Workforce and skills: Autonomy is not automatic

Posted on 3 Feb 2012

Companies seeking to improve reliability and productivity often consider implementing operator led asset care or autonomous maintenance programmes. However, here Stuart Veitch, associate to specialist maintenance and management improvement company Sora Group, tells TM that many misunderstand the key principles behind this important enabler to improved reliability.

Autonomous maintenance is not total productive maintenance

Manufacturing is now littered with anagrams and epithets relating to tools and techniques for improved efficiency in a wide variety of business disciplines. As such it is unsurprising that the boundaries between approaches and schools of thought become blurred.

Attempting to draw clearer lines in at least one area Stuart Veitch gives his insight into autonomous maintenance (AM) and its better known cousin total productive maintenance (TPM). According to Veitch, AM is a vitally important part of TPM, the popular approach to improved machine availability, but it is not an equivalent. Veitch’s experience however is that many companies believe that AM and TPM this to be the case.

“This is a very common mistake that companies make, and it could be argued that this causes companies to adopt AM at the wrong time,” he says. “Before trying to upskill and develop operational staff to carry out basic asset care it is very important to ensure your maintenance department is operating correctly.”

Consider the journey and not just the destination

An apprentice at Airbus
An apprentice at Airbus

Autonomous maintenance is a seven step approach, which broadly fits into three phases. Veitch describes what activities and requirements each of these stages include. “The first phase, which covers steps one, two and three, is concerned with setting and maintaining excellent basic conditions,” he says. “In this phase, forced deterioration is eliminated, cleaning, inspection, lubrication and tightening standards developed and minor faults discovered and rectified.”

Throughout this phase, local teams are responsible for creating standards, discovering faults, eliminating deterioration and learning about their processes. Emphasizing the shop floor ownership Veitch sums up, “What this phase is not, is a top-down, ‘Here’s a checksheet – fill it in’ approach!”

The second phase in AM builds on the foundations set by the first and further develops team skills in understanding technologies relevant to their working environment. “This could be training in hydraulics, pneumatics, motors, sensors and a host of other relevant technical skills,” explains Veitch before clarifying, “The aim is not to create another set of maintenance technicians, but to give operators the skills to understand their processes in more detail and be able to spot more abnormalities.”

“Companies that set out on the autonomous maintenance journey, should not expect to be at step seven in a few weeks. Autonomous maintenance is about change and change takes time” – Stuart Veitch, Associate, Sora Group

According to Veitch’s approach the third and final phase for implementing AM includes steps six and seven and extends loss elimination techniques to the whole work area, finally creating self directed teams. “By this point teams are setting their own goals and objectives, as part of the overall company policy deployment structure, autonomously maintaining and improving their processes,” comments Veitch.

Referring back to the detail above around changing job roles and responsibilities as well as the expectation being put on staff to stretch their skills base, Veitch says companies must be more patient in their approach to implementing AM. “Companies that set out on the autonomous maintenance journey, should not expect to be at step seven in a few weeks. Autonomous maintenance is about change and change takes time,” he concludes.

Foundation for improvements

Digging into the long term benefits of AM and the fruit companies can expect to reap from implementing the time consuming process of change and training above, Veitch asserts, “Not only can autonomous maintenance deliver improvements through minor fault reduction, cleaning time reduction and other areas, but it is also a critical element in sustaining improvements. Often the output from a focused improvement activity, another pillar of TPM, is a new standard, a standard that is upheld by the autonomous maintenance team.”

Confidently distinguishing the support AM can give to the TPM approach from the integral parts of that system Veitch continues, “Autonomous maintenance also gives planned maintenance, another of the eight pillars of TPM, a foundation through the elimination of forced deterioration. This is achieved through enabling teams to spot abnormality before it becomes a more significant failure.”

Management support

It has already been stressed that AM does not happen overnight and that there is an investment in time required for training and mentoring. Key players in providing the support necessary for AM to be successful in any company will be individuals from the management team – but what does this really entail?

For Veitch, being clear about the amount of time management must commit to mentoring and supporting team development is essential. “Time is the critical element required for autonomous maintenance,” he says. “Time for the initial activities, time to create and implement the standards, time for solving problems identified.”

“Direct involvement is also important. The concept of an overlapping team structure, fundamental to TPM, is that leaders teach others to teach others.” Veitch explains, “This relay teaching model, based on learning through teaching and doing, gives leaders the opportunity to understand the real issues on the shopfloor, and be able to understand the practice and benefits of autonomous maintenance.”

Does it work?

The first TPM award was given to Nippon-Denso in Japan in 1971, and the key development demonstrated was total employee involvement, now recognised as autonomous maintenance. Since then, TPM has developed but AM is still a central element to its success.

Veitch is in no doubt of the important role AM has to play in transforming the operational abilities of manufacturing companies. He relates, “Companies that have successfully applied for the prestigious Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance TPM Excellence awards, demonstrate some dramatic QCDSME improvements. Achieving a 100% increase in OEE is not unknown, and autonomous maintenance is a key element in any such triumph.”

For more information on how to develop your maintenance systems, please visit Sora’s website or email them. Sora can be followed on twitter @soragroup.