“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” goes the old adage, but what happens when you can’t find the oil to begin with? I was recently tasked with the re-organization of a machine shop’s maintenance room and, let me tell you, I had a hard time finding anything before we cleaned up. The more businesses I see, I notice that maintenance and repair workers are often their own somewhat isolated unit, left to organize and manage themselves for the most part in between projects. The organizational systems, or lack thereof, that this environment creates are often less than desirable, and that’s where massive overhaul projects (like the one I’m going to tell you about) come in. We roughly followed a 5S organizing blueprint, but I’ve written about that in multiple other articles so I’m just going to go over the project from start to finish in general terms.
Why is it so important to have an organized maintenance room? Repair and maintenance workers are generally tasked with two kinds of projects. The first is routine scheduled maintenance, while the second situation is that of emergency repairs and replacements. With scheduled tasks, workers can organize their gear ahead of time and make sure they’re on time to wherever they need to be. With unexpected projects or emergencies, time can be of the essence. Not having a maintenance room properly labeled and sorted can result in time consuming searches for tools and materials. If something is leaking or spilling, this extra time could result in thousands of dollars worth of damage being done. In other cases, a malfunctioning or broken machine may cause the loss of precious production hours, units made, and, in some cases, customer loyalty. While not all cases are so extreme, there are potential and negative chain reactions based upon the aptitude and preparedness of a maintenance department. Even in more minor cases, an organized space provides for more efficiency and time spent on what matters for workers.
In The Beginning
This was a grim project from the outset: The company I was working with on this organizational project had left their maintenance department poorly, well, maintained. Not only was there a general disarray of tool carts, pallets (ranging from full to empty), and other equipment covering most of the floor, but labels on boxes, parts bins, and employee lockers were long faded or non-existent. The floor was dusty and obviously hadn’t been swept in a while, and there were certain cupboards and nooks and crannies of unknown contents, even to the regular workers.
To be fair, the space that the employees had to work with was relatively small and cramped, but that just underscored the need for efficient and intentional organization.
The first thing we did was pull literally every item out of the room and place it outside. We were told it would be ideal to complete the project in as little time as possible, so we chose a Sunday so that we could pull items out from the maintenance room and hold them in the main workfloor while we made decisions on finding a new home for everything.
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Weeding Things Out
Once we had everything cleared out of the room, we divided it into categories. The most important items, ones that were used all the time, went in one pile. Another pile was for items that were rarely used. A third pile was for junk and garbage that needed to be removed. Now, in a normal project of this type you would likely take your “rarely used” pile and store those items somewhere. However, in a maintenance department an item may be rarely used because it is only needed in emergencies, which don’t occur often. When they do occur, though, they need to be easily accessible. We decided we would give these items their own corner with hanging unit on the wall so that they would be easy to get to in a hurry.
While everything was out of the maintenance room, we deep cleaned not only the items but also the room itself. In order to best facilitate a fresh start and new organizational ‘era’ for the department, we wanted the room to be spotless; we swept, vacuumed, and dusted the room before replacing any items.
Replacement – Floor Tape and Vinyl Labels
When it came time to put the items back in their spots, or rather their new places, we wanted to develop a better system than before. The name of the game was labeling – giving everything a designated place so that there was no confusion as to where things should be when you needed them, and where they should be put back when you’re done.
It’s a staple of even the simple handyman’s garage that walls, combined with pegboards for hanging things on, are an ideal way to make use of vertical space when organizing your tools. Instead of randomly placing tools on hooks, we gave each tool a place, then used industrial label makers to print heavy-duty vinyl labels (example of the label maker and vinyl labels we used) to make name tags to go under each tool. In addition, we traced the outline of each tool on the pegboard so there was a quick visual indicator of where one should replace an item.
Next, we needed to address all of the moving and rolling stations and carts that had previously been all over the room. We took floor tape (which can be found here) in a color that corresponded to the color of the toolbox or container, and then we made visual boxes on the ground for where each bin or toolbox should be located. Afterward, everything had a space and it was easy to see when something should be put away (instead of left in the middle of the floor) because of its empty box. We used the same strategy for pallets and anything else that would take up ground space. If you have more items than colors, make categories of items (toolboxes stay in red squares, moving cabinets go on green ones, etc.).
Another big area that needed labeling were the toolbox drawers to help specify what tools were in each drawer. This helped the maintenance employees to easily identify their tools. We also labeled the screw, nut, and bolt tray area. There were over 30 different bins, and only a handful of them had legible labels. We quickly whipped up some vinyl labels with the size of each screw so that workers could easily find what they were looking for instead of having to memorize placements or visually glance over each bin until arriving at the right one.
The long-term success of any project like this is two-fold. The first component is how accessible you made new practices. If it’s easy for workers to find where things go in the new system, and if it’s easier than things were before, it will be intuitive and natural for workers to use the new system. The second key comes down to good old discipline. Management and team leaders need to help guide employees during the interim period to ensure new habits are formed and that the room will stay clean (it has been shown that it takes 4-6 weeks for a new action to become habit in the human brain).
As long as you cover these two bases in your own organizational projects, you shouldn’t have any trouble at all keeping a shiny, new maintenance room working cleanly and efficiently into the future.