Using the RPM method to manage maintenance
by Fred J. Weber, P.E.
There is no doubt that managing a maintenance department is a challenging proposition. You could be managing a couple of mechanics, or you may have a staff of hundreds. Your background may be full of engineering or business experience, or you may be a journeyman mechanic promoted to a manager position. Regardless of all the variables, your primary concern is to find a system to follow (a blueprint, if you will) that will help you to perform your job effectively and efficiently. In an effort to help the maintenance manager, the RPM Method was created.
So exactly what is the RPM Method? As the risk of oversimplifying, the RPM Method is a work priority system. A work priority system is required to prioritize work and to place everybody on the same page. The RPM Method is based on the actual definition of the word “maintenance” in the dictionary; that is, to maintain; to repair or preserve. In reality, a more precise assessment might be that the real definition of maintenance is “any work that no one else wants to do!”
The RPM Method rose out of personal frustration with many of the existing work priority systems. Make no mistake; there are countless other work priority systems. There is the famous First In, First Out (FIFO) system that prioritizes work by when it enters the system. The fault with this process is that critical equipment issues may be overlooked just because they showed up later than other work orders. Another well - known work priority system is the 20 Code Priority System. It is often so complicated that a special decoder ring is required to decipher it! There is also the familiar HWSL Method that most companies use. Not familiar with HWSL? Sure you are – it stands for He Who Screams Loudest! This one is really…well, loud…but not always efficient!
In addition to work priority systems, many experts point to key indicators to determine their needs. In theory, these indicators help an organization define and measure progress toward organizational goals. In the maintenance community, there are some generally accepted key performance indicators. Two of my favorites are backlog and wrench time. Backlog generally means the number of open work orders for maintenance to complete. “Someone” in industry stated that 6 - 8 weeks of backlog indicates good maintenance performance. What if you have 20 weeks of backlog and all the equipment is operating well? Does that mean you’re doing a bad job? Hardly.
As vague as “backlog” may be, my personal favorite is wrench time. Defined as “the time a mechanic is working with his tools to fix equipment”, wrench time is a big term in maintenance today. Industry experts advertise “increasing your wrench time.” If your equipment is running, your wrench time is down, and it suggests that your maintenance fixes problems the first time.
Did the winner of the Daytona 500 have high wrench time? NO! This one confused me so much I named my company Wrench Time, Inc., called my book “Wrench Time”, and titled my web site www.wrenchtime.com! While key indicators may be very valuable in some sectors, it seems that they are often too complicated for their own good.
So what system is the right one for you? Regardless of your chosen format, to be successful, it must get “buy in” from everyone. It sounds kind of cliché, but if all the horses ain’t pulling in the same direction, you ain’t going anywhere! So why aren’t the various areas of your plant pulling together now? Because generally speaking, the maintenance folks are being asked to address many various agendas throughout the plant. For instance, your operations personnel think the maintenance department exists to serve them, with no thought given to priorities. They may write work orders that describe a pump problem. Just as likely, they may want a phone installed in the bathroom or a coffee cup holder on their desk! Your engineering department often assumes that the “guys down in maintenance” are just sitting around waiting for the next brainstorm from engineering. In other words, engineers think that the maintenance folks can’t function without them! Sometimes, the management team also goes a little astray. They follow the latest trends, even if it makes little sense. Managers often get flooded with the latest industry buzz words like “asset management” or “key indicators”, and so they feel that they must change how the maintenance department functions just to be fashionable! Of course, the maintenance department itself also must share some of the blame. Since all work orders go to them, maintenance teams are often a little arrogant. They sometimes feel that they “own” the equipment, and will fix it when they get ready! There is also the dreaded “Edison Complex” that most maintenance folks have. Since most maintenance people fancy themselves as inventors and creators, they will prioritize work by the jobs that make use of their fabrication and installation skills; in short, jobs that are more “fun.” So it quickly becomes obvious that if left without direction, nothing gets done.
Having been exposed to many systems of managing the maintenance function, it became apparent that there was a need for a comprehensive work priority method that would prioritize work, accurately address the needs of your plant, be based on maintenance, maintain a focus on existing equipment, and have all departments pulling in the same direction. The RPM Method does exactly that. However, it performs another equally important function; when implemented, it improves plant performance.
Let’s get down to the basics of the RPM Method. As stated earlier the RPM method is a work priority system based on the definition of maintenance. Simply put, RPM stands for Repair, Preventive, and Modify. More information? Here we go:
“R” (Repair) – classified as any work required to place an existing piece of equipment into its original operating condition, while meeting all safety and environmental requirements. Examples of Repair work may include a valve that is leaking by, a pump that is knocking, or a conveyor that won’t start.
“P” (Preventive) – considered the minimum amount of work needed to keep equipment safe, reliable, and environmentally friendly. Examples of Preventive work include adjusting a setting, monitoring vibration, lubricating a pump, or calibrating a transmitter. Preventive work should be a scheduled and / or defined task by the equipment manufacturer, maintenance personnel, or engineering designed to keep the equipment running safe.
“M” (Modify) - Any task loosely considered non - maintenance. Examples include installing a new welding machine in the shop or redesigning an existing service water piping system. Let me make it simpler….if it’s not an “R” or “P” type work order, it must be an “M.”
So now you know what the RPM stands for. How do you apply it? It can be as simple as this. Assume you go to work tomorrow morning as usual. First, locate five boxes, labeling them NEW, REPAIR, PREVENT, MODIFY, and CLOSED. Next, get copies of all of your open work orders. Using your knowledge of RPM, you immediately classify all your work orders as to whether they are REPAIR, PREVENT, or MODIFY, and place the work orders in the appropriate box. The NEW box will hold work orders that need a little more information in order to categorize, while the CLOSED box will hold work orders that are completed.
After you put all of your work orders in a box, who gets them? The NEW, REPAIR, and PREVENT boxes go to the maintenance shop. Maintenance has to get more information for the NEW work orders, begin working on all the REPAIR orders, and address all work orders requiring a PM task in the PREVENT box. The MODIFY type orders go to management, since they are considered “non – maintenance” and generally require a change or modification. Finally, the CLOSED box goes to the engineering department. Although many times the CLOSED work orders are being horded by maintenance to meet backlog requirements, prevent lay offs, or push the work order count higher to justify overtime, engineering gets the closed orders to see if there are any repeat REPAIR type orders, indicating the need for further investigation.
One catch to applying the RPM method, it requires you to maintain a simple and accurate work order system. This work order system can take many forms, including a couple of empty boxes, a filing cabinet drawer, or a fancy software program, but the function is the same. It will allow problems to be reported and entered into your system. A work order system is the communication tool between maintenance and the rest of the plant. It is how Operations tells maintenance there is a problem in the plant. Therefore the data in the work order system must be up to date and accurate.
So how does the RPM Method change your plant? Probably the most important result is that it changes the mindset of your personnel. Maintenance is expected to work on existing equipment first. Your Operations personnel doesn’t mind looking for more equipment problems, especially if operators see maintenance people jumping on equipment problems. Engineering will now have the data to support adding or changing equipment, or the information to apply some type of root cause analysis. The Purchasing function can be streamlined; they are ordering parts for “R” work orders first. Management personnel also buy in because they’re part of the process. To sum up, everybody has the same goals … to improve plant performance.
In summation, I don’t want you to think that the only thing required to manage your maintenance function is the ability to locate five empty boxes! While the RPM Method outlined here is certainly the core of the system, there is much more involved. All of your various company components must be included in the application of a work priority system, including purchasing, planning, scheduling, parts procurement, warehousing, and any other departments that you may have at your location. These various functions all have a role to play in helping you to manage maintenance. However, by starting with the RPM Method as your basis, you keep things very simple, while at the same time changing attitudes, getting buy in from all parties, and inevitably improving plant performance. The system has worked for me, so I know it will work for you.