If it ain’t broke, tell me when it will be


I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” many times, but does it still apply in the 21st century? Or should we say, “If it ain’t broke, tell me when it will be” instead?

According to Gary Martin on the Phrase Finder website, variations of this old phrase probably existed before the 1970s, but the present-day wording was coined by T. Bert (Thomas Bertram) Lance who was the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in Jimmy Carter’s 1977 administration. Lance believed that he could save Uncle Sam billions of dollars if he could get the government to adopt a simple motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He explained, “That’s the trouble with government: fixing things that aren’t broken and not fixing things that are broken.”1

Hope for the best?

Lance was correct in that eliminating non-value added maintenance can result in cost savings. And often maintenance is performed because it’s scheduled, not because something is defective. But it’s unfortunate that this 20th-century phrase still has such a strong hold in our modern, data-intensive era. Now we have digitally based instruments, sensor networks and simulation devices, which can provide more data and insights. Analytics-driven management of assets and processes can help us achieve significant cost savings. The savings come from a new understanding of when not to do the work in the first place.

Just because something isn’t broken doesn’t mean we should just leave it and hope for the best. In fact, we should do the opposite. We need to learn more about it (in a non-disruptive way), derive best practices from that information, and decide the best time to fix or replace it. This approach applies to any enterprise that is looking into asset management enhancements. It’s especially relevant to asset-heavy industries like travel and transportation, aerospace, defense, automotive, telecommunications, energy and utilities. In these industries, the failure of critical component can lead to heavy losses and decreased customer satisfaction, so being able to fix assets quickly before they can cause additional damage is critical.

Get smarter about asset management

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In Bert Lance’s time, economic crisis dictated a need for savings—and today’s economic reality is no different. The aim is to squeeze more out of existing assets and resources, with a focus on increasing equipment utilization, reducing maintenance expenses and deferring capital expenditures. This cost consciousness is particularly challenging for industries like energy and utilities which have an aging infrastructure. Today’s capital spending on power transformers, the most significant portion of the utilities’ transmission and distribution assets, is at the lowest level in decades. Statistics show that the average age of the installed US transformer fleet is continuing to rise2.

Unlike in Lance’s time, new developments related to mobility, smarter computing capabilities and location-based services have empowered us with new insights into data and operations. The move from analog to digital signals initiated the transformation of industries towards smarter operations. Right now, there is a focus on automation and the use of smart meters, devices and sensors. By harvesting the resulting deluge of data, we can intelligently control complexity and change. More importantly, it’s now possible to take the performance of core assets to the next level. We can predict an asset’s life span and output based on operating conditions, and then perform condition-based maintenance.

Today, we can focus on more efficient cross-functional processes to help control service requests, configuration and maintenance planning. The increase in service request responsiveness to problems and user issues leads to a decrease in change-related outages through increased efficiency and reduced mean time to repairs. Now, we also can combine asset lifecycle data with information about the environment surrounding that asset. For a utility company, for example, overgrown trees can take down transmission wires and cause power disruptions, which can lead to large fines (upwards of USD1M per day). So a utility’s operation and maintenance programs include the management of the surrounding environment because it can affect service.

With these capabilities, utilities and other companies are beginning to develop advanced lifecycle asset management programs, which are guided by a defined strategy that combines reliability centered maintenance (RCM), condition-based maintenance (CBM), and adherence to the publicly available specification for the optimized management of physical assets (PAS 55). Strategies typically focus on:

  • Risk assessment of the asset fleet (asset reliability, supply chain and procurement).
  • Condition assessment of individual critical assets and their environment (monitoring, modeling and simulations).
  • Risk assessment of business costs/losses and gains (priorities, causality and outcome evaluation).
  • Lifecycle decisions (retire, refurbish, replace, relocate).

We can now ask “If it ain’t broke, tell me when it will be” and in real time expect a valid answer so that we can make smarter decisions.

[1] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/if-it-aint-broke-dont-fix-it.html

[2] http://www.bplglobal.net/eng/knowledge-center/download.aspx?id=196

Anna Topol works on the STG Industry CTO Leadership Team and is responsible for the Energy and Utilities Industry. She has years of experience in both technical and business development positions and has successfully led a number of R&D programs for which she received the Research Outstanding Technical Contribution Achievement Award.

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