The Operations-Maintenance relationship


It goes without saying that every department in every organization exists to support the overall goals of the enterprise, whether that is to manufacture products or to provide a service.

However, in a manufacturing organization, Operations and Maintenance are the closest departments to the manufacturing process and must work together to ensure the best possible overall organization performance.

Operations has a primary responsibility to produce a product, through the management of all process inventories and by operating process equipment the way it is supposed to be operated. Maintenance has the primary responsibility of providing operators with equipment that will consistently meet their requirements, including throughput, product quality, safety, environmental and the cost of operation.

There will always be debate on whether the Operations/Maintenance relationship is one of customer and service provider, or if are they a partnership. They should, of course, always work as partners – after all they are totally dependent on each other for success. However, manufacturing industries exist to produce and sell a product to generate revenue – they do not sell maintenance. Maintenance exists to support Operations and is therefore a service provider to Operations.

Being a service provider to Operations does not mean that Maintenance is subservient to Operations, nor does it mean that they should be at their beck and call. In a perfect world, both will communicate continuously and both will ensure that the other has the best opportunity to do what they have the responsibility to do. Operations should not be controlling what Maintenance does, just because they feel that they are Maintenance’s “customer” any more than I, as a customer of a bank, should dictate how the bank conducts its business.

There are components of the “Maintenance cycle” that will not work well unless Operations and Maintenance cooperate fully. These include the control of the work order backlog so that the highest-value work is done first, and the scheduling of maintenance work so that interruptions to operations are minimized.

There are some factors that put a strain on the Operations/Maintenance relationship, four are listed below.

The first is geography – where Operations and Maintenance supervisors’ offices are very remote from each other, the continuous communication that is essential is made much more difficult. A good goal is for front-line Operations and Maintenance people to share the same lunch rooms and coffee pot. This is easier to achieve if the Operations and Maintenance organizations are designed to be as parallel as possible (see Organization Principles“)

The second factor is the way in which performance is measured. Assigning the blame for downtime to Operations or Maintenance (which may be further broken out into mechanical, electrical, etc) will cause disagreements and fruitless arguments. The most positive way to measure losses is to allocate them to the department which is in the best position to take the action needed to prevent them from happening again. This may include, for example, having the Maintenance equipment expert train the operators in the best method to start up or shut down equipment (see Allocating and analyzing downtime“).

The third factor is the way budgets are managed. A very rigid maintenance budgeting process can give a Maintenance Manager an incentive to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the company. For more on this see “Maintenance Budgets and Cost Reporting“.

The fourth factor is the perception by each department of the value of what the other is doing. Operations should, for example, have confidence that the preventive maintenance work that Maintenance does is appropriate to achieve the reliability they need and does not waste resources. This requires a high level of communication and cooperation.

The relationship between Operations and Maintenance is not the only one that is important. Exactly the same principles apply to the relationship between Maintenance and the Storeroom, Operations and the Technical department and Engineering and the Operations/ Maintenance team.

It should be a high priority for the plant manager to ensure that key departments are encouraged to work together to a common goal and to be on the alert for anything that threatens that relationship. Whether the relationship is called a customer/service provider or a partnership is immaterial.



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Don Armstrong, P.Eng, President
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