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Asset Management Strategy: Leading Through Observation

By Bob Fei, Life Cycle Engineering

Asset-intensive organizations like manufacturing plants, industrial facilities and public utilities depend on strong management of physical assets to reliably meet operational and financial goals. Implementing an asset management strategy and system that will produce sustainable results clearly requires executive-level sponsorship. In organizational change leadership terms this translates to being an active and visible leader. So what does that mean for asset-intensive organizations seeking to improve their asset management strategies?

As senior leaders of organizations we have a tendency to say “show me the data.” Most organizations have invested lots of time and resources in developing business information and operations reporting systems that promise to reveal past, real-time and forecasted performance data. We all have customized dashboards that show us precisely what we think we need to see every month, day – or even minute.

But KPIs and daily management systems can be a trap. There is often a bias baked into these systems based on natural human behavior tendencies. We tend to want to cover up when we do not quite meet the goals set for us – even if only subconsciously. So over time there is often a drift in how accurately work is planned and performance measured.

I would suggest that to be active and visible leaders that support continuous improvement we need to get back to MBWA (management by walking around.) Being present on the floor where work gets done means different thing for different environments. In a manufacturing facility it might mean observing execution of a production or maintenance work order (wrench time) or process performance inputs to your Overall Operational Effectiveness (OEE) calculation. For a non-production environment it might mean spending time working in an open-cubicle environment and observing workflows.

Being physically present enables you to do two things: 1) observe how work really gets done and what obstacles exist; and 2) engage your team members in meaningful, work-related discovery. To make the most of the time devoted to being present, leaders should both prepare for the time on the floor and the follow-up activities. A few suggestions:

  • Plan the time, location, and goal of your “floor time.” This is not a spur-of-the-moment activity.
  • Ask open-ended questions to learn how work really gets done. Listen for ideas that would help people work more efficiently. Write down what you see and hear, and note whom you talk to.
  • After your walk and observation, spend some time reflecting and capturing key takeaways.
  • Use this information with your leadership team as part of your continuous improvement process.
  • Follow up with employees who asked questions that you needed more time to answer.

To improve how we manage the reliability and performance of our assets, we need to rely on more than the reports and data that arrives in our email in-boxes and gets shared at executive meetings. To implement asset management strategies that boost performance we need to leave our offices and spend more time observing how work really gets done. You’ll be amazed by what you learn and by how much your front-line team appreciates your interest. 

Bob Fei is the President and CEO of Life Cycle Engineering (LCE), a consulting and engineering firm that equips asset-intensive corporate and government clients with the people, processes, knowledge and skills they need to meet their operational goals.