Maintenance and operations: Is asset productivity broken?

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After the challenges of the pandemic and its aftermath, business operations are now dealing with surging energy and input prices, unpredictable supply chains, and volatile demand. In this environment, operations leaders face increasing pressure to keep output high and costs down. That’s putting the spotlight on asset productivity programs designed to keep equipment humming at the highest possible ROI.

How are companies responding? Late last year, we surveyed 100 senior leaders with responsibility for equipment maintenance and asset productivity at their organizations. Participants from around the world represented five asset-intensive industry sectors: oil and gas, consumer goods, discrete manufacturing, energy, and life sciences. We asked them about their organization’s asset productivity strategy, the performance of the maintenance function, and their approach to its long-term health.

Maintenance matters

The survey responses show that asset productivity is a universal priority: 99 percent of respondents told us that their organizations had undertaken a maintenance transformation in the past five years. Most respondents are also seeking to take advantage of new technologies and methodologies. On average, respondents rated their own readiness for the transition to digital asset productivity approaches at 7.6 out of ten, while 84 percent of respondents are already adopting predictive maintenance approaches for critical assets.

Despite these efforts, however, many companies say they are still struggling to get asset productivity under control. For example, 62 percent of respondents report above-inflation increases in maintenance costs during the past year, even though most have adopted modern approaches for tracking workforce utilization. Companies face labor headaches too: 73 percent of respondents say they find it difficult to recruit new maintenance technicians. That’s especially a problem given that only 55 percent have formal systems to ensure knowledge is shared between technicians, increasing the odds that critical capabilities are lost when staff retire or move on (Exhibit 1).

Maintenance operations face serious cost and talent problems.

The way forward

Our findings might make worrying reading for operations executives, but they also highlight some clear opportunities for improvement. Three key areas show particular promise for increasing asset productivity at many organizations: preventative maintenance, cost management excellence, and people.

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The foundation is prevention

When companies think about the future of asset productivity, it is advanced approaches, such as predictive maintenance, that tend to attract the most attention. Such techniques certainly have an important role to play, but only as part of a holistic maintenance strategy.

In companies with mature reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) capabilities, around 70 to 85 percent of technician hours are spent on preventative maintenance (PM) activities. Among respondents to our survey, however, PM tasks make up only 51 percent of overall maintenance activity on average (Exhibit 2).

Even high-performing organizations say they spend too few hours on preventative maintenance.

That’s a crude metric, but it indicates that many companies are missing out on significant opportunities to increase the value of their maintenance efforts. If properly planned, preventative maintenance is quicker and cheaper, and less disruptive than reacting to breakdowns.

The planning element is critical, however. Some organizations operate with high levels of planned and unplanned downtime. That suggests that they are focusing their PM efforts ineffectively—by working on the wrong parts, or completing tasks too often. These companies would benefit from a rigorous screening of their maintenance programs, using analytics to weigh the frequency and criticality of failures, then refining their intervention plans accordingly.

Building a detailed picture of asset performance and failure rates doesn’t just help companies optimize their preventative maintenance plans. It also provides the essential foundation for condition-based and predictive approaches to asset productivity, helping companies to focus their efforts on the assets and failure modes that matter most.

Excellence in cost control

Ensuring that maintenance teams are doing the right tasks is the first essential step in any effort to control rising maintenance costs. High-performing organizations need to go further, however, by ensuring that tasks are done by the right people and in the most efficient way.

One major decision for any organization is whether tasks will be completed by in-house or outsourced personnel. Respondents to our survey use various methods to make such decisions, with the use of outsourced personnel to meet peak workloads being the most common. A more sophisticated approach balances multiple factors, including the availability of specific maintenance capabilities, the strategic importance of those capabilities, and the variability in demand for those capabilities over time.

We also recommend that organizations create or strengthen a maintenance spend-control tower, which can use data on demand and technician utilization rates to track the performance and productivity of maintenance personnel. While many companies already track utilization at the team level today, the most effective systems are much more granular, recording the time spent by individual technicians on specific tasks. Some companies are even automating this tracking process, enabling real-time decision making by maintenance managers without the need to wait for the next control-tower review meeting.

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Putting people at the center

People are the most important element of every asset-productivity program. Our survey shows that companies are struggling to recruit the personnel they need in their maintenance functions, but most companies can do more to develop and retain the capabilities they need.

First, companies can take a systematic approach to the upskilling and reskilling of the maintenance organization. Several leading organizations have established asset productivity academies that provide targeted training in core topics, such as mechanical and electrical systems, and emerging ones such as digital systems, automation, and analytics.

Second, companies can invest in the codification and sharing of the know-how that already exists in the maintenance organization. Encouraging experienced technicians to record the procedures they use for critical tasks helps newer team members to become more productive, more quickly, and ensure that knowledge doesn’t leave the organization when staff move on. The asset productivity academy can also play an important role in the knowledge sharing process as the organization’s most experienced maintenance staff play a role in developing content and delivering training to their colleagues.

Finally, companies can improve the attraction and retention of talent by making the maintenance function a better place to work. Offering staff the opportunity continually upgrade and expand their skills is a key part of this, but management also needs to understand the challenges and frustrations that staff face every day. They can then take action to address those issues, for example through improvements to labor planning, scheduling, and task design.

Our survey paints a mixed picture of the state of asset productivity programs today. Most companies view the topic as a priority and are keen to take advantage of new technologies and methods. This effort does not always translate into the desired outcomes, however, with respondents reporting rising costs, a high proportion of reactive tasks, and a dissatisfied workforce.

To fix their maintenance challenges, many organizations would benefit from renewed attention to three fundamental themes: redesigning maintenance programs with a greater focus on preventative actions; excellence in cost control; and a systematic approach to skills, know-how, and role design.

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