The (very) high cost of restrictive practices


Restrictive practices of various kinds are often found in Maintenance organizations. Their cost is much higher than is generally recognized, as explained here, and too often they are accepted as “just the way it is”. Eliminating these practices is almost always possible, and this should be a goal of all maintenance managers.

There are four categories of restrictive practices:

  1. Legal restrictions
  2. Those contained in union-management agreements
  3. “Management” restrictive practices and
  4. Practices that have crept in and been accepted as “the way things are done around here”.

Lets look at some examples:

  1. Legal restrictions

These relate to specific skills, usually for safety reasons, such as working on high-voltage electrical systems, elevators, pressure vessels, etc. Most of these regulations exist for good reasons and, of course, must be followed. There are some that are included in regulations as a result of lobbying by special interest groups, and where these do not contribute to safety, they should be challenged.

  1. Union-management agreements.

These agreements often contain a table of maintenance job categories that specify the trades groups covered by the agreement, and their wage rates. This, in itself, is not restrictive because the agreements rarely specify the type of work which each trade performs. However, there may be restrictive language, e.g. “Operators will not paint while equipment is operating” or “Only welders will weld” (actual examples).

Such clauses may be quite restrictive, and can normally be changed only during the negotiation of a new agreement. They do, of course, exist because they force an increase in the size of the maintenance work force and they should always be considered as “management agenda” items when agreements are renewed.

  1. “Management” restrictive practices.

Many roadblocks to effective maintenance are embedded in business processes, inefficient computer systems, etc, and these are the subject of other articles on this site.

However, there are often restrictions imposed by managers which limit the extent to which maintenance resources can be assigned to the highest priority work. An example is the establishment of small or specialized maintenance crews with responsibility for either a very local operating area or for a limited range of maintenance activities (e.g. hydraulics or pipe insulation). The establishment of many different wage categories also limits the assignment of tradespeople to work.

The principle of always assigning resources to the highest priority work is sound, but in a very large organization the volume of work which must be managed to achieve this becomes unworkable, so smaller areas of responsibility (“departments”) are formed. Departments should be large enough maintain a backlog of maintenance work which allows for good planning and sensible scheduling. Ideally, the organizational value of the work being done in all departments should stay about the same (more on this later).

However, if very small maintenance crews are established, inevitably some of the tradespeople will be assigned to non-essential work in one crew while other crews are unable to complete high-priority work. It is not in the nature of maintenance supervisors to assign tradespeople to do nothing, so materials will be purchased for non-essential work so that the crew “looks busy” and will not lose people to another department.

This problem is especially significant if very small specialist crews exist (e.g. a single insulator, mason or painter who does nothing but insulate, do masonry work or paint).

Other management practices may result in undesirable behaviour. For example, if onerous approvals are introduced to reduce spending, the result may be just the opposite. Front-line operating and maintenance people are highly driven to keep the plant operating, and will do what they need to do to achieve that. Requiring the plant manager to approve all purchases, for example, will typically have four results:

– it will overload the manager, who probably trusts his people anyway and will “rubber stamp” most requests.

– instead of buying one item, a prudent supervisor will buy an extra one (or more) so he doesn’t get caught out again – and the “spares” will be stored where no-one else can find them.

– air-freight bills, or their equivalent, will increase.

– the delay in receiving materials will result in substitute materials being used at the expense of reliability, wasted time for Planners and Supervisors (a high opportunity cost) and in some cases, a loss of production.

  1. “Past practice”

This is the most common type of restrictive practice. It is very difficult for some supervisors, particularly those who have recently been promoted from the crew which they are now supervising, to make changes in workplace behaviour. For example, if a pipefitter asks for assistance from an insulator to complete a pipe repair, even though he or she may have all the necessary skills and tools, it is difficult for the supervisor to deny that assistance if it has normally been provided in the past.

The only beneficiaries of restrictive trades practices are a trade union whose revenue depends on maintaining a large number of members, and tradespeople of limited ability who may be embarrassed if asked to learn and to use a wider range of skills.

Obviously trades restrictions cost companies money. They also prevent good tradespeople from working efficiently and deprive them of the opportunity to show what they can really do. And the cost of restrictive practices affects the competitiveness of the company they work for and therefore reduces their job security.

There are often very many examples of this type of restrictive practice and they are very rarely covered by specific language in union-management agreements.

Supervisors and Planners become much less productive and effective if the number of groups or categories of maintenance employees is increased by the existence of work restrictions.

To eliminate this type of restriction the supervisor must have very strong support from his own supervisor, and most importantly, from his peers. A supervisor acting alone to change long-established behaviour can find that life becomes very difficult.

Cost of restrictive practices.

Restrictive practices are very expensive, and can result in the necessity to maintain a maintenance work force which is two or three times the size actually required for good maintenance.

Here’s an example from a school district. A shop teacher needed some steel hooks for storing rolls of welding hose installed in his classroom. He submitted a work order with a sketch to the school district maintenance crew, and a millwright showed up with the new hooks and left them on the floor. As he was leaving, the teacher asked if he was going to install them and was told that because they were to be attached to a concrete wall, a carpenter was required. The job of drilling holes and installing the necessary anchors would have taken the millwright just a few minutes and he had all the necessary skills.

Because of travel times, the need for two trades to do this job virtually doubled the cost. But that is only the direct cost and it is just the tip of the iceberg. The effect of this restriction on the work scheduling process creates additional waiting times, and lost opportunities to perform other carpentry work. These effects eventually result in an expectation that time will be wasted and reduces the motivation (and the work satisfaction) that results from putting in an honest day’s work.

Changing the culture

To change a culture which has a long history of accepting inefficient practices is a project that should be very well planned. The “four steps” to successful change must be followed (click here for details, and for examples of successful and less successful efforts to eliminate restrictive trades practices), and there should be open and honest communication with all those whose jobs will be affected – which is everyone in Maintenance.

The focus should always be on the benefits to the people doing the work, your tradespeople. Most tradesmen strongly dislike the limitations that are imposed on them. As the plant manager at a large southern paper mill said “Most tradesmen are anxious to see restrictions removed. They are as frustrated by the rules as we as managers are. They resent having to work with other trades as it frequently slows them down and reduces the quality of workmanship.” This has been demonstrated by the reaction of good tradesmen where restrictions have been removed. They feel as though a weight has finally been lifted, and no longer have to “look over their shoulders” before doing simple things to move the job along that would previously have attracted censure from a few of their union brothers.

Of course, there are large benefits to the company as well. For example, in a plant where only welders were allowed to weld and were assigned to assisting millwrights with a large repair, the pipefitters were left without welding assistance. To “make work” screwed piping was purchased to replace some old water lines, contrary to the plant standard which specified socket-welded piping. Not only did this result in a low-quality job, it was also work that was not a priority, and the pipe material was purchased only to keep the pipefitters busy because maintenance supervisors did not want to assign his pipefitters to do nothing, even though there are times when assigning no work may be the right decision, in the short term.

Removing restrictions does increase the productivity of the maintenance people, sometimes dramatically. If all else is unchanged, this will result in more work being done, more materials being used and costs increasing. For ideas on how to address this issue, see The Maintenance cost-reduction conundrum“. A firm plan on how to use the more effective manpower must be in place before addressing work restrictions.

It goes without saying that a company that expects to reduce its work force through layoffs as a direct result of eliminating restrictive practices is asking for nothing but trouble, and the result may well be an increase in work restrictions and strong pressure to include restrictions in collective agreement language.

Removing restrictions must adhere to some basic principles, including:

  1. no one will do any work which is unsafe, for which they are not trained or which is not permitted under any regulations.
  2. there will be no reduction in work quality.
  3. training will be provided where necessary to ensure that 1 and 2 are always achieved.
  4. Planners and Supervisors will be trained and strongly supported to encourage non-restrictive work assignments. These two positions and the next higher level of maintenance management are the key to making a successful change.
  5. Respect the trades. Its natural for people to take a pride in their chosen profession, and this is no less true for a mechanic or an electrician than it is for a doctor or engineer. The first objective of eliminating restrictive work practices should be to allow a tradesperson to do a complete job that requires the skills of his/her trade. So the electrician who needs to set up scaffolding to reach a light fixture, to drill a hole in a concrete wall to run a power cable or to make a metal bracket for a pushbutton station should be able to do those things, subject to the other principles listed above. Work assignments must be sensible, and be seen to be sensible by the people doing the work.

Many industries which allowed restrictive practices to develop during years of high profits have found over the last few decades that such practices are no longer affordable and they are disappearing from their competitors’ plants. Many others have not been able to change and are no longer in business.

Eliminating long-established restrictive practices is one of the most difficult things for a maintenance manager to achieve. It requires a strong team of maintenance supervisors with support from all levels of management. It requires that the people who plan and schedule work change the way that resources are assigned to every job, and it may require a whole new approach to training.

But I know, from personal experience, that the tradespeople for whom you are responsible will thank you for your efforts when the change is made. 



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© Veleda Services Ltd

Don Armstrong, P. Eng, President