Photo by Takeshi Suzuki on Flickr.

Metro has recently begun implementing a plan to reduce escalator and elevator downtime, based on the recommendations of a report commissioned by GM Sarles.  Sarles is to be commended for bringing in experts to provide outside advice.

Unfortunately, after reading through the 300-page report, reading the TOC Audit of escalators and elevators, and talking with former WMATA mechanics, it becomes clear that the current plan for reducing malfunctions and downtime is unlikely to work.

The central flaw in the current plan is that we still do not know the actual cause of escalator and elevator downtime. 

Why, Why, Why: GM Sarles has commissioned a report that does highlight several areas in which Metro can improve.  But it doesn’t tell us why the elevators and escalators are failing.

This can only be done by investigating individual malfunctions and relentlessly asking why, over and over, until getting to the real cause.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. An escalator has a problem with its brakes and goes out of control. A helpful analysis would find the root cause, not just the symptoms. It might look something like this:

Why did the escalator malfunction?  The brakes failed.  Why?  The brake pads were worn.  Why wasn’t this found in inspection?  The workers aren’t given enough time to inspect everything.  Why?  They spend too much time fixing failed escalators and that cuts into routine inspection time.  Why don’t we have a dedication inspection team?  That’s a good question. Why don’t we?

It’s a question without an answer. Maybe this is the cause. Not worn brake pads, not lazy inspectors, but a problem with the way the inspection and maintenance system is designed.

This was just a hypothetical, but it’s representative of the kind of analysis Metro could use.  Unfortunately, the report upon which the current repair plan is based doesn’t include any causal analysis.

The best place to start any root cause analysis is with the workers closest to the system.  And the elevator consultants did ask the mechanics why their work fell short of maintenance standards.

Several key issues of the field labors concern, which are felt to contribute to the difficulty in maintaining the appropriate maintenance standards, were identified in discussions with field labor.

Mechanics complained of “allocation of adequate time to perform maintenance”, “unsafe working conditions in the work area”, “being directed to return units to service without being given ample time to adequately verify / prove cause of failure”.

That sounds like a serious safety culture problem.  Are these complaints true?  Why do these conditions exist?

It must be clarified that while the field labor concerns identified above were expressed, the verification of all concerns expressed was not included in the scope of this report and cannot be verified by VTX.

For whatever reason, the consultant was not authorized to ask workers why escalators and elevators are failing and follow up on their explanations.  As a result, we still don’t know why the escalators and elevators are failing.

What to do?  GM Sarles is wisely searching for outside expertise.  In addition to the advice of escalator mechanics, Sarles should turn to the well-developed field of maintenance engineering which specializes in asking why of highly complex systems.

Maintenance engineering is its own discipline, and has been developed significantly by the defense and aerospace sectors.  Lots of consultants and conferences are available to help organizations develop maintenance best practices.

As I have explained elsewhere, by conducting the rigorous root cause analyses that are central to maintenance best practices, organizations can confidently identify the actions and investment required to meet any performance and safety standards.

But this requires maintenance engineers to have conducted root cause analyses to identify and prioritize these issues.  Where can we turn?

RCM-2011 Conference: This is the largest annual conference on maintenance engineering and maintenance best practices.

MRG consultants: MRG helped United Technologies, which makes Otis escalators and elevators, adopt maintenance best practices including root cause analysis.

PMA Consulting: PMA is an Arlington-based maintenance engineering consultancy that helps organization adopt these types of maintenance best practices.

I don’t know if these are necessarily the right consultants for Metro, but they, and the conference, are a start.

In the second part of this two-part post, we will explore the inevitable consequence of failure to discover which concerns are actually causing downtime or safety issues: a media-driven maintenance plan.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.