Managing Your Way out of the T&D Maintenance Squeeze

By George Waidelich, EPRIsolutions

Utility managers are in a tough spot. At the same time their power lines are being pushed to the limits, they face unrelenting pressure to reduce costs and improve the bottom line. Then, there is the additional pressure from their customers to not merely keep the lights on, but to actually improve reliability and power quality.

Utility managers face difficult choices when trying to reduce cost and improve service. But how does a utility accomplish this? This question is challenging utilities nationwide.

Some utilities have invested in technology, hoping it will be the magic bullet. But all too often the use of technology alone has not yielded the desired results. Fine-tuning existing maintenance schedules and budgets are not the answer either. A piecemeal approach will not provide the timely results and value demanded by the market.

Utilities are finding that the best solution is to adopt and apply a comprehensive, systematic approach to optimizing maintenance, one that considers the entire T&D system and all its components: the interrelationship between core maintenance processes and business processes, management and work culture, people skills and human performance, and lastly, technology application. A utility must first address organizational processes and issues before technology can yield results.

This is easier said than done. But, when maintenance optimization initiatives are implemented correctly, they do work and yield astounding results. Utilities have documented savings of as much as $10 million over three years after adopting a systematic comprehensive approach to maintenance that not only addresses reliability and equipment life, but also allows the organization to attain its operational and financial goals.

A Comprehensive Approach

The same process that is being implemented at an increasing number of utilities to optimize T&D maintenance has been successfully applied to many power and industrial company processes to optimize facility maintenance and performance. It has three major phases that can be broken down into six definitive steps:

Phase 1: Self Assessment and Strategic Planning

Step 1. Introduction and educational workshops; sponsorship; executive and organizational buy-in.

This first step is critical to any new maintenance initiative. Without executive sponsorship and organizational buy-in, efforts to improve maintenance processes, management and practices will not take root. Ideally, both corporate and field personnel are introduced to the new approach in phases, achieving support and buy-in along the way.

Step 2. Development of a best-practice model, corporate strategy and best-practice model integration.

Maintenance best practices must be aligned with the corporate strategy and financial and operational performance goals. Integrating maintenance best practices with corporate strategy is key to a successful maintenance optimization initiative. Maintenance optimization applies just as easily to a utility pursuing third-quartile performance as it does to one trying to achieve first-quartile or “best-in-class” performance. A best-practice model employs the best and most appropriate process improvements, methodologies and technology applications available in the industry to meet client performance objectives and, as a consequence, serves as a dashboard for measuring progress. To create this model, however, utilities must learn what is considered best practice in the industry today and understand how to adapt these practices to current strategy and performance goals.

Phase 2: Gap Analysis and Action Planning

Step 3. Defining the gap.

This step begins with an honest admission of where existing practices fall short of expectations. Getting management and personnel to face up to these issues can be a challenge.

  • Gap analysis includes:
  • introduction and discussion of industry best practices,
  • performing a self-appraisal,
  • identifying the variance between best practices and current practices, and
  • capturing those key issues that are barriers to initiative implementation and change.

Areas covered during the gap analysis include:

  • Management and Work Culture. Includes benchmarking, goals and business planning, organization, leadership, communications, metrics, accountability and ownership, and continuous improvement.
  • Maintenance Processes. Includes work identification, maintenance basis, planning and scheduling, work execution, and work close out.
  • People and Human Resources. Includes skill and qualification levels, human performance elements, training, and resource utilization—including management and craft (union and non-union) issues.
  • Technology Application. Includes tools required to support the workforce and considers automation, condition monitoring, automated maintenance management systems, maintenance and diagnostic tools, information integration systems and distributed control systems.

Step 4. Implementation plan or transition plan; further sponsorship and buy-in.

A detailed transition plan sets out how to close the gaps from the existing maintenance program to the new desired state based on the corporate strategy and performance metrics. It includes realistic goals for newly established best practices:

  • identification of organizational, technical and personnel barriers to best-practice implementation,
  • steps and procedures to eliminate barriers to implementation, and
  • on-site consultations to guide the implementation process, as well as the training and coaching of key staff as required.

Phase 3: Coaching, Field Implementation Support, Review & Reinforcement. The Implementation Phase

Step 5. Implementation

Employing change requires coaching at all levels. Workers and managers must be trained on how to apply the new maintenance practices to meet financial and operational goals. Depending on the organization, field support teams can be utilized to lead utility implementation. This step includes items like work process optimization, organizational alignment, technology fulfillment and resource optimization.

Step 6. Proactive Improvement and Reassessment

Having the process and metrics in place to drive continuous organizational improvement during implementation is critical. Reassessment ensures continuous improvement in any maintenance optimization effort. Best-in-class maintenance organizations continually assess the current state of performance to their business goals as well as industry peers. Management should assess progress toward meeting its maintenance goals for a specific line or region and develop plans for addressing any problems on a periodic basis. Research has shown that approximately 60 percent of new processes are quickly abandoned if not taught, measured and continually reinforced. Best-in-class maintenance organizations do not become complacent when they reach their goals. They continuously look at their processes and procedures and make adjustments as knowledge and technology progress.

Maintenance Optimization

Maintenance optimization (MO) will yield results for every utility, but each utility program is specific to its needs in relation to the corporate strategy and financial and operational goals. If the answer is “no” to any of the questions below, then there is most likely a significant opportunity or value that has not yet been tapped from the maintenance equation.

  • Can you measure the financial impact of improving performance?
  • Do you have a risk management methodology to allocate scarce maintenance resources, adjust the maintenance basis, prioritize work and manage the reliability consequence of a decreasing or flat maintenance budget?
  • Do you periodically benchmark your performance or compare yourself to industry “best practices”? Do you take action on the results of such a comparison? Have the actions yielded the desired improvement?
  • Do you have a process to combine test data, component history, performance indices, risk factors, and the latest inspection technologies to develop a clear indication of the remaining service life of a utility’s most critical infrastructure and components?
  • Do you employ reliability-centered maintenance or some other maintenance basis methodology to your critical infrastructure components to determine appropriate maintenance actions, schedules and monitoring required to meet key performance indices?
  • Do you have a functional preventive and predictive maintenance process that is identifying maintenance issues before component failure?
  • Do you have a functional proactive maintenance process that has led to a change in your maintenance basis or early replacement of defective or aging infrastructure?
  • Do you have a three- to six-week rolling maintenance schedule with the appropriate metrics to meet financial and operational performance goals?
  • Do you have a process for the closeout of maintenance tasks, the capture of as-found conditions, the storage of that condition information in a computerized maintenance management system, and the ability to use the information to improve performance?
  • Have you established maintenance peer groups to manage and extract value from your maintenance processes—work identification (preventive, predictive and proactive), planning and scheduling, work execution, work closeout, work prioritization, etc. ?
  • Do you have a defined process to conduct a comprehensive survey of substation equipment using the appropriate inspection and detection methods, including infrared thermography, ultrasonic analysis, oil analysis, partial discharge detection, and vibration spectra analysis to determine the baseline condition of the equipment and identify component criticality?
  • Do you have consistency in your maintenance approach across all regions and locations?
  • Is there alignment for the maintenance approach among the leadership team?
  • When you develop and manage your maintenance strategy, are management and work culture, maintenance processes, people skills and human resources, and technology all components of the plan? Do you have metrics to manage success in each area?

The Endgame

The questions above are just a few that one might consider to evaluate the potential for a maintenance optimization initiative. History has shown that conservative minimum estimates of savings derived from utilities that implement and organized MO intervention are:

  • an expected return on investment of $2 to $3 for every $1 invested over a two-year period,
  • simple payback of investment in less than 12 months,
  • increase in system availability between 5 percent and 8 percent, and
  • overall maintenance cost reduction between 8 percent and 10 percent.

A review of transmission system performance in the United States and Canada over the last 15 years demonstrates that the transmission grid needs more attention and investment. Indeed, the economic forces and load-growth trends that created this situation show no signs of abating, and neither does the increasing stress on the system—or, for that matter, the stress on utility managers.

So what is a responsible manager to do? Simply stated: manage smarter and do more with less by using improved processes, methodologies, maintenance best practices and proven technology.

George Waidelich, the director of operations for T&D maintenance optimization at EPRIsolutions, received his initial maintenance training in the U. S. Navy and has held various positions in the industry since 1992.

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