It Turned into Nothing

Once upon a time there was a man who went to his village’s master tailor with a piece of fabric. “Good day, master tailor,” he said and bowed. “May I get a coat sewn of this fine piece of fabric?”

“By all means,” the tailor responded.

“When will it be finished?” the man asked.

“On Saturday,” the tailor said.

When the man went to pick up the coat, the tailor greeted him and said, “It didn’t turn into a coat.” The tailor explained that he would make him a pair of pants of the fine piece of fabric instead. The man was told that the pants would be ready “next Saturday” and he left the tailor’s shop.

the product of maintenance

A week later he excitedly entered the shop, but now the tailor told him “It didn’t turn into a pair of pants; it’s going to be a vest.” The man was surprised, but accepted and left with the promise that the vest would be ready on Saturday.

The following week the tailor told the man “It didn’t turn into a vest. I will make you a pair of mittens instead.” The man nodded, for he was patient and trusted the tailor to advise him on the best use of his fabric. “They will be ready on Saturday.” Once again Saturday arrived and the tailor had different news. Now he was sewing the man a little pair of thumbs. The man scratched his head, but agreed; he didn’t ask when the thumbs would be finished, he knew the routine.

As he had done for many weeks now, the man returned to the tailor shop. “It wasn’t enough for a pair of thumbs,” the tailor said. “It turned into nothing.” The man was confused, but knew the tailor was the best in town, so he said okay and left the shop without as much as a thread of his fine piece of fabric, and without complaints. He didn’t even seem to realize that he’d been conned.

I remembered this old Swedish folktale “Master Tailor” after a recent vacation when I took a mental inventory of the many different plants I’ve visited and worked in as an IDCON consultant. Over the years, I’ve noticed a clear downward trend in how well preventive maintenance (PM) works and is documented in factories, mines, and mills around the world. During my visits, we evaluate how well-documented the PM is, if the right type of PM is in place for the equipment, and how it’s carried out. These evaluations usually yield varied examples and results.

Some of these results made me think of that folktale…how something goes from “a fine piece of fabric” to absolutely nothing, yet people appear to accept the degradation and even seem content with it. I don’t mean that PM isn’t documented—there are usually tons of PMs in the plants I visit, but the follow-up and the quality of processes (and equipment) reminds me of a slowly sinking ship. In most cases it seems like both operations and maintenance just accept it. The preventive maintenance program “turned into nothing” and we shrug and let it happen.

But why?


Most plants have a long list of PMs for their maintenance systems, but few people know exactly what these tasks entail, or if they are carried out. The discussion about improving the existing PM in the plant is brought up year after year (usually after a big breakdown). It is my opinion, unfortunately, that plans to include all PM initiatives quickly lose steam when the personnel realizes the enormity of the job, thinking it too big to grasp. What ends up happening instead is putting a PM task or two in place for broken equipment and making a quick fix—then work life moves on.

The quick fixes, also called reactive PM, seldom have any rhyme or reason. They lack a clear method for how to choose and implement some kind of standard, and are often copied from other faltering PM elsewhere in the plant. To make things worse, the PMs already in the system are seldom looked over or evaluated either. (Who wants to be the person accused of removing a PM?)

The effect? After a few years of ignoring the importance of implementing the right PM and sticking to it, we end up with long lists of PM, often with poor quality and with different formats and level of detail. Of course, those who work on the floor and are responsible for performing are aware of this and usually lose faith in what is documented; instead they just do what they think is best. Now you have a slew of PMs, but nobody who’s paying attention to them.

If we have good employees—those who realize the importance of a well functioning PM system—we can get by for a while, but sooner or later personnel are replaced. If the new employees aren’t believers in PM, or think it’s less important, then we run into big problems.

Here’s an example of one failing system: I once read a PM for a transmission where it said the bearings should be switched every six months. This PM wasn’t only wrong from a technical standpoint (bearings have a lifespan of 1 – 25 years), but it’s also impractical since it’s nearly impossible to switch them while the machinery is in operation. This particular PM was also created in 2000. According to the PM, this plant should have changed bearings every six months—for 17 years! That is both impractical and incorrect. I am pretty sure that wasn’t the case and this PM had just been sitting there, collecting dust. (I couldn’t find what type of preventive maintenance had been carried out on the transmissions in any area of that plant.)

So, if we don’t evaluate, read, and question our PM systems on a regular basis, we end up in the very same situation as the man and his fine piece of fabric—not even understanding what really happened.

Here are a few questions to consider in order to avoid the “it turned into nothing” trap:

  • How did we come up with the PM systems we have in place?
  • Are we using a standard procedure to make sure our PM maintains quality?
  • Do we have a PM standard for common components such as transmissions, engines, cylinders, pumps, etc?
  • Do we have a standardized format for our whole plant in order for our personnel to recognize the PM instructions?
  • How well are the PM systems we have in place carried out?

Lastly, I also think we need to consider this: About 80 percent of our problems with machinery should be found via PM inspections. I am including all inspections in this number regardless of who does the PM or what type of inspection tools are used.