning strategies because they don’t have the knowledge or time needed to do so effectively. Autonomous Management allows leaders the space to lead the company to a better station in the world. To achieve this,¬†leaders need to consider what they spend their time doing and how they can pass this capability into those working the value stream in a practical way, especially when it comes to the execution of “normal operations”. The ideal state is to have progressively more decisions made and problems solved at the value stream level. To achieve this, leaders can start by doing these 3 things:

  1. Standardize decision-making processes
  2. Create a knowledge management system where market and administrative knowledge flows into people at all levels, especially the value stream
  3. Engage value-stream-level people as partners in key decisions as if they will ultimately be making similar future decisions autonomously

This will start to connect the people on the value stream more directly with the customer / consumer so that layers of “noise” can be removed from the process of delivering an excellent service and winning in the market. This concept is similar to the inverted pyramid where the customer is on top, who are being served immediately by the people working the value stream. In this model the role of management / leadership is to enable and support success but not necessarily to command-and-control people.

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