Traylor Bros. maintains 5,000 pieces of equipment all over the country with very few people by making field operations responsible for preventive maintenance. The risks of decentralized maintenance are no different than with any large fleet—project managers are motivated primarily by the profitability of projects, and projects seldom last as long as most heavy equipment. Thad Pirtle, Traylor's vice president of equipment, prevents short-term decisions from cutting equipment life with 45 equipment-support people who demonstrate a commitment to reliability every day.
"We've really begun to focus on reliability-based maintenance—what we're calling Traylor Equipment Quality," says Pirtle. "We've started to measure reliability and develop targets for it.
"Feedback from the field is very important to our understanding of uptime, because it's our people on the jobs who determine what is acceptable," says Pirtle. "One of the ways we've been able to get them talking to us in a productive way is to have them rate each piece of machinery on a scale of 1 to 10 for its readiness to work when they take delivery."
Actually, machines are inspected on both ends of a shipment. First by the equipment supervisor at the shipping location, and then by the project superintendent when it arrives. The equipment super signs the inspection report before the machines leaves the yard. It's his personal guarantee that the machine is ready to go to work for its intended purpose.
"We're trying to tie equipment quality together with accountability," Pirtle says. "When you rent a car, you want to get in, turn it on, put the seatbelt on and drive. Take a 1,000-mile trip without thinking twice about the car. We need our field people to be able to use our equipment the same way.
"It's surprising, the cost of shipping a broken-down machine," Pirtle explains. "A machine that comes to a remote site with dead batteries can take a day and a half to get running. If that's a key piece on a job with $40,000 per day liquidated damages, you just spent $60,000 replacing a battery.
"Even if it's just a run-of-the-mill loader, you have an operator and an oiler standing around waiting while your mechanic looks the machine over. The project super has to go rent a replacement, and then call me and chew me out. I have to listen to him and then go and find out what happened in the shop—this thing's got long tentacles. When you multiply all those man hours by a $55-per-hour shop rate, you're talking about some real money."
Traylor Equipment Quality inspections err to the side of reliability. For example, if a machine is equipped with 4½-year-old batteries that typically last five years, they're replaced before shipping. Inspections can follow a manufacturer's guidelines.
"But the inspection sheet is pretty much just a reminder," says Pirtle. "The bulk of what we do is based on our people's experience.
"It's a communication tool," he adds. "It creates a good competition—the people on the jobsite are looking to find defects in the machine and shop people are trying to send them out with no defects."
Each time a machine is shipped, the equipment supervisor phones the project supervisor to let him know the unit is on its way. And the equipment supervisor follows up by phone in two weeks to make sure the project superintendent is satisfied. The feedback they're gathering is progressively refining the company's definition of fleet quality.
"Traylor Bros. takes at least 10 years to train up a general superintendent, and a big part of the equipment division's job is making sure those guys get what they need," Pirtle says.
The equipment division helps indoctrinate project superintendents, taking them to trade shows and on visits to manufacturers' facilities.
"The object is to get them close to the equipment and help them buy into the maintenance program," he explains. "When the engineer who designs and builds wire rope stands there in front of the big machines winding together spools of rope in the factory and explains why it's so important that we put the right kind of lube on wire rope, the project super understands why we're always on his back about maintaining oilers. Then it's not just the equipment department trying to carry the maintenance message to the field, but the project super is working with us, and things start getting done."
Equipment supervisors have walked through the Traylor Equipment Quality inspections with field people, but the goal of the program is not to turn them into equipment inspectors.
"We need them to communicate with us," Pirtle says. "It doesn't matter if they're right or wrong—we just need to get their perspective on the quality of the machine. If they feel like it is in poor condition, then there's something wrong, and we have to deal with it."
The customer-first approach serves two very practical purposes that will inevitably improve utilization of the Traylor fleet. First, exemplary service is likely to reduce project superintendents' spending on outside rentals. They don't have to use Traylor equipment, so it's Pirtle's job to make sure they want to. The second purpose is a little subtler. If project people become accustomed to machines showing up on site ready to work, they are less likely to pad delivery schedules with time to prep machines. Less transit time leaves more time available to be productive.
Traylor Equipment Quality has been steadily improving fleet reliability since early in 2004. In June, Pirtle's equipment group shipped 18 pieces with only two deficiencies. He's meeting with his people quarterly to discuss progress and adapt.
"The goal is zero deficiencies, and we're going to achieve it one way or another," declares Pirtle. "It takes a while to put a program like this in motion. You have to push and shove with all the energy you've got to get it moving. Once it's rolling you can steer it—make sure it's going the way you want."