OT" Innovation Delusion -- the importance of maintenance

“The Innovation Delusion: How our obsession with the new has disrupted the work that matters most,” by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell, Currency of Penguin Random House, NYC, 2020. This 260-page hardback examines the importance of maintenance in our daily life in spite of strong emphasis on going to college and learning to stress innovation and growth. Those who keep the world running are often lower in status even though their work is essential to our survival. The book includes numerous examples.

Too often innovation is a sales pitch for a world that does not exist. True innovation is measurable, tangible, and much less common.

Companies offered devices like vacuums and washing machines that were supposed the make life easier for the housewife. Instead they raised the standard of cleanliness increasing the workload of the housewife.

Maintenance is too often deferred. Money is available for new capacity but rarely to maintain existing systems. Examples are cited from the Metro system in Washington, DC and the New York Subway system. Politics favor limiting taxation or fare increases to support the system. Deferred maintenance is a common result. In 2017 a New York Times study found Metropolitan Transit Authority spent money on wireless internet and charging ports while deferring maintenance. The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 is cited. The bridge had been identified as deficient; repairs undertaken were inadequate. The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely rates US infrastructure as near failing. They found 10% of bridges structurally deficient, but dams, levees, and drinking water systems are worse, and mass transit is the sorriest.

In 1981, “America in Ruins,” a study from the Council of State Planning Agencies, found funding levels would cover only one-third of the cost to rehab non-urban highways. NYC would need $40B to maintain its subway over the next decade. In 1998, ASCE began its Report Card on American Infrastructure. Politicians have cited these reports for better funding with some success.

Declining population is a cause of problems like those of Flint, MI. Less population reduces income that supports infrastructure. In Baltimore the state of water infrastructure was indicated by 1200 pipe failures per year. In 2017 a study found homes in Alabama with unreliable electric service and no sewer service. Instead straight pipes drained to the nearest creek. Water service was also in disrepair allowing contamination of drinking water. The area had a high incidence of hookworm.

A chapter describes the meltdown of General Electric as due to over emphasis on innovation. After Jack Welch retired, Jeff Immelt tried to increase growth by behaving as a software start up. The result was disaster. Growth is a double edged sword. Greta Thurnberg cites “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” Economists recognize that limited supplies of land and materials require growth to diminish over time. But the eternal growth delusion persists. In 2019 PG&E was cited in devastating forest fires for failure to trim trees that could damage power lines. They said such maintenance was too costly. Boeing is cited for problems with 737 Max and the 787 Dreamliner. Production speed was valued over quality. Apple required that a phone be replaced rather than allow installation of a new battery.

In the name of growth, Jack Welch, “Neutron Jack,” fired the bottom 10% of managers each year in his rank and yank program. He transformed a corporation often owned by widows and orphans for its steady dividends into a financial services company. It nearly failed but for a financial infusion from Warren Buffett. Fortune magazine cited Enron as America’s “most innovative company” from 1995 to 2000.

Education is another area in need. In the US 53% of public schools need improvements to be rated good. In higher education annual 5 to 10% tuition increases have forced students into untenable student loans. To survive universities are working to create innovative programs like Big Data, AI, and Learn to Code. One Laptop per child programs have repeatedly failed due to inadequate staff to maintain the laptops.

In many organizations the people who maintain systems are treated with condescension. Yet they keep systems running. At one time mechanics and electricians were highly regarded. Over time they have become “unpromising individuals; not college material.” Most innovations are incremental and come from experts in their field. Training, experience, and hard work have no substitute

In IT 60 to 80% of software budgets go to maintenance. Those who do IT infrastructure, user services, and network engineering are often overlooked. Culture overlooks introverts, individuals who prefer to work alone and are reserved and quiet in social situations. Outgoing behavior is prized and rewarded in organizations. Cleaners like janitors are often invisible at work. The work of most engineers has nothing to do with innovation.

ALICE is Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. A study found 95% of the ALICE group are maintainers. About 64% worked in infrastructure. They live paycheck to paycheck.

In pursuit of health, the body requires constant maintenance whether in diet, exercise, or grooming. Fitness never talks about maintenance. It’s always focused on improvement. The burden of care giving falls unequally on women. During the twentieth century new homes are built with more and more storage space. A study found 93% of Americans use their garages for storage; 30% don’t have room for a car. Companies increasingly make their products difficult or impossible to repair. They would rather sell new.

Success requires attention to maintenance, keeping things in good working order, and to time, energy and resources required. Maintenance sustains success. Maintenance depends on culture and management. Maintenance requires constant care. Preventive maintenance generates major returns by extending the service life of equipment. Operations and maintenance is the largest category within the DoD. Maintenance requires soft skills including communications, time management, and acting as a team player. World class maintenance can use a 6:1 rule for planned actions vs unplanned actions. Computerized maintenance management systems created a major shift in improved maintenance.

Many regard the water culture in the Western US as unsustainable. Government spending should focus on maintaining existing systems rather than building new capacity. Civic pride is a driver of rail system maintenance in Japan and Europe. In the US that pride is lacking. The high speed rail system in Japan is especially well regarded. Amtrak has far more accidents. After a major flood in 1953, Netherlands developed Delta Works, its highly regarded water management system. Hurricane Katrina revealed that levees in New Orleans were shoddy. In 2017, ASCE estimated US water infrastructure needed $80B over the next decade to reach satisfactory condition.

Buses are often slow and unreliable. Rather than building mass transit system, cities would be better off to invest in improvements in their bus systems. Service frequency and travel time are the major factors to most riders. Power outlets and WiFi are less important. Routes should reflect actual use and need. Buses should allow faster boarding using all doors. Adequate spacing and added bus lanes can help. Collecting fares is a major source of tensions for drivers. Governance is a problem with many bus systems. Leadership needs to reflect the interests of core users. In rural areas, septic tank requirements intended for urban areas are prohibitively expensive. The less costly systems used in poorer nations would provide service to those who could not afford better systems.

Strong emphasis on sending students to study STEM subjects has resulted in a large group of graduates that work outside the STEM fields. Manual and skilled labor needs a PR campaign. Maintainer shortages in the US Air Force are a problem. During the Cold War the Air Force moved toward more automation to be less dependent on skilled labor. Now they emphasize the need for well trained maintainers. Better compensation is one solution to the problem.

Nursing is a maintainer occupation. More are leaving the field driven by increased stress especially from insufficient staffing. The Silicon Valley idea of move fast and break things is the wrong approach. Maintainers enjoy job satisfaction when they can help solve a problem. One way to reduce burnout is to enhance the joy. People do the best work when they are driven by passion. Take time off when you need to. Stress increases burn out. A repair café that focuses on sharing skills and training the next generation can be successful. Pressures to achieve perfection vs some ideal adds to stress. Maintain thyself. Learn to say no. iFixit has numerous how to repair guides. Many repair instruction videos are found on YouTube.

Readers will be convinced that maintenance is an important aspect of success. Everyone should pay attention to the need and respect those who get the job done. References. Index.


And yet, innovation in maintenance is one area where heavy industry is piling on the technology. Condition based monitoring leads to proactive maintenance leads to predictive maintenance.

We have a new machine. It was installed in 2019. Less than 4 years later almost every hard hydraulic coolant line failed on a 16 line manifold. The part was specialty and long lead even though it is really just a 90 degree sweep elbow. The machine was down for 2 shifts and ended up being brought back online by a tig welder who plugged the incident pin holes in EXACTLY the same place on EVERY LINE.

Vibration monitoring was installed on several other hard lines but was not installed on this set of lines because the runs were so short. It caught a similar issue on the other lines 3 months ago. Maintenance didn’t think to check this set of lines because…

The machine was telling them how to think.

We are installing condition based monitoring solutions on almost every vibrating, rotating, noise making part of our machinery. New technology can “hear” the issue and point you to a general location based on cell phone style “frequency triangulation”.

We are switching to more technology because the machines are complex, the maintenance staff are leaving their roles for other areas in operations because the learning curve is simpler and the conditions are easier.

Even worse, job applications sit empty with no one to fill them. People prefer to do other work, even though the pay is quite a bit higher in maintenance.