By Heinz P. Bloch, PE, Process Machinery Consulting

Maintenance best practices for pumps in industrial and municipal services deserve more of our attention than we seem to routinely give them. Well-explained details for pump maintenance best practices can be found in a wide variety of published literature; there’s really no excuse not to have your maintenance regime up to scratch.

Generally speaking, relevant details are in the public domain, in plain view of those truly interested in learning, and we do our part to encourage reliability professionals and managers to embrace maintenance best practices for pumps. Some need to make changes if the right priority is not presently given to the implementation of true maintenance best practices.

Elevating the priority ranking of doing repairs properly often requires a shift in the mindset of managers and senior professionals. But while managers and maintenance personnel tend to desire quick results – and because human nature is what it is – changes in mindsets are needed. Even a subconscious awareness of having to make changes becomes an obstacle to the implementation of best practices. Bear with me and I will explain.

Precursor activities

Maintenance best practices are achieved only after having done due diligence. In other words, precursor activities have to be carried out. By way of analogy: the reliability of a passenger car is dependent upon (a) its design, (b) the quality and diligence of follow-up maintenance, and (c) the competence of the car’s driver-operator.

It’s no different in a pump user facility: each of these entities – design, maintenance, operation – must do their respective jobs correctly. Unless all three are done well, there will be no reliability. While there will be much talk about best practices, little (if anything) is often done to impart lasting value.

Project engineering

Again reverting to an automobile analogy, planning to market a new automobile model involves up-front design. Design details always create maintenance consequences. It is no different with the assets which end up in a pump user’s facility. All the maintenance efforts in the world cannot turn a fundamentally bad or maintenance-intensive design into a technically superior asset.

The fact is: you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. A facility needs a sensible budget, not a bare-bones budget. Good projects originate with cost estimating manuals that reflect reliable equipment. A project must use experience-based specifications to describe and properly estimate the cost of reliable equipment.

Reliable assets must be purchased and installed. Before the actual commissioning, soundly executed projects move into a training phase. People must learn (i.e., be trained) in how to properly operate and maintain this equipment.

Don’t blame others!

A logical realisation is to rule-out finger-pointing and fault-finding between a maintenance department and an operating department. The smartest organisations are conveying to the maintenance department head that he or she will be asked, at random intervals, to trade places with the operations department head.

The operations department head will then become the maintenance department head. That simply means that the two department heads will positively learn to communicate and cooperate; they will adopt a statute whereby they show consideration for each other’s issues and concerns on a daily basis. If they don’t learn to communicate and cooperate, each will have terminated their own careers.

Input from SMEs

Best maintenance practices are put in writing; and they require input from subject matter experts (SMEs). SMEs are not born; they are groomed and nurtured. These experts may report at different levels in an organisation, but will be given access to a sponsor, someone very near the top. SMEs are people with abilities and know-how which would be perilous for project people to ignore.

SMEs are given a role statement which delineates their role and assigns to them both accountability and empowerment. Their role quite obviously includes project involvement up-front, never after decisions are already made by managers whose concerns are inevitably focused on the present and for whom the future is too far out to be of concern. Regrettably, in today’s environment reward and progression are often based entirely on cost and schedule instead of long-term lowest cost of ownership.

Owners of decisions

In our context, ‘owner’ simply means that best practices companies designate an ‘owner of final decisions’. That owner of decisions has to live with his rulings, first as the project executive, then as the plant manager. He or she instructs the next layer of managers to use predictive maintenance routines which are tracked so as to identify the optimum maintenance or scheduled shutdown intervals.

It’s in this particular layer of management where the trading of places between an operating department head and a maintenance department head takes place. It is this layer of management which sees to it that written instructions are followed, be they maintenance or operations-related. The managers in this layer are held accountable and, in turn, will hold accountable the supervisory levels reporting to them.

Deming was right

Following the above roadmap for several decades will inculcate in an organisation what an exceedingly competent observer of the world scene, W. Edwards Deming, taught with absolute clarity in the mid-1940s. In his ‘14 points of total quality management’, Deming described a set of management practices which bring about quality and productivity. Wildly optimistic maintenance practitioners (and their disciples) sometimes push aside Deming and replace his fundamental principles with a new flavour of the year.

Shortly after World War II, Deming tried to provide highly relevant in-depth consulting services to US automobile makers. When the US auto industry ignored his work, Deming went to Japan and assisted Japan’s auto industry to regain and expand both quality and market share. We now know that Deming was right over 75 years ago; we also know that his principles are as true today as ever.

Rediscovering these practices and following Deming’s guidance towards maintenance best practices makes a lot of sense. We can certainly apply his thinking to the process pumps we design, manufacture, install, repair, maintain, and operate:

Figure 1. A bi-directional tapered pumping ring is typical of the many upgrade components available for mechanical seals in process pumps (Source: AESSEAL, Rotherham, UK).

Figure 1. A bi-directional tapered pumping ring is typical of the many upgrade components available for mechanical seals in process pumps (Source: AESSEAL, Rotherham, UK).

1. Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service. 

A reliability engineering group must view every maintenance event as an opportunity to upgrade. The investigation of the feasibility of upgrading (see Figure 1) should have been done beforehand; it should be a pro-active endeavor.

2. Adopt a new philosophy which makes mistakes and negativism unacceptable. 

Accountability is the key here. If you’ve taken your car to the dealer on three consecutive Mondays to have a leaking water pump repaired and find the job to be unsatisfactory every time, you might ask some serious questions. Why not ask questions at your plant when a critical process pump repair isn’t done right three times in a row? Why the double standard as we shift from our automobile to the plant’s process pumps?

3. Stop being dependent on mass inspection. 

While this is not usually a concern for a pump user’s facility, invoke the corollary. Ask the responsible worker or maintenance technician to certify that his work meets the quality and accuracy requirements stipulated in your facility’s work procedures and checklists.

4. End the practice of awarding business on price alone. 

You’ve probably never bought the least expensive pair of shoes, so don’t buy the cheapest pump, or the cheapest replacement parts for the pump. Understand and redefine the function of your purchasing department. Let them negotiate price and delivery of the mechanical seals and rolling element bearings specified and selected by a competent reliability engineering group, but don’t let the seal vendor lobby your buyers. Pay particular attention to the meaning of ‘specify’ and work up detailed specifications for important parts.

5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service.

Understand that in a process plant, improvement will come from the proper daily interaction of operating, mechanical/maintenance and reliability/technical workforces. Be sure not to let the reliability/technical function become a service organisation. They are the support arm which needs to push your company to the top. Don’t let them get inbred by depriving them of access to the outside world.

6. Institute training. 

It has been our experience that very few managers know just exactly what type of training is required by their mechanical/maintenance or reliability/technical workforces. Say, for example, the shop is primarily involved in repairing repeat pump failure events. The mechanic or machinist dismantles a pump, finds a defective bearing and replaces it. For decades that’s been your repair approach, but not so at the best-of-class competition. Your best-of-class competition probably taught their personnel that bearings fail for a reason, and unless you uncover the reason, you are just setting yourself up for many more repeat failures.

7. Institute leadership. 

What an elusive concept it is! Perhaps we could look at a small slice of it, the one that deals simply with guidance and direction. A leader recognises that for reliability professionals to be productive, they must be resourceful. The leader must be in a position to outline the approach to be followed by the reliability professionals in, say, achieving extended pump run lengths. The true leader would steer professionals to publications and mentors, would recommend the development of single-page specifications for acceptable bearing types and configurations, and would see to it that inquiries to mechanical seal manufacturers would elicit responses in sufficient detail to acquire the statistical basis for justifying the procurement of better products.

8. Drive out fear. 

In my younger years we used to have an unwritten contract which implied that employee loyalty will be rewarded by job security. This contract no longer exists today. But you can initiate guidance and action steps that show personal ethics and evenhandedness which are valued and respected by your workforce. Their performance will be motivated by your example, by your work habits and character traits. Fear will no longer be a performance motivator.

9. Break down barriers between staff areas. 

You should never tolerate the kind of ill-perceived competition among staff groups that invariably cause them to withhold pertinent information from each other, or makes one group shine at the expense of their peers.

10. Eliminate slogans and exhortations for the workforce.

Just because a catchy safety slogan at the plant entrance serves as a fitting reminder to work safely does not mean that hot-air exhortations will strike a responsive chord. We all subscribe to the belief that actions speak louder than words.

11. Eliminate numerical quotas. 

Think how well your automobile would be repaired if the mechanic had a quota of eight automobile repairs per day. If your reliability professionals work a 40-hour week and you expect them to solve 20 problems per week, don’t be surprised if they do a rather superficial job, at best. If a problem is worth solving, allocate the time needed to do the work. One powerful reason why some process plants are only marginally profitable is because they claim to have neither the time nor the money to do the job right the first time, but somehow end up doing it over a second and third time. That’s not how the best-of-class competition operates!

Figure 2. Process pump in distress. (Source: author).

Figure 2. Process pump in distress. (Source: author).

12. Remove barriers to pride of workmanship. 

Give your reliability person credit for keeping his or her work environment clean. Don’t convey the message that the job must be done so quickly that there is no time to make it look good (see Figure 2), no time to accurately monitor bearing temperatures in the induction heater, no time to calibrate the torque wrench. If reliability could be achieved without pride of workmanship, we would be happy to take delivery of a new car with ill-fitting doors and streaky paint. And the surgical scar on a hospital patient might as well look like the zipper on an old mailbag if nobody cares!

13. Institute a vigorous program of training and education.

I’ve asked myself why W. E. Deming seems to repeat himself in listing TRAINING under numbers 6 and also number 13. No doubt he wanted to underscore the staggering importance of training to the achievement of consistently high quality, productivity and profitability. We can be equally certain that Deming understood that engineers leaving colleges and universities require copious amounts of additional training in order to be productive and proficient contributors. This training may come from such sources as trade journals, vendor seminars, or even the assignment of presentations to Management or to certain Operations Groups. Two of the most costly Management misconceptions are that maintenance can always be deferred and that training the workforce is no more important than the (occasionally misguided) training executives are often receiving from industrial psychologists, wild water rafters and golf pros.

14. Go beyond a plan, and take action to achieve this transformation. 

Taking action means exercising leadership. Leadership must come from a perceptive, knowledgeable individual. Risks must be assessed, roadblocks and impediments must be removed. Leadership is needed because new directives have to be communicated to others. Their cooperation has to be sought and “empowerment” redefined in some instances. Deming used the term “transformation” because he no doubt realised that that’s what it may take to escape from the constraints the traditional mindset is imposing on the pump maintenance worker.

Finally, the most productive and highly profitable pump users are ones viewing every maintenance intervention as an opportunity to upgrade. At these best-of-class companies a maintenance or reliability professional is ready and able to answer two questions without delay and hesitation: (1) is upgrading possible, and (2) if upgrading is possible, will it be cost-justified in the particular case at issue?

Designating, grooming and rewarding such an individual will be of great value to the enterprise. It will promote good reading habits and is sure to drive down pump failure frequencies.


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