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When I think about “reliability” of anything, I think of “consistency,” i.e., uniformity, stability, dependability, same way all the time. Likewise, equipment reliability is all about consistency. But establishing consistency among numerous variables isn’t as simple as it might sound.  We all have opinions, which lead to our own ways of thinking and doing. Establishing consistent work practices to drive out human variation, however, is a requirement for achieving, improving, and/or sustaining reliability of equipment. Consider the following example.

“What is it about that swing-shift crew? They’re like cowboys running wild, doing their own thing with little supervision.” That observation led to me visiting this swing-shift crew in action at a cold rolling mill. And they were, let’s say, “different.” But I’ve learned from hundreds of plants and thousands of plant-floor people that “different” is not necessarily bad.

The crew really seemed like “Cowboys.” Although they did run wild, they were wildly consistent. In fact, during their shift, they cranked out more defect-free coils than any other crews. They must have been doing something right. So, we talked. “How do you know how to set up and run these coils?” I asked. The answer was quick: “We’ve always done it this way. It works.”

We looked at the coil staging, setup, startup, and running at amazing speeds. Nothing unusual there, other than consistent quality and absolutely no equipment problems. Eventually, the Cowboys fessed up to their secret. “We’ve always done it this way. We get all our coils run and get to kick back and have our doughnuts and coffee.”

I’m reminded of the adage “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Often, it refers to subpar performance with an unwillingness to change, to improve. In this case, though, the Cowboys knew how to get optimum mill performance and consistent product quality. A speed of 9,800-ft-per-minute (fpm) was their goal for the cold mill running the alloy on the swing shift.

Taking this information back to the other crews wasn’t easy. I couldn’t admit to what I had learned from the Cowboys. I could only ask leading questions, such as “What’s the best speed for this alloy?”

Our meeting turned into a show-and-tell about running a coil at different speeds. I was informed, quite convincingly, that if you run near 6,000 fpm, you get a strip break and a mill cobble, otherwise known as a “wreck.” And these “other” crews demonstrated what a “wreck” looked like at a speed of 6,000 fpm.

Then, everybody went on break while Maintenance fixed things.

Sadly, what the swing-shift Cowboys knew and did was not shared with, much less appreciated by, other crews. “They [the Cowboys] fudge their numbers,” I was told. “They’re always eating doughnuts.” Still, production records for the year showed the swing-shift consistently setting records for the plant. The crew knew that a speed of 9,800 fpm was the sweet spot for running the alloy. They also knew how critical a steady (consistent) ramp-up speed rate was in heading to 9,800 fpm.

Driving out human variation to establish consistent work practices is often halted by opinions more than by facts. Enjoying and maintaining their “Cowboy” reputation prevented the swing-shift crew from sharing their Best Practices. As RAM Pros, we need to help overcome random opinions with facts to achieve new reliability goals. As a business, plant, or facility we win or lose together.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 vast 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

Tagsreliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, asset management, standardized work practices, cold rolling mills,