Last reviewed 28 December 2015

One legacy of the financial crisis is a slump in industrial maintenance — its decline poses problems not only for productivity but also for health and safety of employees and others. Pursuing incremental improvements and solutions based on the theory of marginal gains would be a good New Year’s resolution, suggests Jon Herbert.

UK manufacturing industry may be pulling away from many of the worst effects of the recent recession , but negative aspects are still causing concern. While productivity increases are being seen in many manufacturing areas, rising output is being achieved at the cost of good short and long-term maintenance provision.

This shortage has potential implications for health and safety officers already having to cope with a rapid expansion in more sophisticated and diverse industrial technology. It is also making more demands on operators who, in many cases, are required to take on more complex shift patterns, remote, lone and mobile working.

A report examining the subtle reasons behind these unwelcome changes could make good mental fodder in the days between Christmas and New Year when health and safety managers will naturally be on the lookout for more professional fare to round off the festive season. The results of a study into maintenance practices published by the Rexroth Bosch Group and Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), which go into the details of what is happening at plant-level across the UK, makes very interesting reading. Its main conclusions are that maintenance budgets have been cut in the majority of cases over the last five years.

As a result, the long-term health and productivity of many plants is at risk, it finds. Coupled with this, engineers and health and safety teams are having to grapple with two challenging phenomena. The first is finding the capacity to cope with a bewildering increase in the complexity of modern industrial technology, including software. The second is a tidal wave of obsolescence as machinery pushed beyond its usual lifespan causes increasing difficulties.

Part of the cultural mind-set at the root of the problem is a tendency on the part of output and bottom-line-driven managers to rely on responsive rather than preventative maintenance, says the report.

This means that when incidents do occur, they are more likely to be major — putting responders under pressure to be miracle workers.

Some answers will inevitably be strategic. However, there may also be many practical steps that health and safety leaders will want to think about for 2016.

One suggestion is to follow the example set by Sir David Brailsford who revitalised the British cycling team’s performance by systematically focusing on incremental improvements in many different areas that together enhance the whole. This is the principle of marginal gains.

“What you don’t repair you destroy”

A key finding from the aforementioned report into UK industry’s maintenance practices is that such activities are seen as an inconvenient expense rather than a valuable investment by many company managers and planners.

The What You Don’t Repair You Destroy report is based on a survey of 300 engineers who responded to simple questions designed to uncover deep-seated trends and behaviour changes emerging from new economic conditions.

One of the biggest changes is that firms are now more likely to wait until equipment fails before replacing it. More than half of those surveyed said that their budgets had either stayed the same, or had fallen in real terms since 2010.

It is telling that approximately half the number surveyed also said that their training budgets had stood still or decreased; many maintenance engineers only receive five days of training, or less, each year. Staffing levels too have remained static or fallen, despite higher demands, according to two-thirds of respondents.

This trend is spreading a greater burden across fewer people, with an inevitable rise in risks.

Condition maintenance and other preventative maintenance strategic techniques, have also suffered. In fact, it is reported that many companies view preventative maintenance simply as inspections, which is far from the basic concept.

Only a quarter (24%) of respondents said their programmes were preventative. And just 5% described them as predictive. This leads to the important conclusion that more forward-thinking systems are proving to be difficult to implement in practise, the report concludes.

At the same time, more than 70% said that they are now responsible for more machinery than they were 5 years ago.

On top of this, 75% reported having to cope with significantly more complex equipment than half a decade ago. Yet despite this, only 60% of companies have a robust plan in place to deal with critical equipment when it breaks down.

One respondent noted that the older machinery gets, the more challenging operating it safely becomes. Another commented that UK manufacturers run their machinery “flat out at all times with little or no built in redundancy”. A third added that, “Management cannot stand to see a machine idle”. This poses major preventative maintenance problems.


Two key concerns are critical machinery and obsolescence. Critical machinery can be a complete “line-stopper”. Yet 90% of those questions had no specific plans to deal with this threat, even though the technology is getting ever more complex.

One emerging model is for in-house teams to concentrate on preventative maintenance, while vendors are called in to deal with breakdowns.

Obsolescence, particularly with protection and other electromagnetic devices, is a growing issue. Complex equipment run for longer periods increases the likelihood of incidents. Even so, only 60% of companies taking part in the survey have sound plans for critical equipment that becomes obsolete; only 17% have insurance policies in place. Just 56% have modernisation plans, leading to the accusation of a “sticking plaster” approach.

Bosch Rexroth, UK’s Managing Director, Alistair Johnstone, notes that industry is very close to the edge. “This report suggests that UK manufacturing is walking a tightrope, with maintenance practice and budgetary constraints posing a critical risk to the long-term health of our manufacturing base,” he says.

Ken Young, Technology Director of the Manufacturing Technology Centre, feels that the results come as no surprise and that a long-term strategic vision based on preventative maintenance is now essential.

He adds, “I want British manufacturing to treat its processes the way Sir David Brailsford treats British cycling, with its focus on marginal gains. Manufacturing is now just as competitive as sport and we can learn a lot from it.”

Sir David Brailsford’s successful revolution of British competitive cycling is based on the concept of what he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explains this as being “the 1% margin for improvement in everything you do”. The overall idea is that if you improve every area of an activity by just 1%, the many small gains can add up to remarkable improvements.

In terms of cycling, Brailsford and his team began by optimising obvious factors, such as rider nutrition, weekly training programmes, bike seat ergonomics and the weight of the tyres.

However, they pushed their search further to identify 1% improvements in tiny areas overlooked by others. This included finding out which pillows offer the best rest, the most effective type of massage gel and teaching riders how best to wash their hands to avoid infection.

Brailsford thought this would enable the Team Sky to win the Tour de France within five years; in practice they won it in three years from 2012 onwards.

The first lesson from the cycle team experience is that big transitions are seldom the result of single momentous changes but more often due to many small daily changes. The second is that marginal gains produce exponential results; little happens at first but improvement is accelerated as the increments kick in.

At the outset, some of the improvements may not even be noticeable.

As American entrepreneur and author, Jim Rohn, noted, “Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”

The theory applies to all generations too. In an experience where children were taught to think about weaknesses as opportunities to learn rather than embarrassments, they became more inquisitive, resilient and performed better.