Podcast Masterminds in Maintenance

Episode 33: Explaining the Uptime Pyramid of Excellence in Reliability with James Reyes-Picknell

Ryan Chan

On this week’s episode of Masterminds in Maintenance, we are excited to have industry expert, James, on the show! Ryan and James discuss the evolution of asset management, the details of the Uptime Pyramid, and much more! Listen today!

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00:04 Ryan Chan: Welcome to Masterminds in Maintenance. It’s a podcast for those with new ideas and maintenance. I’m your host, Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of Upkeep. Each week I’ll be meeting with a guest who’s had an idea for how to shake things up in the maintenance and reliability industry. Sometimes their idea failed, sometimes they made their business more successful and other times their idea revolutionized an entire industry. Today, I’m super excited, we’ve got James Reyes-Picknell on the show. James is co-founder and President of Conscious Asset and Conscious Reliability. He’s a mechanical engineer who graduated from the University of Toronto, and has accumulated over 40 years of experience in the maintenance and asset management industry. He’s worked at Coopers & Lybrand, PwC, IBM and his own firm right now, Conscious Asset, which is now over 13 years in business. Welcome James, welcome to the show.


00:54 James Reyes-Picknell: Oh thank you very much, Ryan. It’s a pleasure to be here. Actually, I just realized, 13 years would be a few years ago. It’s actually closer to 16 now…

01:01 RC: Alright [chuckle]

01:03 JR: So we’re doing well in that regard. It’s a pleasure to be here though and to talk with you.

01:10 RC: Well, I’m super excited. The way that we always love to start these off is, James, if you can just share your story about how you got into this industry, how you got your foot in the door with the maintenance and reliability industry and a little bit more about your background as well.

01:27 JR: Sure, well short resume maybe is appropriate here. After I left university with mechanical engineering, I was actually in the Canadian Navy as a ship’s engineer. And that’s an operational engineering type of role. You’re actually on the ships operating and maintaining them. So reliability becomes a pretty key focus because without it, you could find yourself in trouble in the middle of the Atlantic bobbing around and nobody to help. So, reliability became a key focus very early in my career. And that was a real practical start in a career too, because it’s very hands-on. So when things break down, you’re involved in the maintenance work, you’re running a proactive maintenance program. In that case, it’s prescribed by the military, but it certainly gives you an insight into what works and what doesn’t. From there I went to Esso chemicals or Exxon chemicals as it would be known in the US, and I worked as a machinery specialist rotating equipment with their complex of seven petrochemical plants in Sarnia, Ontario, which is not far from Detroit.

02:43 JR: We handled a lot of materials that could either burn up, blow up, poison you in some way or give you cancer. So, needless to say reliability and keeping things from leaking was kind of a big deal and keeping it running reliably, again, a big deal. I worked with a very excellent senior engineer there named, Fred Geitner, who’s authored several books himself on maintenance and reliability. And I learned a huge amount about reliability, mathematics from Fred. After that I got into ship building, working on a naval ship system for the Canadian Navy. It’s actually the ships that are now making up the backbone of the Canadian Navy. And they’re actually starting to get to get a little old now, [chuckle] I have to say. But we used reliability methods to determine all the maintenance and support activities that were needed, operational practices, training, spare parts, everything was defined from a starting point that was reliability-centered maintenance. And we were doing that reliability-centered maintenance work in the days before many people knew about it, the military was an early adapter of what was developed in the aircraft industry.

03:54 JR: And then I got into consulting with Coopers & Lybrand which merged with Price Waterhouse, became PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, and then they sold the consulting to IBM. So, all that time was in, really in one company from my perspective with several different names. And I was actually in the maintenance management practice there. By the time I left I was the global practice leader for the firms, consultants, in various countries in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe. And then I got out and formed my own firm. I got tired of the big firm and all the bureaucracy and went out on my own. So that’s kinda how I got there, reliability and maintenance have been a theme throughout my entire career. And you might argue accidentally, I had no idea I was getting into it at first, it just sort of happened. And one role very naturally led to the other.

04:48 RC: Alright, what sounds like you’re still in it, you love it. I’m curious, James, it’s been a few years being in the industry. You’ve gone from working in the Navy, to chemicals, to starting your own business, to consulting first for one of the biggest companies in the world as well. Over the past few years what have you seen change over time? What have you seen evolve in asset management, in reliability space, over the past few years and decades?

05:20 JR: Sure. Well, knowledge is one thing that has evolved. When I started my career, I graduated in 1977. I suspect it’s before you were born. And RCM was just being invented in those days. So we’ve gone from things being built big and beefy and being fixed when they break, to very sophisticated approaches, to forecasting what can go wrong and what to do about them to avoid the consequences of those failures. Use of technology in industry and in maintenance has been substantial change over the years. Needless to say I started programming computers with punch cards [chuckle] And the internet started two years after I left university and computerized maintenance management systems came along somewhere during that career. I remember when I was at Esso Chemicals, we had a home-grown maintenance management system, and the refinery next door to us had a manual-based system on Cardex and Rolodex type systems. So there’s been big changes in technology. Today, you go from managing with your computer a small shop all the way up to an entire corporation.

06:39 JR: Asset management has changed. The perspective on what we’re managing went from looking after equipment and some technologies used in its maintenance to looking after whole plants applying, you know, deploying this technology and then doing it across multiple sites in corporations around the world in multiple languages. So I’ve seen that growth happening. Companies didn’t use to focus as broadly as they do now. And the whole focus of asset management, it’s become standardized. Asset management, when I got started, was a financial term. Today it’s got a number of different meanings, and we actually have an international standard that’s been out for several years describing what asset management practices ought to be. So there’s been changes in almost every aspect of it and I think the knowledge level that people have has changed. At one point we relied heavily on people’s experience on specific pieces of equipment. Today, a lot of those folks, frankly, my vintage and older, has retired and no longer are there to depend upon. So people are more dependent on technology today, both in detecting failures when they’re occurring and in managing the workflow that happens as a result of the notifications that occur when they do find a problem. So again, lots and lots and lots of change.

08:12 RC: Alright.

08:13 JR: The industry is nothing like it was when I started.


08:16 RC: No more punch cards, huh? [chuckle]

08:19 JR: Nope.


08:20 RC: So James, kind of piggy-backing off of looking back at what’s changed, I’m curious from your perspective, what are you most excited by going forward? What are you most excited by about the future of the maintenance, reliability space and changes that will happen in the future?

08:40 JR: That’s a good question. I honestly haven’t thought too much about what gets me excited about it. I’ve always loved what I do. So just about every aspect of it does excite me. One thing I’ve loved to do along the way though is teach. I’ve learned a lot, partly through making a lot of mistakes and watching the mistakes of others, of course. And I do a lot of training in my work, helping my clients understand how things fail, what they can do about, what they can do to avoid consequences, how to manage maintenance better, how to achieve the reliability that their assets are designed to achieve. And I think going forward, what’s kind of exciting to me is that there’s a big change in the, I’ll call it the staffing of the industry, if I will. The older experience group is either gone or leaving very soon. The replacements are largely quite a bit younger, and there’s almost a whole generation in the middle that’s been somewhat skipped, and what I’m finding is a tremendous interest in the part of those getting into the industry to learn and of course that plays well into my passion for being able to teach. Even though I’ve been around longer than a lot of them, I still pay attention to what goes on with the developments in the world of reliability in particular, but also a little bit in the technology side where you work. To me, as I described earlier, computer systems are kind of the tool, but you gotta use it well.

10:20 JR: And one thing I find is guys my vintage, who didn’t grow up with computers tended not to trust them. So we’re a bit skeptical of what we find in them. And I’ve seen over the years working in this industry that the data that people are collecting is usually pretty bad. The quality of it is not there and it’s often not fit for purpose. So when younger folks get into the industry and they start trusting what’s there in the computer systems, I have to caution them that, “Look, a lot of what’s in there is just not suitable.” And you gotta think about who collected it and how they got it in there, and you begin to understand why it’s such a mess. And I’m kinda looking forward to changes with technology and the care in putting it in that I think will come with this younger group of folks that are now in the field and expanding their experience.

11:16 RC: Alright. Well I’m looking forward to that future as well, James. So you touched upon your love and your passion for teaching and I think one of the ways that you’ve done this so well is through writing and through your book, actually. So I’m familiar and I’m sure several of us have seen or read your book Uptime, and I know that there’s one part of your book that talks about the Uptime Pyramid of Excellence. So maybe it would be great to showcase what that pyramid of excellence means to you and how you thought about creating that pyramid of excellence?

12:00 JR: Yeah. Well, the pyramid… To be honest, it’s not my creation. My co-author on the book, John Campbell, is the fellow who hired me at Coopers & Lybrand, back in the mid ’90s. And he actually wrote and published the first edition of Uptime. Now, I did the second and third editions. John and I worked closely together and the first edition had been written for non-maintenance people. It was really for the production people that they could understand what to expect from maintenance. And unfortunately we found out that they weren’t the ones buying it, it was the maintenance managers that were buying it and they loved it. They said, “This is the first time there’s a book that tells me what I should be doing.” So, they were learning a lot from it, but they lamented the fact that it didn’t have a lot of depth of detail, how to do things. So John and I agreed we’d put together a second edition and have more of the ‘how to’ built into the book. And not long after that, unfortunately, John got sick with cancer and passed away, and left it to me to make my own, so to speak.

13:05 JR: And it took me a while to get going on that second edition. Quite honestly, I kind of felt like I was messing with my friend’s legacy, so to speak. But once I got past that, I took ownership of it and the pyramid evolved a little bit. It changed a bit from the first edition. It still had the same basic structure, but I put it in terms that were a little bit more meaningful to me and that I felt I could convey better to my customers going forward. So that’s where that pyramid comes from. Now it’s in three tiers. Leadership is foundational of course, that’s… You’re not gonna do anything without some sense of direction. And what I’ve found in my consulting career is that people implementing changes really do have to have very senior level of support and sponsorship for it. So active participation from people at the level of, say VP operations or COO. In one case, I’ve even had a CFO, in another case a CEO very directly involved in the improvement efforts in this sphere because they recognize the business value of it.

14:15 JR: If you don’t have that underlying appreciation of what this does for the business, your change efforts tend to fall kind of flat. So leadership to me is key. Having a direction, knowing where you’re going with it, that’s what strategy is all about. Strategy is pretty simple really. People in team work, nothing’s gonna happen without them. So if you don’t have good people, motivated people, knowledgeable people, you’re gonna get nowhere. Team work, I find, is the most effective way. Teams are far more productive than individuals as a rule. They take longer to make decisions, but once they make them, they implement them far better. So team work to me is kind of, again, a foundational element. And we’ve seen some of the most successful companies like say Toyota, for example, with their total productive maintenance system, it’s all based on team work.

15:09 RC: Yeah.

15:10 JR: The essentials in that second tier are all the things that every maintenance person is familiar with. Work management materials, getting parts. The middle tier, those essentials are all the things you must do to be really good at maintenance management. And the better you are at these, the more efficient your maintenance delivery will be. So you’ll be getting work done better, you won’t be repeating work, you’ll be getting it done quicker, on schedule and you’ll be collecting data that you can actually use to manage the whole process in a meaningful way, that’s where the systems come in. The top tier is about effectiveness, which in my books is all about doing the right work. Now, I live here in Canada and we’re all familiar with shoveling snow off our cars in the winter time. And there’s a YouTube video of a gentlemen that comes out of a building, there’s cars in front of him and they’re covered in snow and he proceeds to use his briefcase and I think a credit card out of his pocket to scrape the snow and ice off the car. And when he finishes it, he reaches into his pocket, pushes the button on his starter and the lights blink and the horn sounds on the car in front of the one he just cleaned up.

16:23 JR: So, he did a job as efficiently as he could with the tools he had on hand, but he did the wrong job. So, he was efficient but not effective. And that’s kind of the way I look at the difference between those. So in the maintenance world, we’ve gotta be doing the right work and that means, in my books, being proactive about the work you do. So a heavy focus on reliability and sustaining it, not just getting work done but getting the right work done so that you’re actually eliminating failures at their cause, or dealing more effectively with the consequences that come when the inevitable failures do happen. And so that’s at that top level. I put it at the top because without fairly efficient work management practices and processes, you won’t be able to get your proactive maintenance program executed on time. And if you don’t, you defeat the whole purpose of it. So that’s why the two kinda go together. And effectiveness is on the top of that pyramid.

17:29 RC: You’ve worked with so many different businesses, where do you see most businesses get the pyramid wrong? Where do most people go wrong in building out the right reliability practices at an organization?

17:43 JR: Well, the worst ones don’t even use the pyramid, so that’s easy. But even where they do, and the pyramid and the book is quite well known, the book’s actually a bestseller and it’s rather well-known particularly in the English-speaking world. The biggest mistakes that I see are where the, say the maintenance manager or the lead guy in maintenance will try to implement this thing on his own. And he’ll do it one piece at a time. It doesn’t work. It’s designed, you’ve got 10 components to it, they’re interdependent, they work together. Implementing just one on its own is never fully effective. Focusing for example on maintenance, planning and scheduling. Yes, it’s got to be done, but we’re looking at the supply of materials through your store room without looking at the PMs that are gonna be implemented. On its own, it’s only gonna achieve a very limited result.

18:50 JR: And because of that they’ll get that limited result, they’ll see, oh, well yeah, there’s an improvement but it’s small, it’s incremental, and they give up, they kinda stop there. So, not sticking with it is a bit of a problem and a piecemeal approach, if they go at it as a I get that maintenance manager level too, they won’t necessarily have the cooperation from the supply chain, from the operations people, from human resources and maybe even finance. They need those groups collaborating to make this really work. If you do it at too low a level in the organization they rarely get that cooperation, certainly not across the board. So that’s probably the biggest mistake is not addressing it as an initiative that’s going to affect the entire site or the entire company just looking at it as a maintenance only thing is really not gonna have… It’ll make some improvement but it won’t be as effective as it can be.

19:50 RC: What is the solution there James? Because we talk about this so often that it’s so important to have upper management buy into proactive reliability best practices, but then at the same token, it’s like, to really invest in that is considerable amount of time and money. So commonly like upper management doesn’t wanna invest in it until there’s some proof of value shown first. So it almost seems like a chicken and the egg problem. How do we solve this? [chuckle]

20:23 JR: Well, a big part of it is educate them. I actually prefer to talk to very senior people, rather than the maintenance people when it’s time to be selling my services. Like I said, I’ve had CEOs, CFOs, COOs, VPs of operations, those make a great target market for me because they will understand the business value and I… It’s actually quite a bit less expensive to operate reliably than it is to operate unreliably, like by a big margin. Just last year, I worked with a mining company on the business case for making improvements in maintenance and reliability, and we were looking at, I think it was six or seven different minds in the corporation, the combined cost savings annually from implementing these practices was about 100 million dollars a year, that’s just the cost savings, the expected gains in revenue driven by the added availability, which came from having a more reliable operation are nearly a billion a year across those operations. The cost to implement that would probably have been on the order of maybe 20 million dollars over a couple of years. So it was a huge prize for a very, very small investment.

21:50 RC: Yeah.

21:50 JR: Now, in fairness, it was a mining company with a commodity that sells at a pretty good margin and these days with all these virus scares, it sells at a really good margin. [laughter] And they haven’t actually implemented it yet, oddly enough. Now, I think they’re missing out on a huge, huge opportunity in that particular case, other companies have gone ahead and implemented it and realized that the gains in reliability, lead to more ability to produce and produce at a lower cost per unit because your maintenance costs actually go down with a reliable operation, so the dollars spent per unit of output go down and the revenue generation that comes from it far outshadows the cost savings by typically an order of magnitude or more.

22:41 JR: So I think where companies often get it wrong in looking at this as an investment is that they think of it as… They’re gonna be investing in something that they’re spending money on and then they see it as an expense and maintenance in the accounting world is treated as an expense but in reality, it’s… I prefer to look at it as an investment in your productive capacity.

23:07 RC: So James, you’ve got the pyramid for excellence. What are some practical ways that our listeners can implement this model in their companies?

23:18 JR: Well, first thing, I think, and I’ve already talked about it a bit, is make sure you get your senior leaders on-board, okay, if you’ve got that they won’t… Once they see that there’s such a big price, they won’t let you off the hook. So, as say a maintenance manager or an asset manager, you probably won’t welcome all that pressure, but you will get better results if somebody’s riding your tail all the time. So I think having that senior level support is a key, a key thing, and the other thing is, find a model and settle on it and follow it. And I like the Uptime one, obviously, it works. It’s been in use for well over, I guess, about a quarter of a century now come to think of it, and it’s been quite successful, so it’s relatively simple, easy to remember and quite logical to follow.

24:13 JR: So I think have some model that you’re gonna follow. Talk to… First of all, understand what good looks like, you need… And I find with a lot of companies, that there’s a lack of knowledge of what good looks like in terms of maintenance practices. They just haven’t seen it, and if they’re in a bad state themselves, and a lot of people have been there for a long time, they think it’s normal. So what I like to do is start with some training, I actually train people in the Uptime model, it’s just a couple of days to give them an idea of what good practices are. Usually, there’s a lot of discussion, a lot of ideas being raised as you’re talking, people are having ideas as to what they can change. And I actually have them write it down on little post-it notes believe it or not. One idea per note is the way I do it. And as we go through the course, these ideas collect, they gather up.

25:12 JR: And at the end of it, what I like to do is take those ideas and put them on a white board or on a sheet of craft paper on the wall and as I put the ideas up there, one at a time, I put them in groups right, so one group will be whatever the first topic was, that somebody might say, “Let’s do planner training, okay, there’s a planner training up there.” Somebody else says, “We need to clean up our store room.” I’ll put that on another spot. Somebody else says we need to teach management how to communicate effectively, that’ll go on another spot. The fourth one comes up, it might be another management one, it’ll go up with the previous management ones.

25:46 JR: So what I’m doing is building clusters of these ideas and typically, you get on the order of about a dozen of these nice little clusters of ideas and it’s all their ideas. At the end of that exercise, I draw a little circle around them, give them names and that might be meaningful names like management communications, and work management, or sometimes really creative names like A, B, C, it doesn’t matter. And then I give them all little red dots, stickies, and I say go vote for them.

26:21 RC: Yeah.

26:21 JR: Pick the five that you think are most important. And they go up there, they’re not allowed to put two dots on one topic, they have to pick five and at the end of it you’ll see very quickly where they see their top priorities are based on their own ideas. What that achieves, it gives them a sense of where they are and where they need to go. It’s prioritized the way they see it as being important and it is based on some new found knowledge on good practices. So that is an amazing start on an improvement program. Each of those little clusters starting with the one that’s got the most votes is a project and just pick ’em off one at a time.

27:03 JR: So it’s like eating an elephant, one small bite at a time, you’ll eventually get there. And this is how I suggest doing this. Don’t expect results super fast. They’re gonna be at it for a couple of years in all likelihood and some of the ideas will generate some quick savings and maybe some quick revenue gains, I’ve got a couple of things I like to do when I’m working with a customer. If they’ve got a lot of chronic problems, things that they know are real headaches. I come in and do some root cause analysis with them, and we sort of tackle those problems because it frees up resources, it takes their attention away from the panics and allows them to think more proactively.

27:44 RC: I love that exercise. I think that’s very, very actionable and I think it also creates a lot of group binding as well.

27:53 JR: Yeah it does.

27:54 RC: So to all of our listeners that’s a great exercise if you haven’t already done that, just to start, it sounds like something that is low offer that we could start as students next week, it sounds like.

28:03 JR: Oh yeah, I build it right into the training that I offer. Two days, at the end of the two days, you’ve learned something, you’ve got a prioritized list of projects to work on. It looks messy ’cause it’s all in their handwriting and on sticky papers, but it is entirely actionable, and it’s something that people will look at and say, “Holy cow, this stuff isn’t all that hard.” And it isn’t, none of this is rocket science.

28:29 RC: So James being in the industry several years, several decades, what’s something you wish more people knew about the maintenance and reliability industry?

28:41 JR: I honestly wish that the business schools would teach a little bit about the value of maintaining physical assets. They don’t. And engineering schools don’t do it either. There is almost no training in maintenance. The only training in reliability tends to be at the master’s level, and I think there’s only two universities in all of the Americas from North to South America that actually do it, a couple in Australia. There’s just very, very few places where you can get educated, so people just don’t know anything about it. Maintenance is what you do when something breaks in most people’s minds, and that’s really just a small part of it.

29:20 JR: And what we’re really all about is providing reliable uptime, productive capacity in that uptime, and businesses… I think the business leadership, those who have gone through the business schools, the finance programs, the operations people, the accounting people, they need to understand that maintenance is not an expense, it is a generator of real value in the business and although it’s something they’d all rather do without, not one of them can do without it.

29:53 JR: It’s kind of like your body, right, if you don’t take care of it, it will break down and you will die. It’s just as simple as that. When you’re putting oil in a machine, it’s gotta be clean and free of contaminants and no moisture in it, it’s like putting blood in your body, you would not add a dose of cholesterol with it if you didn’t… If you knew that that was a possibility, so, if you think of your plant and your equipment, it’s kinda like a body and it has to be looked after, right, or it will eventually break down and stop serving you. And people need to understand that. Not only will it not serve you, but it won’t deliver the value it’s capable of. And I think that’s what I see in a lot of places is companies are under performing, because they just can’t get their assets running reliably. So that would be the thing to change is that knowledge of what we do.


30:44 RC: I think we could all… We could all get better at that as well, and obviously that’s one of the big reasons for having this podcast here today. So James, what other resources… Where do you go to continue learning, where do you go to find more educational content and where do you go for new ideas?

31:05 JR: Well, I have a few myself. [chuckle] One favorite one is to stop calling it a maintenance department, the maintenance department, let’s have reliability departments and maintenance is just a piece of that, that executes. I think if we put the emphasis where it belongs, we might get better results. That was one idea and I’ve been kind of pound… Beating on that or on the soapbox on that one, for maybe a year and a half now, at a few conferences. But I do go to conferences, there’s several, there’s here in Canada, there’s the Plant Engineering Association in Canada, it does an annual event, there’s a number that I’ve participated in, in Latin America, organized by Noria, in Peru, Chile, Mexico, and not as many in the United States. I honestly find that the conferences in the US, and this is gonna sound terrible coming from a Canadian, but they tend to be way too commercially oriented.


31:06 JR: They’re fun, they’re flashy, but there’s not as much substance. There are good speakers, don’t get me wrong. There are some very good speakers, but I find that conferences themselves tend to be almost too distracting and that I think harms the learning process a little bit, but there are really good ideas. SMRP runs a really good one every year. There’s our reliability 2.0, I think it’s called now from reliability web, it’s a good conference. I’ve been in all of these events and you’ll learn a lot from those, talking with people working in the field is probably number one place to learn. I learn a huge amount from my own customers.

32:45 RC: Well awesome, James, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and share all of your experience and knowledge with all of our podcast listeners. James Reyes, obviously, he’s got a few books, check ’em out. Thank you again for joining us, James, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to today’s Masterminds in Maintenance. My name is Ryan Chan, I’m the CEO and founder of Upkeep as well. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or email me directly at [email protected] Until next time. Thanks so much James.

33:16 JR: Thank you Ryan, take care, it’s been a pleasure.

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