Maintenance Teams exist to keep plants, systems and assets running smoothly.
This goal is hard to achieve for one overriding reason: nothing in the plant environment is constant.
Multiple people per shift touch assets...
Multiple shifts per day work independently...
Systems are constantly changing…
Each asset is nuanced…
Years of history contribute to the current state.
Even the most seasoned technicians don’t have visibility into all of these activities… and when they walk out the door (end of shift, vacation, retirement), the insanely valuable knowledge they carry walks out the door with them.
What I’ve realized after years of discussing these challenges with Technicians and Managers is that success (and failure) is almost always a result of how well teams manage knowledge.
The best performing plants typically have the best systems in place to:
Unfortunately, every system has pros and cons. Many managers have tried implementing various systems, only to be disappointed by the results. There is tremendous value in thinking through different forms of knowledge management, and what your team can try.
“We’ve never been good at managing knowledge, because there are just no good tools for it.” - Bob, Maintenance Manager, leading US packaging manufacturer
The majority of teams still rely on verbal communication to pass critical information between disconnected workers. Dedicated time like shift passdowns can be effective in their speed and flexibility, but the information is temporary and easily forgotten. Verbal exchanges have also become harder due to Covid distancing measures. Many technicians rely on calls to off-duty staff, but these are typically not recorded, aren’t reliable, and are extremely disruptive.
Some teams use physical systems like whiteboards and fixed notebooks that live next to an asset or line to capture critical information. The most interesting example I saw were “caveman drawings” - a self described system of sticky notes and scrap paper left inside panels and at assets in a lime processing plant. Technicians actually kept track of wiring changes, error codes and general work history on these:
While “caveman drawings” aren’t common, whiteboards and logbooks certainly are. Having information at the physical location of an asset is great, but that information is often transient and hard to find.
“I write stuff on my hand in marker” - Brett, Maintenance Technician at aerospace manufacturer. There’s a real need to take notes that travel with you. Whether they are written in a book or on the back of your hand, notes are useful to keep track of knowledge and eventually (hopefully), pass to someone else. But most notes remain siloed and aren’t shared
In an effort to combat many of the issues associated with verbal and physical systems, some companies have created their own digital systems. The challenge with this type of solution is typical access and widespread use. SharePoint and related systems are hard to access on the floor, and so many technicians don’t use them. And if there isn’t content being put into a system, the system will serve a limited purpose. These systems typically work best for a specific application, for users that have routine access to a computer, like Reliability Engineers who are optimizing an asset's performance over many months or years.
Most maintenance teams use Computerized Maintenance Management Software (CMMS) or Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) software. This software is critical for tracking assets, inventory, preventative maintenance schedules and tickets. But it really wasn’t designed to facilitate knowledge transfer (the capture, organization and sharing of complex information). Many teams hope that technicians will squeeze more notes into the plain text comments box, but this rarely happens. Often technicians don’t have access to mobile interfaces, and when they do, it’s really hard to leave detailed notes on the floor through a cell phone keyboard.
In recent years, dedicated knowledge base tools have become popular, both cloud based and on-prem. These systems promise seamless knowledge transfer, and for some use cases they achieve that. For example, having digitized SOPs available through a phone or tablet for complex work procedures ensures compliance, safety and consistency. There are a couple challenges with these systems though. They depend on the maintenance team to input and maintain knowledge into the software. For an overworked maintenance team, this is often a non-starter. This software is often a stand-alone application, requiring technicians to use a second system that isn’t connected to their work order software.
One thing is clear: there is no silver bullet, yet.
Each knowledge management system has tradeoffs that work in some situations well, but not in others. Teams should evaluate their options, and actively try new methods depending on what unique challenges they face.
There is also an opportunity to develop a better solution.
"When they walk out the door (end of shift, vacation, retirement), the insanely valuable knowledge they carry walks out the door with them."
Mobile devices are proliferating in plant environments. Technology such as voice transcription, location based tagging and natural language processing will change the way that technicians:
For information about how Genba is achieving this problem, visit www.genba.ai.
Co-Founder and CEO of Genba