Documentation - the MOST important tool

An effective industrial maintenance program for packaging, or any other advanced manufacturing operation, depends upon three things: workers with well-developed technical skills; workers with job-specific knowledge and experience; and complete and adequate documentation. It has become of concern to me that, just as we are facing a severe a lack of both skills and experience, I am now hearing that more and more corporations are losing control over the one area that they could easily control, documentation. If true, this will be yet another nail in the coffin of manufacturing.

Last month I wrote about some positive signs on the skilled worker front. There is much activity underway to develop the training programs necessary to educate and train multi-skilled packaging maintenance technicians. A yet-to-be-released report on the skill shortage in advanced manufacturing sheds more light on how great the need really is. This report shows that for the Commonwealth of PA, our schools are turning out just one trained new worker for every 48 industrial maintenance openings that will exist over the next ten years. I would guess that the numbers are similar around the country.

The data also shows that the existing maintenance workforce is demographically much older than the workforce in general. Large numbers of retirements are forecasted. This problem is exacerbated by the recent economy which has led to people in all occupations deferring their retirement due to economic uncertainty. A significantly larger than normal number of skilled workers are expected to retire when the economy begins a true recovery,

Increasing demand and extreme lack of supply will make the competition fierce for skilled workers. As bidding wars develop, many will find it to their benefit to change jobs more frequently. The net result will be that employers will no longer be able to muddle through maintenance operations by relying on employees with years of job specific experience and not much else. Lack of retention and shortage of available skills will deal a double blow to maintenance effectiveness.

This leads to the need for complete and accurate documentation. Documentation is the primary and most important tool for troubleshooting. Just as you can't take a trip to a strange place without some sort of map, you can't troubleshoot a system without good documentation. Incomplete or inappropriate documentation is bad; and inaccurate or not-up-to-date documentation is even worse.

I learned this lesson in 1975 when systems, even controls, were largely mechanical and you could see what was taking place. Today, systems are increasingly more complicated and software-based, making it harder to see and infer what is taking place. Throughout the 70's 80's and 90's, companies that I was familiar with focused on documentation requirements and processes for obtaining, maintaining, updating, and making available accurate documentation that was suitable for maintenance. But if what I am hearing is correct, today un-informed managers are allowing cost reduction programs to strip them of their most important tools for maintaining productivity.

If companies lose their skilled maintenance workers and lose a significant amount of job-specific experience, there is still the possibility to outsource maintenance. It takes longer to respond and it is expensive, but it can be done. But outsourcing maintenance depends upon being able to convey to the outside resources what it is they are to be working on, how it is configured and how it is to work. Without good documentation, this is nearly impossible. Outsourced maintenance then becomes an opportunity to recapitalize one's assets.

Documentation processes should be a part of every company's technology plan. I've visited many plants, sometimes to evaluate acquisitions, sometimes for benchmarking, sometimes for fun. I believe that a plant's maintenance effectiveness can be judged very quickly, merely by examining the condition of documentation on the factory floor. How well is your company's documentation being maintained? Do you agree it is important?
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