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In Praise of Maintenance

Posted under Blog by Brad Clark, Manager, Biz Dev & Sales Ops

July 16, 2018 (Updated April 1, 2020)

At VIZIYA, we strive to help support maintenance teams with their daily efforts or to help improve how maintenance and asset management are executed at their organization.

We do this because we understand, and believe in, the value and impact of maintenance done well.

Unfortunately, maintenance teams often experience frustration in their daily work or personal lives of people who don’t value or understand their work in the same way they do.

The good news is more people are beginning to see and understand the need, value, and even nobility of maintenance work, including the authors of the #1 New York Times Best Seller Freakonomics; and they’re discussing it in new and engaging ways.

As such, we wanted to take the opportunity to share a podcast they did that was rebroadcasted on June 20, 2018 called ‘In Praise of Maintenance’ where they explore the question,

Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?”

The guests for this episode are Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell, co-founders of The Maintainers. VIZIYA was lucky enough to have Lee Vinsel as one of our keynote speakers at the 2019 VIZIYA Summit. You can read more about Vinsel’s presentation and the principles of The Mainter

If you’re like many of our customers, demonstrating the value of particular processes or maintenance as a whole discipline can be a challenge. We hope listening to this podcast encourages you that it’s a challenge worth accepting.

We regularly work with our current and prospective customers to provide them with ideas, tools, and resources to help demonstrate the value of their efforts, but we’d love to hear from you on how you might’ve done this!

Please take a moment to share a quick comment, story, anecdote, or note with your thoughts.

If we receive enough, we’ll compile them (anonymously) for a follow-up piece that hopefully further helps your efforts.

Here again, is a link to the podcast and below are a few of our favorite lines. We hope you enjoy it!

“As the world becomes more complicated, the infrastructure becomes more complicated, there are more ways that it can potentially go wrong, and maintenance if anything becomes even more important.”

“I think that there can be a false dichotomy when it comes to maintenance, which is maintenance is required, clearly, but in order to effectively do maintenance, I think you need to innovate.”

“People always think more about how new ground can be broken than they think about how existing institutions can be sustained or existing facilities can be maintained. It leads to a constant trap where we underinvest in old things, then old things disappoint us, then we feel a need for new things, then to satisfy that need for new things we under-invest more in old things, and the cycle goes on.”

Keep reading for more on the values that maintainers can teach society.

Lee Vinsel of the Maintainers on the values maintenance can teach us

  Lee Vinsel during his keynote presentation at the VIZIYA Summit. Vinsel is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, and co-founder of The Maintainers.


Lee Vinsel during his keynote presentation at the VIZIYA Summit. Vinsel is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, and co-founder of The Maintainers.

We live in a culture that worships innovation. While true innovation is certainly valuable, shouldn’t we reserve some of our praise for maintenance? The people and technologies who maintain the infrastructure that allows us to live, work, and play may often feel ignored, but there’s no denying the tremendous positive impact that maintenance continues to have on our society.

Lee Vinsel knows the value of maintenance. An Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech, and the author of “Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States,” Vinsel is also the co-founder of The Maintainers, a global research network interested in maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the other methods we use to sustain our world.

Vinsel served as one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 VIZIYA Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, bringing a philosophy of science perspective to the world of maintenance, and a deep dive into how our culture seems to worship innovation for its own sake.

A notable article written by Vinsel and Andrew Russel, titledHail the Maintainers,” states that “What happens after innovation, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

During his presentation, Vinsel referred to a popular book by Walter Isaacson, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” Published in 2014, the book looks at the contributions of people who made pivotal breakthroughs in computer technology. Although Isaacson did take care to mention to his readers that innovations are often the result of collaboration, the focus is on individual inventors.

For the maintenance professionals in attendance, Vinsel essentially opened a window into an alternative universe, where a different book might have been written: “The Maintainers: How Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Created Technologies that Kind of Work Most of the Time.”

The title may seem a bit unwieldy, but the case could be made that it’s a more accurate reflection of exactly how our high-tech society continues to function. It isn’t through sweeping change and technological disruption. It’s through rigorous maintenance of the technology that we already have.

Cult of the Inventor

Isaacson’s book, despite mentioning the power of collaboration, generally gives the credit for advancements to a single inventor. Our society often looks at inventors as folk heroes. Vinsel noted that this “cult of the inventor” is still going full speed today, but may have started with the way the press and the public tended to treat Thomas Edison.

Edison and his team at Menlo Park were responsible for a number of genuinely useful new inventions. These were invariably the result of collaboration, but the team let people believe that Edison alone was the genius behind them.

This was in fact a deliberate tactic, according to Francis Jehl, one of Edison’s assistants. When they realized that the Edison name carried power with the public, they started turning Edison the man into Edison the myth.

It’s a trend that has continued to the present day. Steve Jobs is often hailed as a visionary hero who singlehandedly changed the way we use computers and later ushered in the age of the smartphone. It makes a good story, but it isn’t true. Jobs was certainly very talented in certain areas, but he could never have turned Apple into the company it is today on his own. The stories about Jobs very often fail to mention even Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ one-time partner. Wozniak brought technical expertise and insight to the partnership.

This “cult of the inventor” mentality, Vinsel argues, is part of the reason why society tends to give so much credit to innovation and so little to maintenance.

“We have come to treat innovation as an end-in-itself, as something that is good for its own sake,” said Vinsel. “In reality, technological and business model change can never be more than means to an end. What are we trying to achieve?”

Maintenance: The Work That Matters Most

Most people would agree that change for the sake of change is pointless. However, if you substitute the word “innovation” for “change,” you will likely find many more people who would disagree with the statement. For many of us, the message we’ve been hearing from the media, our educational systems, and our governments is simply that innovation, any innovation, must be a good thing.

“Nearly every product gets marketed as being disruptive, whether it’s a genuine new invention or just a new toothbrush,” said Vinsel. “I would argue that our way of thinking about and pursuing innovation has made us poorer, less safe, and–ironically–less innovative.”

Vinsel has engaged in extensive research on this topic, both on his own and with Andrew Russell, co-founder of The Maintainers.

Vinsel and Russell have drawn together their own research and their experience with The Maintainers to write a book that will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for a world still deep in the grip of the “cult of the inventor.” Titled “The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most,” publication is expected in September 2020.

The book shows how the idea of change for the sake of change has not provided an easy fix to the issues that plague us. In fact, Vinsel and Russell argue, it has proven a disaster. It has, they say, “devalued the work that underpins modern life–and in so doing, wrecked our economy and public infrastructure while lining the pockets of consultants who combine the ego of Silicon Valley with the worst of Wall Street’s greed.”

“The most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago,” wrote Vinsel and Russel in “Hail the Maintainers.” “This shift in emphasis involves focusing on the constant processes of entropy and un-doing … and the work we do to slow or halt them, rather than on the introduction of novel things.”

Vinsel grew up in the rust belt town of Joliet, Illinois. He believes that “growing up around abandoned steel mills and industrial decline gives one a certain sense of life with technology.”

It may have been this upbringing that instilled Vinsel with a somewhat cynical attitude towards innovation for the sake of innovation. From “Hail the Maintainers”: “The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.”

Worship of Innovation

During his presentation at the VIZIYA Summit, Vinsel also noted that the worship of innovation for its own sake, combined with using Silicon Valley as a mental model, has led to an ongoing corporatization of our educational system.

“Most engineering education in industrialized nations is focused on design of new products and systems. In other words, innovation,” said Vinsel. “Yet, approximately 70% of working engineers focus on maintenance and oversight of existing equipment and infrastructure!”

Vinsel’s presentation also included a section drawn not from a scholarly work, but from a children’s book. Richard Scarry’s “Busy, Busy Town” shows various anthropomorphic animals going about their business. Many of them are engaged in maintenance tasks, but many of these maintainers are depicted as hapless.

Vinsel didn’t bring this up for frivolous reasons. He says it’s another data point to consider when looking at how our society treats maintenance in comparison to innovation.

“Our culture devalues maintenance and maintainers, including via childhood education. Collectively, we have to fight this devaluation,” he said.

During this portion of his presentation, Vinsel spoke on the four key principles of The Maintainers:

  1. Technology is Not Innovation
  2. Infrastructure is Crucial
  3. We Often Fail to Consider Maintenance When Building New Systems
  4. The Maintainers: Labor, Status, Identity, and Inequality

 

It would be inaccurate to say that Vinsel is against innovation. Rather, his argument is that we overvalue innovation, and many things looked on as innovative are not actually improvements.

Underlining this point, Vinsel’s presentation included a section dedicated to highlighting real innovations within the maintenance profession.

One of the first points Vinsel brought up was directly related to the VIZIYA Summit: that of professionals coming together to share best practices. While this may seem normal to us today, there was a time when this rarely happened. Vinsel related several anecdotes related to the Roadmasters’ Association of America that reinforced his point.

“At the organization’s inaugural meeting, its first president, I. Burnett of the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Railroad, quoted from the Bible, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ God said this just before he created Eve, but Burnett used the sentiment to suggest that roadmasters should come together and share so that, ‘the best thoughts, the richest experience, and the most worthy theories of each individual become the common property of all. New light is cast upon a dark problem that has haunted the mind of an individual for years.’”

Maintenance was a huge concern for those attending this meeting in 1883. It was also of great concern to their employers. By the end of the 19th century, there were over 240,000 miles of track laid in the United States. Maintenance of the track and roadbed used up somewhere between 17 and 25% of the railroads’ total operating expenses.

Vinsel pointed to examples of maintenance in technological prescriptive literature throughout the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. He also pointed to several examples of maintenance standards being put in place, through organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the National Bureau of Standards.

Preventative maintenance started to come into vogue in the first half of the 20th century. This doesn’t mean it was a common practice at that time. In fact, it still isn’t as common as some of us might expect. However, the concept of putting a preventive maintenance program in place to prevent breakdowns before they occurred was in the air.

Preventative Maintenance: True Innovation

During his presentation, Vinsel highlighted two entries from a 1931 issue of Maintenance Engineering. First, an article by J.A. Williamson of The Carborundum Company laid out how to design a preventative maintenance program, and the reasons for doing so. An ad by Weston Electrical Instruments Corporation made the claim that “Modern Maintenance Prevents Breakdowns” and outlined that their products could help get you there. It seems clear from the historical record that preventative maintenance strategies were gaining attention.

The ideas might have existed, but that doesn’t mean that organizations were quick to adopt them. In fact, some companies are still relying on maintenance strategies that are primarily reactive in nature.

“There are still enterprises where 90 to 95% of work orders are reactive, repair-based today,” said Vinsel. “We’re not even talking about high-tech; we’re talking about the failure to adopt the most basic practices.”

Even predictive maintenance has been around longer than some might think. During his presentation, Vinsel pointed to the “Vibration and Acoustic Measurement Handbook,” published in 1972.

Preventive and predictive maintenance strategies aren’t just buzzwords. They are real, concrete, and truly innovative practices that generally surpass reactive maintenance strategies. This is true both in terms of lengthening or preserving asset life, and in terms of costs.

“The benefits of adopting healthy maintenance strategies are clear, in terms of increased efficiency, productivity, and profit,” said Vinsel.

Vinsel noted that the benefits of maintenance go beyond the organization itself.

“Quality maintenance practices benefit the natural environment, and will become even more important if we create meaningful policies around climate change or the circular economy,” said Vinsel, also noting that other deparments in an organization could benefit from adopting a maintenance mindset. “Technology is absolutely crucial, but adopting the maintenance mindset is fundamentally about cultural change.”

Adopting a Maintenance Mindset

  1. Maintenance Sustains Success: Success is not a one-way street, it can be undone
  2. Maintenance Depends on Culture and Management
  3. Maintenance Requires Constant Care

Maintenance professionals know that maintenance is never really done, that the need for maintenance will never go away, and that maintenance processes can always be improved.

Vinsel’s research and body of work is complex, but his final message to the VIZIYA Summit couldn’t be simpler: “You have a lot to teach our culture.”

For more information on The Maintainers, please visit themaintainers.org. To see how VIZIYA can help you improve your processes and take you to the next level, contact us here.

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