Flipping the Script on How We Talk about Maintenance

In The Maintainers, we continue to be interested in companies working in the maintenance and repair space. Over the last few years, we've found a number of interesting young firms that are using digital technologies to transform maintenance practices. Today's blog post is by Jes Ellacott, a writer and content specialist with Fiix, a maintenance management software company that is revolutionizing how thousands of organizations worldwide schedule, organize, and track maintenance. For this piece, she sat down with Marc Castel, CEO of Fiix to understand the disconnect between how most people view maintenance, and the reality of the industry at this point in time.

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“The case for maintenance it seems to me is overwhelming,” said Larry Summers, a Harvard economics professor and former Secretary of the Treasury, in a discussion at the Brookings Institute this past January,

He cites the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimates that poorly maintained roads cost car owners an extra $2.3 billion in the State of Massachusetts alone. This extrapolates to over $100 billion for the United States as a whole.

“It is inconceivable to me that fixing that is not an investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return,” says Summers.

It is inconceivable. And yet, despite knowing that prevention is cheaper and deferred maintenance is a massive debt burden, there is still very little incentive to maintain.

“All of the incentives for all of the actors are against maintenance. Nobody ever named a maintenance project, nobody ever got recognized for a maintenance project, nobody ever got blamed for deferring maintenance during the time while they were in office. And so all of the incentives are to defer maintenance,” says Summers.

We see examples like this again and again. Strikingly few incentives to run maintenance, and a disconnect between failing to maintain something and the repercussions when it finally breaks down.

Professors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel of The Maintainers point to an undervaluing of maintenance in favour of shinier, newer innovation as the root cause of this pervasive run-to-failure mentality, and pose one central question: How do we raise the profile of maintenance and maintainers in a world that would much rather replace than repair?

Maintenance has an image problem

Part of the problem comes down to how we talk about maintenance. All too often maintenance is seen as the thing that happens after something breaks, and maintainers are seen only as the people who carry out the repairs—not very much thought is given to all the work it takes to keep everything running.

“Maintenance is the lifeblood of our entire civilization. Everything needs to be maintained, and it takes all kinds of resources to do it. But who’s out on the rooftop shouting about it? Nobody, until the power grid collapses,” says Marc Castel, CEO of Fiix

Castel says that the way to change how we see, value, and reward those that keep our society working is not to pit maintenance against innovation, but to align the two by highlighting how the maintenance industry is leveraging today’s most cutting-edge technology.

He looks to AI as just one example here. In the past, predictive maintenance was based on very thin data and educated guesses. Now, more and more maintenance organizations are leveraging AI to map trends and match patterns to known outcomes, in order to accurately predict failures.

“The maintenance industry has been an early and enthusiastic adopter of AI because the industry generates an insane amount of structured and unstructured data, which is perfect for AI and deep machine learning,” says Castel.

“So instead of saying the maintenance guys are keeping the lights on so my computers can run and do interesting science, we’re actually saying that the interesting science is supporting the maintenance guys in keeping the lights on,” he says.

Suddenly, the antiquated imagery of maintainers is replaced by a new image—that of tech-savvy people using cutting-edge technologies to solve complex data problems, so they can accurately predict failures well before they ever happen. The latter is certainly a more compelling and realistic image in our tech-focused world. It also highlights the potential of predictive and preventive maintenance (rather than painting maintenance as a solely reactive concept) and invites a new breed of maintainers to engage in exciting, well-paid careers that play critical roles in society.

It’s a small tweak, which might seem woefully simple at first. But as Larry Summers pointed out, financial incentives have so far failed to woo policymakers and businesses to the side of prevention. So maybe flipping the script on how we talk about maintenance, and focusing on how maintainers are using today’s most exciting new technologies will be the key to driving home the overwhelming case for maintenance.