How to Build a High-Reliability Maintenance Engineering Team

How to Build a High-Reliability Maintenance Engineering Team

According to McKinsey, businesses with high performing maintenance engineering teams have an advantage over competitors but how can you replicate that success within your organization?

“Technology alone does not make for excellence in reliability,” reports McKinsey in its study “What high-reliability organizations get right”. The global consulting firm examined data from manufacturing clients in a range of industries including mining, energy, pharmaceuticals, aviation, and the military, to discover which organizations outperform competitors on business metrics and keep downtime to a minimum.

The results? Maintenance engineers make the difference. While other factors, such as condition monitoring, data analytics and other Industry 4.0 technologies play a role in reliability and success, the research reveals that people are more important.

McKinsey found that as well as closely monitoring asset performance, high performance teams use data and their subject-matter expertise to establish the underlying cause of failures. They also make the most of the management systems in place to share this knowledge, for example by updating work processes, to lower the likelihood that the same breakdown will happen again. “In industries that live by the laws of science,” notes the report, “leaders often underestimate the role of management processes and skills in reliability engineering.”

How do you replicate this success within your maintenance engineering team? Read on to find out.

1. Recruit and Retain Skilled Team Members

“Show your passion and enthusiasm,” advises Brandon Coombs, Vice President of Operational Excellence at RS Integrated Supply. “This will help to attract and retain great talent and nurture passion and enthusiasm within them too.”

Elevated rates of pay also help. The McKinsey research found that high, low and average salaries at the most reliable organizations were 15% higher than other comparable firms. Some also offered additional financial incentives such as performance-based pay and bonuses based on uptime.

“Maintenance best practice isn’t just about systems. It’s about people.”

Brandon Coombs, Vice President of Operational Excellence, RS Integrated Supply

“Maintenance best practice isn’t just about systems. It’s about people. You need robust, clearly defined processes but also a skilled and highly engaged team to manage them,” says Coombs. “Money isn’t everything here, but it does have a role. If an organization wants world class maintenance, there is a cost to it.”

2. Develop Robust Structures and Processes

However, pay alone is no guarantee of success. As Coombs’ comment indicates, you need the right structures in place to support your team too. In the McKinsey study, the successful organizations had clearly defined roles and responsibilities for everyone involved in maintenance as well as clear lines of accountability from the top down and robust maintenance processes.

“It’s about getting all of the elements right: great people and great processes,” continues Coombs. “You can only get so far with either one or the other, so ensure priorities are defined clearly and pay attention to how the team is deployed to complete tasks.”

3. Focus on Communication and Clarity of Purpose

In order to ensure everyone in the maintenance engineering team understands their role and purpose, effective communication is critical. Communication from the top down is essential for successful organizations, with everyone involved in maintenance having clearly defined roles and responsibilities. This clarity of purpose and communication helps avoid operational frustrations and improves overall performance.

“Communication is absolutely critical”

Richard Jeffers, Managing Director RS Industria, RS Group

Clarity of purpose is vital, agrees Richard Jeffers, Managing Director of RS Industria at RS Group. “Everyone in the maintenance engineering team needs to understand what they are there to do,” he says. “So, communication is absolutely critical. It’s not surprising if operational colleagues get frustrated if we’re unclear about what we’re here for.”

4. Expand Career Progression Opportunities

The McKinsey study identified career progression as another essential factor in keeping maintenance engineers motivated. The most successful companies place an emphasis on skills, invest in professional development for their teams and have promotion routes leading to roles as company-wide subject-matter experts, advising colleagues across all divisions.

“It’s quite normal for engineers to be managing directors and decision-makers within organizations,” says Dr. Moray Kidd, an academic specializing in maintenance engineering, reflecting on his own experience working for a large Germany firm. Some developed economies, however, are lagging on this trend, with maintenance engineers here still lacking role models who can demonstrate progression into senior management.

5. Rethink the Perception of Success in Maintenance Engineering

“As robust maintenance practices, and skilled maintenance engineers, become more embedded within an organization, senior management will start to recognize the vital contribution that both make to wider business success,” believes Mourad Lerari, Engineering Lead for the UK and Europe at RS Integrated Supply. “

They’ll see, for example, that less downtime saves valuable dollars and cents”.

“When maintenance engineering is done well, it’s actually an investment”

Mourad Lerari, Engineering Lead UK and Europe, RS Integrated Supply

“This flips the traditional view of maintenance engineering on its head,” Lerari notes. “Whereas it’s long been seen as an overhead, and therefore a cost to the business, when maintenance engineering is done well, it’s actually an investment.”

Jeffers is also calling for business leaders to shift their mindset around what successful maintenance engineering looks like. “We’re not suddenly much cleverer in the twenty-first century than we were in the previous one,” he says. “The idea of looking at the outputs of your actions and then using that to drive future actions and do it better next time is not new.

“The purpose of a maintenance organization is keeping operational assets in the hands of the user at least cost. I think what’s fundamentally changed in maintenance is a recognition that data can drive your maintenance strategy. And if you understand failure modes, failure theory, and the leading indicators of failure, then you can start to use that understanding to drive your maintenance strategy in a structured fashion.”

“Many businesses are still rewarding the hero culture”

Richard Jeffers, Managing Director RS Industria, RS Group

However, the benefits of this approach still need greater recognition. “At the same time, you’ve still got to get people to respond to the data and to value the engineer who stays calm because they’re in control, more than the hero who runs and fixes that machine at two o’clock in the morning,” laments Jeffers. “Sadly, many businesses are still rewarding the hero culture, rather than the analytical one.”


Maintenance engineering plays a vital role in achieving reliability and business success. It is essential to have the right team, structures, and processes in place and to invest in the growth and development of maintenance engineers. Business leaders need to change their perception of maintenance engineering and recognize its importance.

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