John Crossan | Manufacturing Ownership Blog
Just Like Sisyphus?? PDF Print E-mail

Stumbled across some music trivia lately, that the old rock band Chicago finally had their album Stone of Sisyphus released last year. One of the more famous “lost” albums; it was originally recorded in the early nineties, but had languished for years available only in illegal bootleg copies.

That reminded me of using the story of Sisyphus in maintenance training sessions.

I never encountered a great number of serious Greek Mythology students in those sessions, but was always amazed how mythology suddenly grasped attendees attention when started telling about Sisyphus showing up in an episode of the TV series Xena, Warrior Princess. A statuesque, obviously very strong gal, who always wore a brief, Roman style, leather outfit , Xena had a pretty fair following back in those days; especially it seemed in the typical plant maintenance group. (It was often brought up that the whole educational experience would have been much enhanced with video clips.)

Sisyphus was a Greek king who made the mistake of getting the Greek god Zeus, really ticked off at him. He did this supposedly by leaking stories to the press, of the time, about some of Zeus's indiscretions. (Perhaps one of the first uses of this now popular political tool) So Sisyphus got (gets?) to spend the rest of eternity, everyday, all day, laboriously pushing a huge boulder up a mountain. Then in the evening he has to stand aside, and watch it roll all the way back down to the bottom. Then the next day he starts all over again, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Summer, winter, rain, snow, hot, cold, no vacation, no sick days, not even Christmas (obviously) or New Years.

Sisyphus was pretty much a piece of work, who had pulled off some pretty bad stuff himself, so hard to really work up much sympathy for him.

So Sisyphus is still at it, somewhere out there, I guess, but you know he’s not alone. Keeping maintenance in a proactive mode can be a very similar pastime.

When we start out trying to get out of the frenetic "Fix it when it breaks" mode, getting PM inspections going, getting maintenance planning and scheduling going, that feels a lot like pushing a boulder up a mountain. (Actually probably harder, Sisyphus didn’t have people pushing back on the boulder as he was pushing it up.)

But as PMs Inspections get better and better, and people become more routinely conscious of equipment condition and get potential problems dealt with, and emergency work falls off, and we are getting better and better scheduled repairs done, the slope becomes gentler and it is easier to push the boulder. And the higher we get, the easier it is to push, and the air gets clearer, the sky gets bluer, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, we can see for miles, and maybe even Julie Andrews is running around up here, singing something about the "Sound of Music".

After a while, and some serious effort, we start to get where things are starting to run more smoothly. We can count on steady, decent production numbers every day. We don't have aggravating breakdowns. We don't have that routine, yet always unexpected, excess overtime that messes up peoples lives. (Remember the days of really hoping to make it thru this Friday without a disaster, so I didn't have to ruin some peoples, and my own, weekend.)

When we do planned repair work, we have pretty much everything ready, so it goes well and we get done what we had planned, pretty much how we planned it. We have a process in place where operating and maintenance folks are routinely identifying and analyzing our problems and making permanent fixes.

At this point it becomes really tempting to try to walk away from the boulder, because you know, it looks like maybe it will stay there by itself. Seems pretty secure.

Maybe now we can start skipping some PMs. Maybe we can pull our maintenance planner for some other work. Maybe use our "free" maintenance resources for that project we can't quite justify otherwise. Maybe maintenance doesn’t have to come to the production meetings anymore (there aren't that many people showing up there now anyway). Maybe we just don't need to demonstrate that much commitment to routine maintenance anymore. Seems to be pretty much a non-issue now, and there are other more exciting, more visible, things to work on.

Well guess what happens as soon as we stop pushing on the boulder? You bet. That son of a gun starts slowly rolling backwards. Slowly at first, then faster and faster and faster, then bounding and smashing its way down the mountain. And it's headed all the way down to the bottom, and the trip down is just a whole lot quicker than the trip up. And you have to be really brave or really dumb, to get in its way.


If we ever stop pushing to keep maintenance Proactive , we will be back down and dirty in the Reactive Mode before we even know it. Back down in the dark, cold, slimy, muddy gulch at the bottom, where all kinds of nasty, obnoxious creatures are hissing and snarling and biting at us.

Now down here it takes way more resources, time, money, blood, sweat, tears, just to get through every day. Just to survive. We were starting to have it made when we were at the top. Comparatively, it wasn't taking that much to stay there, but we just didn't realize what we had, and what it took to stay there.

We took it for granted and we lost it.

Now we have to start over and it’s going to be tougher this time, because now we have a serious credibility issue. Will we be like Sisyphus again this time??

(But even pushing the boulder up the mountain is a lot less painful than staying at the bottom.)