Skip to main content

Improvement vs. Incompetence

World Coal,

Mines and plants embark on improvement programs with the intent of improving performance and maybe changing the culture along the way. Maintenance is often an area of focus where setting the context for change is critical to success.  

Maintenance superintendents often have years of experience turning a wrench before supervising the maintenance department. Many are frustrated because breakdown work continuously interrupts planned jobs. Planned maintenance is often a personal priority for superintendents but many mines and plants have maintenance programs that historically have been reactive (i.e., ‘don’t fix it until it breaks’). Maintenance technicians at these sites pride themselves in their ‘firefighting’ abilities and production foremen are reluctant to shut down equipment for planned work because they want to use that time to ‘run’ to make up production losses caused by equipment failures. Maintenance superintendents may believe that their greatest battle is shifting from a reactive maintenance culture to a proactive maintenance culture (i.e., shifting the focus from response to prevention and planning). However, underlying tensions may sabotage their efforts to do so.

To transform a reactive maintenance culture to a proactive maintenance culture, missing processes must be identified. If some maintenance processes exist for planned work, the question becomes why those processes are not being executed. Teams may be formed to analyse existing maintenance processes. Maintenance techs are usually handpicked for this work because of their knowledge of maintenance practices and the warehouse, purchasing and vendors. 

The improvement steps described above have been applied in maintenance departments around the world. It is important to note that there is a dynamic that may surface during this work that sabotages the best programs, and becomes a barrier to creating a proactive maintenance culture. When maintenance teams are formed, team members are usually willing to talk about what could be improved. They know that they are the best group to people to recommend changes and believe that their perspective can really make a difference to the effectiveness of their work. As time passes, their willingness to share specific improvement ideas either increases or decreases, depending on the culture at their operation.

I have watched active participation on a maintenance team decrease over time. Early work on the team was focused and the team made excellent suggestions for changes to existing PM processes. As the weeks passed, progress stalled because other employees viewed process changes as an insult to the way they had always worked. Some techs were thinking of working at other mines to avoid feeling incompetent. As a result, management decided to abandon improvement work in the maintenance department and a huge improvement opportunity was missed.

Management felt that they were being forced to choose between improved maintenance practices and losing some of their best people. This kind of choice was not supposed to be part of the improvement process. In this case, the fear of change had “morphed” into a perception of incompetence on the job, which is not what process improvement is about. Unfortunately, the change process had not been adequately described before the team began to meet.

Here’s the thought for June:

The power of perceptions and the fear of being viewed as less than perfect can outweigh an opportunity to be more efficient and effective. Being aware of this change barrier and knowing how to address it are important keys to your success.

Author: Kay Sever, CMC, CQIA Sustainable Improvement Consultant & Coach

Read the article online at:


Embed article link: (copy the HTML code below):