A maintenance engineering strategy sets out the guiding principles that will enable an organisation to meet its objectives. The challenge is to create one that reflects reality over optimism.

Planning is crucial in any business and a good strategy lays a strong foundation for success. For maintenance engineers, there may be a sense that 'keeping the wheels turning' is the main objective, but an effective strategy involves so much more.

Paul Adams, former Maintenance Strategy Manager at Glaxo SmithKline, who now advises companies on their maintenance engineering approach, says a good strategy is one that achieves high uptime with low maintenance costs.

Writing in Maintenance and Engineering Journal, Adams cautions that what works in one industry may not work in another, but identifies the following as key considerations for those drafting a maintenance engineering strategy:

1. Maintenance maturity – how well developed are your maintenance processes and to what degree do they deliver value for the wider operation?
2. Performance – what levels of availability do you achieve with your assets? Measures such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and achievement of service level obligations are good ways to measure this.
3. Asset care approach – are you running to failure, applying preventative maintenance or using predictive maintenance and why have you chosen your approach?
4. Team – it’s vital to involve the whole team in creating the strategy or you will miss out on what may turn out to be crucial insights from individuals.
5. Capability – make sure you have the right competencies in place throughout your strategy.
6. Culture – any change in business impacts the culture of the organisation. You need to ensure that you don’t perpetuate problems by rewarding the wrong behaviours.
7. Communication – use the appropriate language. Selling your strategy to the board means speaking the language of business, but you will need a more practical approach when talking to your teams.

“Defining an effective maintenance strategy for an organisation is a wider task than simply deciding how to maintain each individual asset,” writes Adams.

“Although the reliability and safety requirements of the organisation’s assets should be at the core, a robust strategy also defines what capabilities the maintenance team needs, and aligns all the efforts of the equipment designers, users and maintainers towards a proactive maintenance culture.”

While reducing cost will be part of most maintenance engineering strategies, it should not be the sole focus. The cost of maintenance should be proportionate to the needs and the type of the business. The wider strategy should be more focused on continuously managing technical risks.

Different approaches
Consultants McKinsey agree with Adams’ view that different types of organisations may need differing strategies. But they say any maintenance engineering strategy must focus on the same three goals: maximising availability; minimising cost; and minimising system redundancy.

They say an approach led by sensor-based condition monitoring will be the first choice in most situations. “Advanced analytics algorithms, based on information like historical sensor data, maintenance records, or failure mode analyses help define thresholds per asset or component that act as decision criteria in day-to-day monitoring,” adds McKinsey.

Equally, the priorities for any strategy will vary depending on the type of asset being maintained. For example, maximising availability should be the watchword for infrastructure like railways, pipelines and wind farms. But, in the case of service functions like escalators and white goods, minimising cost may be the dominant goal.

The location of assets will also play a part in determining the correct monitoring approach. For assets in remote locations – like wind farms and railway lines – external monitoring by drones, thermographic cameras, smart pipeline inspection gauges, or measuring trains could help improve inspection frequency.

Living document
Whichever approach you choose, it’s important to remember that what you are creating must be a living document that will evolve over time as organisational circumstances change. Ian Bell, Vice President of Engineering and Facilities at RS Group likes to think of it in terms of military battle planning, where he says, no strategy survives first contact with the enemy.

"We think about the engineers during military conflicts. It's muck and bullets, even though you may have a strategy, our job is to build a pontoon wherever we need it and make sure it works."

"Ask yourself how the maintenance engineering team contributes to the overall corporate strategic objectives and how can you generate value?"Dr Moray Kidd, Maintenance Engineering Academic

Dr Moray Kidd, a Maintenance Engineering Academic has some advice to get you started: “Begin by thinking about the corporate objectives,” he says. “Ask yourself how the maintenance engineering team contributes to the overall corporate strategic objectives and how can you generate value?”

A great strategy is a flexible one
RS Group’s Ian Bell agrees that an effective engineering strategy is crucial to business success, but it must not restrict the organisation’s ability to change direction.

“Of course we should have a strategy. I've always had a strategy for my engineering functions. Do I truly believe in them 100%? No, and neither should you, at least in the sense that they are not set in stone. Instead, they should be seen as living documents that flex as internal and external influences on the business evolve.”

"Engineers must have an eye on the future and stay aligned with the business. Engineering strategies can change very quickly"Ian Bell, Vice President of Engineering and Facilities, RS Group

Bell says it’s important for maintenance engineers to recognise they are operating at the heart of their organisation’s engineering strategy, with its execution as a primary function of the role. “Engineers must have an eye on the future and stay aligned with the business. Engineering strategies can change very quickly,” he says.

“The engineering function needs to be flexible, responsive and ready to give the business what it needs at short notice. We can still have the characteristic moan about ‘poor old us’, but then we have to get in there and execute, make it happen and get it over the mountain.”