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Operator involvement in equipment care is a fundamental of reliability improvement and offers many benefits, starting with the fact that there are more equipment operators than maintainers.

Other benefits come from the fact that:

♦ Operators are closer to the equipment while running.
♦ Operators can be “first responders” to minor problems.
♦ Operators can be the eyes and ears for maintenance.
♦ Operator basic care frees up maintainers for higher-skilled work.
♦ Operator care can reduce downtime duration.
♦ Operator basic care can turn serious downtime into minor interruptions.
♦ Operators understand first-hand what the equipment is supposed to do.

So, how do we tap into operators as a key component of equipment reliability improvement? Let’s start by learning how some people care for their personal vehicles.

Most of us practice operator equipment care with our cars and trucks. Most people who drive, regardless of their roles as maintenance or reliability professionals, pay attention to their vehicles.

The BIG question is: Do we treat our vehicle like we own it, or like a rental car?

Modern passenger vehicles are designed with so many self-diagnostic devices that it’s almost impossible to not know when there is a potential problem. While we used to rely on gauges for oil pressure, water temperature, battery charging, fuel level we now have sensors with warning lights.

Most people know when something is going wrong with their cars before something fails. That funny noise under the hood. A tendency to pull to the right. A thump, thump, thump sound coming from the rear tires. A peculiar green puddle under the front of the car. These are all early warning signs that something is in a failure mode, well along the P-F curve, so to speak.

Being aware of the early warning signs of problems doesn’t necessarily mean drivers know what’s wron, or how to make needed repairs. That would be a cost saving bonus if they did. But, training and coaching in basic equipment care added to their knowledge of equipment operation can reap huge benefits.



Decades ago, while I was working as an auto mechanic, a customer drove a Buick into the service station. I knew something wasn’t right from the moment it came into earshot. It didn’t take a highly trained mechanic to know that the loud mechanical knock-knock-knock wasn’t normal. And it didn’t take a high level of training to know that the loud noise coming from under the hood was likely the engine knocking. Nor did it take a lot of experience to know this was probably a catastrophic problem in the making.

When the driver parked the car, turned off the engine, and the knocking quickly stopped I suspected that the engine was running with NO oil in the crankcase. But that was MY training, MY experience, MY diagnosis as a trained and experienced mechanic, as well as a vehicle driver. I knew this wasn’t normal, and, in fact, that the knocking indicated a serious situation.

What did the vehicle owner-driver-equipment operator know about the problem? Didn’t take long to find out when he excitedly explained, “I bought this car new, and it’s never given me an ounce of trouble, and all of a sudden this happens. It’s embarrassing to have people stare at me whenever I pull into a parking space in town with all that knock-knock-knock going on.”

The vehicle owner-driver-equipment operator then explained that he always took care of the vehicle: Checked the air in the tires, checked the radiator coolant level, and checked the oil in the engine. He went out of the way to keep the car clean inside and out. He continued explaining that he knew when to add water or antifreeze or oil to the engine and how that had saved him lots of money.

As the story went on, the problem became clearer, and only needed to be verified with one simple question. I asked, “How often do you change the oil and filter?”

After a long pause and a puzzled look at me and then at the car, I knew what his answer would be. And then it came: “Do what?”

What I quickly discovered by his first answer and his second answer to the question—“I add oil every time it gets a quart low”— is that he had NEVER changed the engine oil and filter. The car had well over 50,000 miles and looked great. But, it never had undergone the required oil and filter change (and, most likely, other required services).

Why would a vehicle owner-driver-equipment operator NOT pay attention to the engine oil and filter? In this case, he explained this was his first vehicle. As a child, he’d always watched his father check the oil level every time they gassed up the family car. On occasion, Dad would add a quart when the dipstick showed it was a quart low. That was this guy’s ONLY experience in vehicle maintenance: watching his father.

What my customer had not seen was his father taking the family car in for routine service, including oil and filter changes. Basically, this vehicle-owner-driver-equipment-operator knew just enough to be dangerous. He had not received any basic training or coaching on routine maintenance. And he had not bothered to read the vehicle owner’s manual!

That day was to mark his first-ever training on engine oil and filter changing. We put the car on the hoist and raised it up to be able to reach the oil filter, pan, and drain plug. I pointed these items out as I proceeded to prepare all the tools and equipment to perform a routine oil and filter change, explaining every step along the way.

To my (and our) surprise, no oil drained out of the oil pan when I removed the plug. I looked in the drain hole and realized it was blocked. With a screwdriver I poked into the drain hole. Again, nothing drained out. But the screwdriver was coated with what looked like tar. (OK, I know what all you mechanics are thinking – that’s not what a screwdriver is supposed to be used for.)

To make a long story short, we removed the oil pan and had to scrape and chisel and heat it with a torch to remove the tar-like oil sludge from inside the oil pan. My customer’s embarrassing knock-knock-knock was actually a major engine problem—a very expensive one that could have been avoided with minimal training: “Check your engine oil often. Top off as needed. Have the oil filter and oil changed every 3,000 miles.”

Operator care of the equipment in our plants and facilities follows a similar path. Without any training or coaching operator care is haphazard and incomplete and can be costly. With minimal training and coaching from our skilled maintainers the operators can learn what to pay attention to. They can learn during a mechanic’s troubleshooting process how problems can be detected at an early stage on the P-F curve. Operators can learn what they can do the help care for their equipment, and what NOT to do.

The concept of operator equipment care, while almost common sense, came back to us in the 1980s when Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) was introduced as part of a five “pillar” TPM process. The first pillar identified the major equipment losses (problems). The second TPM pillar involved the equipment operators in routine maintenance (equipment care) to eliminate the problems that they were trained to address (the fourth TPM pillar). The third TPM pillar addressed maintenance efficiency by the skilled maintainers. The fifth TPM pillar focused on improving equipment, reducing maintenance requirements based on what was learned in the first four TPM pillars.

The process of operator equipment care is NOT a stand-alone function. It’s part of a bigger process of improving equipment effectiveness (TPM). Operator care depends on the other TPM pillars and rarely succeeds on its own.

How would our plants’ and facilities’ equipment be best preserved? Should we ask operators to treat their equipment as a rental car? Or, treat their equipment as an “owner” who is trained in taking care of the basics and know when to call in professionals?TRR

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, workforce issues