The Second Law of Projects

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The second law of thermodynamics, entropy, basically states the natural function of life is for things to disintegrate over time through an irreversible process. One of its logical consequences is that the very best performance a system you install will ever have is the day it begins working.

We encounter entropy every day from the moment we complete a task. Even if it's something as simple as cleaning a room, we implicitly know it's all downhill the second the duster has been put away. There's just no way it is going to stay clean over time. Unless of course meaningful strategy and tactics are implemented to keep it clean.

Having been in the business long enough to see projects from their initial conception to their ultimate demolition, there's no doubt what we build suffers the same fate as a once-clean room. Many contractors walk away from a site with nary a consideration regarding entropy, merrily thinking their background music system will run forever due to the brilliance of their execution. It just isn't so. Things always go wrong.

A colleague often uses the term theme park entropy. At its core, theme park entropy is the gradual degradation of an entertainment facility through unintentional neglect, coupled with intentional reductions in performance introduced to limit maintenance costs and associated efforts. The concept transcends theme parks of course, but the net result is a once-proud system becomes eminently mediocre.

Our industry has gone through an era where many mechanical playback mechanisms have already been replaced by electronic means. True, these have made substantial improvements in overall reliability. Yet during the same era we've also suffered through years of corporate restructuring, downsizing, and globalization-none of which helps improved long-term performance.

Successful companies have long-identified common approaches for overcoming theme park entropy and its consequences. Their efforts are aimed at improved maintenance and reliability. They invariably include peer networking and benchmarking against defined standards.

The companies and cultures with the greatest improvements in reliability have been those that have taken an industrial engineering approach towards maintenance. The process of evolving changes from a culture of "fix it when it no longer runs" mentalities to one that starts off assessing its current practices and capabilities seriously. At the most fundamental level the approach will involve a comparison between "Where are we?" and "Where do we want to be?" after the efforts are implemented.

Benchmarking assessments follow, detailing what a firm does well and not so well via metrics. This provides a comparison for the slackers and a path forward for future improvements. A firm with multiple sites is often able to recognize common issues that benefit all. Three common primary metrics are:

• Maintenance costs as a percent of estimated replacement value
• Reliability as an availability ratio
• Sustaining capital required

This travels with a stated goal, something along the lines of "we'd like to cut our maintenance costs by 35 percent over the next three years." This approach allows the team to set priorities and share a common implementation approach.

The next steps are all about changing the internal culture-the hard part. Leadership and associated accountability, safety, strategy, productivity, technology, and reliability issues become paramount. Planned, preventative, and predictive maintenance efforts focus on their related implications.
Cultural change is generally considered to be the most difficult challenge within an organization. By comparison, re-tasking your folks to change their work patterns is relatively easy. Changing a culture is not-in larger companies it can take up to two years.

Why is it more complicated and difficult to implement? The simple point is that everyone on the planet is resistant to change to some degree. They've worked within a particular pattern and have found varying degrees of success by doing so. What is more pertinent to changing the company's culture regarding maintenance is the real goal-to evolve the existing beliefs and behaviors into something more advantageous to the company, even though the process may involve insecurity.

In order to expedite change, the key is to involve the team early in the process. Being inclusive in setting goals, policies, and procedures will encourage consensus earlier than attempts imposed by corporate fiat from afar. Introducing a more efficient and higher performance approach to overall maintenance success is imperative to every company. Those at the forefront of the effort will survive and prosper; those that ignore it do so at their own peril.

Any meaningful change starts with an honest assessment. Once you have commonality of opinion, completing the task is merely good leadership, a well thought through strategy, and an integral high quality tactical implementation.

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