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Are You a Reliability Linchpin?

By Bill Barto, ASQ CRE, CRMP Life Cycle Engineering

Author’s note: I want to acknowledge that the general premise for this article is the book by Seth Godin titled “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” (Godin 2010). This book is a game-changer. After I read it, I was compelled to include it in all aspects of my life, including my career as a reliability engineer. If this article resonates with you, I strongly suggest that you get a copy of this book and read it cover to cover.

There is no lack of good information available on improving reliability in your organization. It usually comes in the form of tools to learn and tasks to complete. Learning the proper way to critically rank your assets or create a fault tree is important, but is only the start of making a real difference in your company. The hard work is finding ways to exceed expectations and make significant and meaningful cultural changes.

Merriam-Webster defines linchpin as “one that serves to hold together parts or elements that exist or function as a unit.” If your company is typical, it needs a Reliability Linchpin – someone who is prepared to break new ground, challenge the status quo and forget the rules that tell him or her to just show up and get a paycheck. You already possess the ability to become a Reliability Linchpin; everyone does. The journey starts with recognizing that the working world has changed from what it was years ago.

A hundred or so years ago, the heads of companies needed workers who would show up for work, follow a set of instructions and repeat this day after day for their entire career. These factory jobs were plentiful and functioned like cogs in a machine. The men in charge had the ability to remove and replace workers at will. They were also successful in reorganizing our society to allow them to keep the positions filled. They created a universal educational system (that is still in use today) that promoted the training of millions of factory workers. This model has worked so well that those who operate outside this way of thinking (linchpins) look odd and invite criticism. Obviously, we do not want to find ourselves in this situation.

Have you ever met a linchpin? You probably have encountered one in your daily life and failed to notice. When I am not traveling for work, I am usually sitting in a coffee shop a few miles from my house. Why do I visit this particular coffee shop when there are other places that serve coffee closer to my house? I do so because a linchpin opened this particular shop. Everyone that works behind the counter knows the proper preparation of coffee and can do it repeatedly. They destroy the coffee-making status quo by not simply switching on an automatic brewer and pouring cups of coffee. As far as I am concerned, whoever started this coffee shop is a Coffee Linchpin.

As the Coffee Linchpin recognized in the example above, a Reliability Linchpin needs to acknowledge that most limitations are self-imposed and only serve to reinforce the status quo. If your organization is typical, reliability engineering responsibilities are new and unclear. As a result, they do not always provide a clear map for successfully completing tasks. This creates the perfect opportunity for you to get educated on current reliability and maintainability practices and spread the knowledge through your company. Instead of throwing up their hands at the inability for their company to provide the plan for them, Reliability Linchpins welcome the freedom from this lack of structure and plot the course themselves.

Let me be clear, this is not an excuse to go off on your own, create your own personal practices, and not share them with the rest of your company. Going back to the coffee shop example, I do not worry about which employee makes my coffee. What I do worry about is that the Coffee Linchpin will leave because he was the one that ignored the perception that people only want plain coffee and created coffee preparation procedures, trained the employees, purchased the right equipment and have not allowed the quality to decline in the years that I have been coming here. He wanted to make the place indispensable to me – the only place that I will go to get a cup of coffee.

To create the environment where others recognize and value your contributions, you must resist the temptation to go after short-term praises for completing a few tasks successfully and instead look for the long-term honors of blazing the trails that others in your company will follow. Your recognition as an individual who exceeds the status quo will come quickly and provide you with new and greater opportunities. The chart below lists a few examples of ways to exceed the status quo for typical reliability engineering functions.

typical action graphic

Along with getting educated and plotting the course for exceeding expectations, another quality of the Reliability Linchpin is the ability to complete tasks. This may seem overly simplified, but we all know of situations where the reliability exercise (e.g., FMEA, RCM, RCA)  failed to deliver results because the team never implemented the final recommendations. In his book, Godin refers to two major challenges to the completion of projects and tasks: Thrashing and Coordination (Godin, 2010). The Reliability Linchpin will anticipate these challenges and do everything in his power to avoid them.

Thrashing is the tweaking and modifying that occurs during the project. Some tweaking is necessary, but the problem occurs when major thrashing takes place late in the project. Thrashing late in the game will seriously delay results and cause poor decision-making in order to deliver on time. Thrashing is a natural occurrence. That’s why careful planning must happen at the beginning of a project when things are more fluid. A Reliability Linchpin will not be afraid of forcing answers to the difficult questions early in the planning. Coming to early resolution on the project variables will allow the work to continue without grey areas that invite thrashing.

The larger the company you work for, the more problematic coordination becomes. Maintenance and reliability projects are typically very important to the organization. As a result, many individuals will want to become involved because either they are afraid of poor decision-making or they desire to share in the accolades when the project is successful. Unfortunately, projects become exponentially more difficult to manage when additional people are involved. The Reliability Linchpin will ensure that the team is limited to the minimum number of people necessary. The best way to limit the number of people is to develop clear requirements at the beginning of the project for being involved. This way there is no question when someone wants to get involved later on. Another way of ensuring the team limit is to run the project yourself. By leading the team (not co-leading or part of a leading committee), the Reliability Linchpin can ensure that no one is thrashing or only necessary individuals are involved.

All of the obstacles aimed at preventing you from becoming a Reliability Linchpin emanate from something Godin calls the Resistance (Godin, 2010). In short, the resistance is the most basic part of your brain that does whatever it can to keep you safe and away from risky behavior. Unfortunately, that means it wants you to fly below the radar and just sit down and do your job. It is imperative to be able to recognize when the resistance is getting involved. Unfortunately, defeating the resistance involves occasionally putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. The Reliability Linchpin will look for opportunities to make improvements that the company has been afraid or unwilling to make simply because they have never done it that way before.

If you are ready to step up and become a Reliability Linchpin, all it takes is the decision to start right now. You do not have to leave your current position, demand a new title or even change where you sit. You are the only barrier that is keeping this from happening. Ignore the resistance and decide today that you are going to throw away the map (if there is one) and start blazing the trail. You cannot afford to be average anymore. Create new and exceptional procedures for completing your daily tasks, coordinate the work without thrashing, avoid the internal and external resistance and enjoy the honors that come from being a Reliability Linchpin.


Source: Godin, Seth. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? New York: Penguin Group, 2010.


Bill Barto is a Reliability Engineering Subject Matter Expert with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). Bill has more than 17 years experience as a quality engineer, project engineer and maintenance engineer. In addition to earning a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering and a MS degree in Maintainability Engineering, Bill is a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP) and an ASQ Certified Reliability Engineer. You can reach Bill at bbarto@LCE.com.

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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