Relax -- this isn't a dissertation on the correct way to put someone to death. It's about providing the wherewithal to carry out a plan, and carry it out properly.

At a seminar I attended last week, one speaker detailed the history of a company that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading its process heating equipment. The payback, based on energy savings and improved productivity, was a mere seven months -- enough to make any plant manager salivate. Some time later, the plant did something uncharacteristic -- they actually went back and reviewed the project's performance. They found that not only hadn't the payback projections been met, but the equipment was costing more to operate and maintain than before the upgrade!

A technology failure, perhaps? No, simply a failure to pay attention to the equipment after the installation had been made. Belatedly, a maintenance technician was trained and assigned full-time to the furnaces. Operating costs returned to the original projections, and maintenance costs were actually lower than before.

Stories like this pop up all the time, although they may not involve such large sums of money. A few years ago, my company contracted with a company to provide combustion system training to its maintenance staff. The company requested that part of the training be hands-on practice in adjusting burner controls. The staff said the company had all the necessary equipment, including a flue gas analyzer, that would be essential for the job.

When the time for the hands-on session arrived, we gathered up the equipment from the maintenance shop and headed out to the floor. I turned on the analyzer and waited for it to warm up. After five minutes, the display was blank. An additional five minutes went by -- still no sign of life. Obviously, the oxygen sensor cell had died. The maintenance foreman's only comment was, "Strange -- it worked fine six months ago."

We went through the motions of tuning up a burner, but I doubt that many of the people remembered what we did for more than a day or two.

More recently, my company was asked to help troubleshoot a furnace that was plagued by nuisance burner failures and gas-air ratios that had gotten out of control. It should have been easy -- when the company bought the furnaces, it'd had the foresight to specify metering orifices on all the burners. The company also had provided the maintenance department with an electronic manometer to make the job easier. There were a lot of burners, so it would be a full day's work, but the task should have been routine.

The wheels began falling off when we went looking for the hose taps needed to connect the manometer to the metering orifices. A half-hour's search through equipment cabinets, toolboxes and parts bins failed to turn them up. We finally scrounged up three or four hose taps with no shutoff valves, which meant we'd have to take readings on one or two burners, adjust them and then move the taps to the next set of burners. Because there were no valves to shut off the gas through the pressure taps, we sealed them with wooden plugs whittled from splinters off a skid. Pathetic. Thousands of dollars spent on those metering orifices and the manometer, and the lack of a few bucks' worth of hose taps renders the whole exercise futile.

I could grumble on with more of these tales, but you get the idea. Because no one followed up on a seemingly minor detail, lots of time and money went to waste. In short, there was a failure to execute. Unfortunately, this kind of thing seems to be the rule, rather than the exception. Either we don't think about all the little follow-up details required to make a project a success, or we figure we can save a couple of dollars by ignoring them and hoping to slide by. It doesn't work, and it never has, so here, for the benefit of those who still doubt what I'm saying, are the rules of the game:
  • "Trouble-free" is a lie. Industrial heating equipment (and most equipment, for that matter) doesn't maintain itself. Regular human intervention is required if you want it to perform up to your expectations.

  • Situations allowed to slide only get worse, not better. Situations that do get worse will not suddenly reverse themselves and improve. Put another way, industrial equipment rarely heals itself, and lost equipment does not mysteriously reappear on the shelf. If you're going to need it in the near future, verify that it's on hand and in good working order.

  • Machinery does not respect investment. The lack of a 10 cent component can bring a million dollar production line to its knees, and that 10 cent component does not feel the least bit sorry.
The same holds for maintenance -- a few dollars worth of labor at a key moment can keep a vital system running at peak performance.