Merriam-Webster defines a contaminant as “something that makes a place or substance (such as water, air or food) no longer suitable for use; something that contaminates a place or substance.” Effective lubrication programs are centered on contamination control. However, one contaminant is often overlooked, and it has the potential to be the most destructive and costly of all contaminants, possibly costlier than all other contaminants combined. What is this critical contaminant? Believe it or not, it is your lubrication technicians and program managers. They are potentially your most expensive and damaging contaminant, and what can make them so destructive is a lack of training.

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

In the development of a contamination control strategy for this unknown contaminant, you must seek to answer who, what, when, where, why and how. “Where” is your plant, “when” is always, and “what” is the contaminant. “Who” is everyone involved in the lubrication program, such as technicians, managers, purchasing, shipping/receiving, maintenance, operations/production, etc.

In the Navy, I learned that people don’t do things for two basic reasons, which can be summed up as “can’t” or “won’t.” The “won’t” is usually easy to diagnose. It is a refusal to do what’s asked and is quite simple to address. The “can’t” is also easy to diagnose. The individual either doesn’t have clear direction as to what the job is or doesn’t have the proper tools or training. Often, this simply requires communication. Therefore, take the time to explain each task, outlining what the expectations are and what completion is. In this communication, you can identify what tools are needed and if you have the tools to complete the task.

You must also determine if the person has the necessary skills and knowledge for the task. It’s possible to provide the required knowledge so the individual is ready to perform the task in relatively short order, but the necessary skills can be a bit more problematic. A job/skills mismatch may exist, and the individual may never be able to complete the task satisfactorily.

“Why” is a bit more complex, as is the “how.” Numerous organizations invest in training for their team, sending personnel to public training courses, hosting private training events and undergoing certification testing afterward. While these methods are an excellent way to explain the “what” of lubrication, your program is destined to fail if all parties involved do not understand the “why.” “Why are we engaging in this?” “Why is it important to the organization?” Answering these questions is essential to any change management process.

I’ve intentionally saved the “how” for last. In nearly every class I teach, I ask the following question: “How difficult is it to operate a grease gun?” Although the mechanics of this task are quite simple, are you aware of how much pressure a grease gun can generate? Do you know how much pressure it takes to blow a lip seal or push shields and seals into the element on a bearing? Are you able to look at an oil analysis report and tell whether the sample is the correct fluid just from the test data? Can you identify the chemical compounds that make up certain additives? How many of your lube techs can answer these questions?

I’m constantly amazed at how lubrication technicians are consistently at the bottom end of the scale in a maintenance organization. Properly trained and equipped lube techs are the eyes and ears of a maintenance group. They are the foundation of maintenance. It is not uncommon for a fully trained lube team to generate 70-80 percent of the work orders. They are the ones who conduct most of the inspections and identify the majority of issues. However, to be effective, these individuals must be trained in the appropriate inspection techniques.

Let’s go back to the question of how difficult it is to operate a grease gun. How does it feel when a seal blows out because of too much grease at too high a pressure? Explaining this is like trying to describe the color red to a blind person. If you haven’t felt it, it is difficult to understand. Many aspects of lubrication are like this. Frequently, classroom training is inadequate for the task. A lot of people learn best by doing. Although much, if not all, of the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “why” of lubrication can be taught in the classroom, the “how” is best demonstrated in the field using the show-and-tell method. Instructors can “tell” you how, but the “show” requires you to be at the machine installing a breather, sight glass, quick connect, etc.

73% of lubrication professionals say knowing how to perform a task is not as important as knowing why, based on a recent survey at MachineryLubrication.com

Filling the Knowledge Gap

The average age of skilled workers in the United States is reported to be between 53-57 years old. As these individuals retire, who is going to replace them? How will you fill the knowledge gap that exists at your plant? One answer is to have well-written and detailed procedures to ensure that technicians can perform the job regardless of how long they have held the position. Procedures can provide the basis for your training program, but sadly most are quite primitive with instructions such as: “Give machine A four shots of grease and machine B three shots of grease.” Effective procedures define what a shot of grease is so you know precisely what quantity of lubricant should be put in the bearing or seal.

Many lube techs and program managers will require hands-on training for the “how” of lubrication. This should not be provided from a theoretical standpoint but through actual mentoring and guiding. During training, technicians should perform lubrication tasks under the guidance of a consultant, who then evaluates proficiency. At the end of the training, your lube team should be able to implement and execute your lubrication program just as if you had consultants onsite doing the jobs themselves.

Remember, even if you have invested large amounts of resources in your program, you may still need to invest in training for your team members in order for them to execute your procedures properly. By applying these strategies, you can develop a training program that will address, mitigate and possibly eliminate the most destructive contaminant in your plant.