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In North America, the primary written language used in maintenance and asset management is English. Unfortunately, the English language tolerates the use of many imprecise words that can cast doubt on their intended meaning and lead to poor interpretation and results. This is especially the case with language that is directive and instructional in nature as used in work orders.

When performing a maintenance-operation effectiveness review (MOER) for  a client in the food industry, I experienced an unfortunate example of imprecise language creating translation problems and unexpected work results. My client had recently hired a number of maintainers from across Europe, whose native tongue was not English. They could, however, communicate well enough in spoken English.

During the review of variance reports on planned versus actual time taken to perform transmission belt checks, several unusual and significant time variances were found. Further investigation revealed the same maintainer completing similar PM work on different machines. In each case, he had used additional hours to fabricate and install a new machine guard.

When the work instruction was examined, it became evident that the maintainer was correctly following the instructions as written. While he had thought the instruction was unusual, as a new hire, in a new land and culture, he didn’t want to challenge his supervisor at the time.

The PM work instruction had simply instructed the maintainer to remove the guard, check and adjust the belts, and replace the guard when complete. Each time, he did exactly that: replaced the guard with a new one!

The correct instruction should have read, “Reinstall the guard.” But, having only recently arrived from Europe, the maintainer looked up the word “replace” in his pocket dictionary and interpreted it to mean “replace the guard with a new one.” Although this PM instruction had been carried out as intended many times in the past with the same guard being reinstalled, the instructional language was imprecise. This situation, in turn, demonstrates what can easily happen when the reader’s first language is not English.

Similarly, work order-instruction interpretation problems can be caused when the language is vague and unsupported by clear parameters. For example, use of the following familiar and, sadly, typical precision maintenance instructions will guarantee a different result every time: “Tighten all bolts.” “Lubricate as necessary.” “ Top-up reservoir as needed.” “Inspect for unusual vibration.” In each case, the objective is stated with a clear instructional verb, but remains imprecise with no use of specific, clear parameters to ensure work consistency.

In precision maintenance, we only tighten bolts that have become loose, and we retighten them to a specified torque rating defined according to the bolt’s size, grade, and material.  Precision lubrication requires the exact lubricant type and grade to be specified and used. Lubricant-fill levels must be stated based on a marked range located on the reservoir, or by the delivery-device lubricant measure method. As for vibration readings, they’re measured in accordance to a defined and specified allowable upper limit.

If a work-order instruction is to be interpreted and carried out the same way, every time, by all maintainers, the language must be precise, concrete, specific, and singular in meaning. A well-written work order will state the objective in clear terms that create a mental picture of what must be accomplished upon completion of work. Effective work-order language is concise and to the point, and uses terms and phrases that are unpretentious and familiar to the maintainer and supported by clear GO-NO GO parameters.

In other words, precision maintenance always starts at the work-order instruction level with precise language.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, asset management, maintenance management, precision maintenance, work orders