The most misused word in manufacturing


I’ve stopped saying a word. This word can either be used as a noun or a verb and its etymology dates to the 13th century. It is comprised of other words that include Anglo-French and French origins, around phrases such as to support, to uphold, and to preserve. I have removed it from my vocabulary this year, due to its commonly accepted perception in manufacturing as being negative, unplanned, and a cost. As Juno told Barbara in Beetlejuice, most don’t want want to talk about it. What is the word…maintenance.

Shh! Don't even say his name. You don't want his help. - Juno telling Barbara not to say Beetlejuice in the movie Beetlejuice

Publications with the word

I canvassed Google images for automotive manuals for personal vehicles looking for this word on the cover. Looking at hundreds of them, very few reference this word on their cover over the last 80 years. Instead, these car manufacturers design the covers to reference the service that could be necessary as repair manuals. Why would this be?


Amongst the creative artwork and marketing ploys to show off their vehicle, other titles of these hard-bounded instructional guides use descriptions such as owner’s manual, service manuals, or repair manuals. So why would the automotive sector frame and market the cover of these instructional guides proactively and not use this word?

In the manufacturing sector, this word is within acronyms we commonly use. Acronyms commonly used to promote effective asset management such as CMMS (computerized $%#@ management system), MRO ($%#@, repairs, and operating supplies), RCM (reliability-centered $%#@), and TPM (total productive $%#@).

Manufacturers, from plastic bottle companies to hotels in Las Vegas, have departments that have this word in their sub-organization description. Manufacturers have this word embedded within basic labor agreements to describe roles within the organization. Organizations even call out this word to describe a grouping of a color of a safety lock used to control the reenergizing of our equipment. Call across the all-call radio in a refinery for a breakdown, and who do you call for?

But if you look at budgets and expenses, I will assume that this word is generally used to represent an indirect cost. You either didn’t spend all your budgets in this cost category or you spent too much. And most organizations only talk about it when the budgets are missed.

All other benefits seem to be an added annoyance to this thing they do not understand and really do not want because maintenance and the CMMS – and related staffing and expense – are “indirect costs,” which are two of the evilest words in the manufacturing world today. - Gary Brown, ExpressMaintenance.com

Committed focus

So, my commitment is around changing the interpretation of this word by trying not to use it. I am up against more than seven centuries of abusing this word to be sometimes interpreted as a "necessary evil." This necessary evil is too often communicated as a reaction to what was intended. Instead, I want to lead by talking about our actions to maintain our assets as either proactive or reactive. I want to reframe this word into two distinct forms of cost.

If you relate this to a PF Curve, the actions to the left of the bend are the proactive activities and the items to the right of the bend are the reactive activities. There are some things that we elect to run to failure because from a reliability and cost perspective, it is the right thing to do. However, there are others that we conduct proactive actions to minimize the cost. The actions are driven to provide the optimum value in exchange for the cost.

The genealogy of the interpretation

Interestingly when reflecting on this topic, my research pointed to Google Books Ngram Viewer indicating that the use of this word decreased significantly from its peak starting in 1948. I believe there might be a correlation between the use of the word and the creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II.

The United States spent more than $4 trillion, or 36% of its GDP, fighting World War II. More than 400,000 U.S. troops were killed in the conflict to defeat Nazi Germany, Italy, and the Japanese Empire. - USAToday.com

World War II could be interpreted as reactive actions and reactive costs, whereas the mission of the United Nations is proactive. The cost, in lost lives and GDP, could then be advertised to be interpreted to be proactive versus reactive, putting less of a burden on its quantity or missing the budget. Possibly politically influenced, something had to change to correlate spending with more proactive value.

The United Nations was created in 1945, following the devastation of the Second World War, with one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security. The UN accomplishes this by working to prevent conflict, helping parties in conflict make peace, deploying peacekeepers, and creating the conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish. - UN.org

Focusing on the intent

Successful organizations understand the definition and perception of this word through a clear delineation of the spending. They understand the right balance of reactive and proactive through multiple markets. They train their employees in financial disciplines making front-line operators speak the same language as a chief financial officer. This commitment is to frame actions to build predictable reliability with the value that we produce and ensure the desired future profit protection we require out of our assets. “Profit protection” starts with educating the value that is returned with proactive actions versus reactive actions. When the organization understands the value of this indirect cost to protect our people, improve our quality, maintain the right amount of reliability, and protect our future profits… the organization succeeds.












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