In 2000, Barriere Construction had plenty of work but the company was struggling to make a profit. "Maintenance cost had been going up, big time," says Ben Tucker, equipment manager and a 19-year veteran with the New Orleans, La., contractor. He put his head together with the chief financial officer, Brian Cooney, and they decided to enlist a consultant. The firm embarked on a journey to refocus equipment operations on preventing breakdowns—and in the process cut the staff in half.
After assessing Barriere's operations, the consultants said the main problem was unexpected equipment failures. "And it was a shared problem," says Tucker. "The equipment department couldn't fix it alone—it would have to be a company-wide effort."
Equipment and operations departments collaborated to establish new standards for operators' inspections, cleaning, lubrication, and safety for each type of machine in the fleet. They began to train operators and work crews to get maximum production out of machines without abusing them.
"We are showing operators what kinds of problems to look for, and training them to do the smaller repairs themselves," Tucker says. "They know better than anyone when blades need to be changed, or when to change hydraulic lines.
"The Marshall Institute (the consultants) convinced us all that it wasn't nearly as efficient for the equipment department to do smaller repairs that could be done in the field by the operator or crew."
Special training events bring groups of operators, crew members, and field supervisors into the shop for a week with Pat Klaman to go over a particular type of machine (wheel loader, paver, roller, telehandler) with a fine-toothed comb. They learn how to inspect, clean, and operate the machine, how to perform some minor repairs, and how to effectively communicate major repair needs to the shop. The training provides operators and crew with a machine that's good as new, an appreciation for how a reliable machine can make their jobs more efficient, and a deeper understanding of how their actions contribute to the company's success. Ninety percent of Barriere's people have a certificate of completion that was personally presented to them by the company's owners.
The plan, which Barriere calls Total Process Reliability (TPR), also demanded a complete change of focus for the equipment department.
"First we had to improve the quality of repairs," says Tucker. "Our IT (information technology) department was able to extract information we could use to track mean time between failures. When you have a short mean time between failures, you know you have a problem.
"We found that 80 percent of our shop work was coming from 20 percent of the components, and they were on similar types of machines. Once we could track those repeat failures, we could determine the root causes, figure out what we were doing wrong, and correct them."
Humbling as that experience was, the greatest equipment-department change involved a complete shuffling of priorities, moving PM up near the top of the list. Tucker and his team created a ranking system that would allow them to assign each work order a number, 1 through 5. A work order ranked No. 1 is an emergency and the work must be started immediately. No. 2 is in serious condition and must be started within 24 hours. No. 3 work orders are in critical condition and work must start within three days, and so on.
"We had to make some adjustments, where we were saying a PM is priority No. 2—it's more important than most repair work orders," Tucker says. "It was a hard decision, but the Marshall Institute people said it has to be done this way. Eventually, as we started looking at PM as high priority, urgent repairs just started going away."
In 2000, Tucker's operation was only completing about 30 percent of preventive-maintenance jobs on schedule. Today the number is upwards of 90 percent. It turned out to be the pivotal change in Barriere's equipment department. No longer geared up to react to breakdowns, they began to manage increasingly reliable equipment.
"I like to have a two-week backlog of work in my pocket—most of it preventive-type repairs and maintenance," says Tucker. "If you get too many priority 1s, you're not going to work away at your backlog. You're not getting the PM done.
"We were functioning about 90 percent reactive (nine work orders out of 10 were created in response to breakdowns) before TPR. Now we're down to about 15 percent reactive."
The goal is zero unplanned repairs.
"We realize we have to bring our PMs to another level if we are going to find all the problems before things go wrong," says Tucker.
Tucker has rewritten Barriere's standard 125-hour inspections to include such details as measuring the voltage on batteries and charging systems, hydraulic pressures and operating temperatures.
"When we do a PM, we hope it will generate some kind of corrective work order," says Tucker. It was hard getting mechanics to do that. They want to do big repairs—they don't want to do PM work."
While the mindset is slow to change, Tucker says the payoff is already becoming obvious. He had a staff of 28, which is down to 14. And the fleet is more productive. He admits that the equipment department's transition to preventive mode was eased by the company's decision to sell off a fleet of 35 dump trucks (return on net assets just couldn't compete with owner/operators' rates). But Tucker says those trucks required only two full-time technicians.
He characterizes the past four years as striving for change—changing the fleet to improve return on assets, training operators and crews to help with reliability, upgrading repair quality to reduce repeat failures, and shifting mechanics' priorities to preventive maintenance. They're changes that have redefined equipment's contribution to company profit.