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For most, a simple mention of the term “little black book” can conjure up thoughts of secret names, thoughts, event records, occurrences and the like. Yet, most of us, in one form or another, be it electronic or hand written, will keep a diary, logbook, memorandum notebook, or “to do” list of some sort that we continually add to and refer to at a later date to “jog” our memory. Referred to as mnemonic devices, all eminently qualify for the title of “little black book.” As the quote below shows, the concept certainly isn’t new (see below).

Human memory is notoriously unreliable. For her 2013 article, “Your Memory is Unreliable…” published on Healthline.com, Rachel Barclay interviewed Dr. Charles Brainerd, Professor of Human development at Cornell University. During the interview, he stated, “A key rule about memory over time is what we call ‘fade-to-gist.’ That is, we lose the details of experience rapidly, but retain our understanding of its gist much longer. After attending a baseball game, we may quickly forget what the score was, who pitched, and what we had to eat, but not that our team won, and we had a fun evening.”

In the case of a sports game, most essential details are chronicled by the official gamekeeper, or by journalist accounts that can be reviewed many years later with utmost confidence, when compared to a game-attendee’s eyewitness account.

Similarly, when a maintenance repair is undertaken, the maintainer is taught to chronicle the major work details and parts used on the work order. This allows the maintenance and/or reliability department to later study the event with confidence because the items were chronicled at the time of the event. This is typical with repetitive, abnormal, and catastrophic events that need to be reviewed in detail after the fact to prevent future reoccurrence. However, missing details (and there are many on most work orders) must be filled in by probing, through interviews, the “gist” memory of the maintainer and/or machine operator, unless we are fortunate enough to gain access to a black-book account. Although little black books come in many formats, all are similar in that they are personalized to an individual (maintainer, machine operator); to a machine (logbook); or to a collective physical or non-physical group (production line, mechanical issues, etc.).

In his 2002 book, Inviting Disaster, Lessons From the Edge of Technology, James R. Chiles refers to the little black book as a “wisdom keeping device” for collecting troubleshooting reports and unresolved issues. He describes how Boeing preserved its safety and design lessons from the past in a highly confidential book titled, Design Objectives and Criteria. Designers use this book in the early stages of planning for each new airliner model to understand how flight problems were solved in the past. Chiles goes on to explain how a group of World War II ordnance-disposal specialists put together a little black book of field notes on successfully disarming various warheads and booby traps, and then passed it on to help save the lives of their colleagues in the field.

Machines really are “tattle tales” that communicate to us regularly. If a machine is in normal running mode, the operator will instinctively know when it emanates unusual noise or vibration, or when its performance is reduced. This usually happens well in advance of a machine-downtime failure. Successful remedial actions will depend on a diligent and detailed event  description and date- and time-stamp logging of the occurrence(s) by the operator in a dedicated logbook; making a timely call to maintenance; and a judicious response by the maintenance department, which uses the log to help troubleshoot and solve the issue in a timely manner. This is teamwork at its best.

What happens when machines fail, and maintenance repairs are required at your site? How often are the repairs adequately described on the work orders? How often are the failed parts sent out for laboratory analysis? Or how often are photo logs taken of the findings and repair issues for future analysis by the facility’s reliability or design engineering group?

Implementing a “little black book” program is an inexpensive and easy team-building exercise that will pay off many times in the future. Start with operators keeping time-stamped incident logs for issues they want to document. This will provide real data for development of work requests based on the documented events. In turn, planners or maintainers can use first-hand information to quickly assess/troubleshoot machine condition and create more accurate plans of work.

If a machine has already failed, build a photo log of the damage and repair at each stage of completion. This log can then be assessed alongside the operator’s incident log to build a picture and stage-timeline of the failure event; determine PM program validity; use for warranty claims; assess the root failure cause and compare against similar failures for reliability improvement; and leverage in improving future design requirements.

Inexpensive, easy-to-use, wisdom-keeping “little black books” deliver experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Their power can’t be denied. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll’s Queen, “You’ll forget it, if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”TRR


Ken Bannister has 40+ years of experience in the RAM industry. For the past 30, he’s been a Managing Partner and Principal Asset Management Consultant with Engtech industries Inc., where he has specialized in helping clients implement best-practice asset-management programs worldwide. A founding member and past director of the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada, he is the author of several books, including three on lubrication, one on predictive maintenance, and one on energy reduction strategies, and is currently writing one on planning and scheduling. Contact him directly at 519-469-9173 or kbannister@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, plan operations, asset management, work requests, planning and scheduling, human memory, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll