Having Machine Downtime or Machine Lifetime Issues? This Could Be Why

Machine in a repair shop

In some ways, machines are a lot like people. They’re at the core of your business, and you need them ready to work when they get to the jobsite. When your machines break down or wear out before their time, it costs you—sometimes millions of dollars.

 Frequent machine downtime should not be the norm. Having to replace machines that should’ve lasted another five to 10 years shouldn’t be the norm. 

If that’s the status quo for your business, it’s time for a change. The first step to solving your machine downtime and lifetime problems is to understand why they’re happening. 

We’ll cover eight reasons your machines could be wearing out or breaking down. Plus, we’ve added a few tips on how to deal with these issues. 


Operators don’t have ownership

Excavator Operator

Ownership isn’t just about whose name is on side of the excavator. True ownership is about empowering your crew to take responsibility.

 Operators should be trained to get their work done and take care of the heavy equipment they use to accomplish the job. That includes things like reporting maintenance issues or helping the foreman figure out why a mistake happened (instead of blaming others). 

 Without a sense of ownership, operators won’t care if a machine breaks down. They won’t care how long it lasts. Instead of worrying about the equipment, they’ll think, That’s your problem. But when you empower your team to take extreme ownership, you’ll be amazed at how well they care for the machines they operate.


Operators don’t know how their machines wear and tear

Excavator Operator and Technician Inspecting

New operators are still learning the ropes, and they may not know which jobs cause the most wear and tear on their equipment. 

 Experienced operators are more likely to know what will cause an immediate breakdown. However, even they may not realize that a certain technique or job is more likely to wear machines out over time. 

 With proper training, operators can learn how to avoid unnecessary wear and tear, so they can keep their machines running smoothly.


Operators don’t know how to spot small problems

Excavator Operator Taking a Break

Heavy equipment rattles, roars, and vibrates, so it can be hard for operators to hear or feel if a machine is running differently than normal. They might not notice their machine’s temperature or pressure gauges reading a bit higher than usual. They might overlook a small hydraulic leak.

These things aren’t a big deal . . . at first. Eventually, weird noises, high pressure, and little leaks turn into breakdowns—or worse, they cause machines to wear out prematurely.

Operators need proper training on how to spot small issues before they turn into big ones. They also need to know when to report issues, so they don’t overwhelm the field supervisor with maintenance requests every time the machine burps.


Operators don’t know how to maintain their machines for longevity

Excavator Technician Maintenance

Knowing basic, daily maintenance is a great start. That said, operators also need to be able to see the big picture. They need to know how to maintain their equipment over time—especially if a maintenance task only happens once a year or once every so-many hours.

When operators don’t know how to maintain their machines to make them last, they’re more likely to let little problems turn into big ones. And as you well know, big equipment problems inevitably lead to downtime and costly replacement machines.

 Again, the solution is training. Operators need to be taught to see the big picture of their machine’s lifetime, plus how to handle any maintenance issues you want them to take care of on their own.


Operators got insufficient training in the past

Excavator Mechanic Fixing Machine

By now, you’ve probably noticed a theme—training, training, and more training! The problem is, most companies don’t spend much time educating their operators. 

Most operators learn the basics of heavy equipment maintenance on a rain day . . . and never hear another word about it. Of course they won’t be able to put that into practice. They probably won’t even remember most of it. 

 Operators need engaging, recurring training to keep them up-to-date on the latest maintenance protocols and machines at your company.


Operators don’t know how to communicate about machine problems

Excavator Operator and Manager Communicating

 If something’s wrong with a machine, the operator is the first person to know about it. However, many operators don’t know how—or when—to tell the field supervisor what’s wrong with the machine. 

 They wonder, When do I approach a supervisor who’s always busy? How do I explain what’s wrong to someone who doesn’t use the machine daily? How can I let them know how urgent the problem is? 

 Your operators need a clearly defined way to let the field supervisor know what’s happening with their machines.


Operators leave the company

Excavator Operator Leaves

Operator turnover puts a huge strain on the rest of the team, and it leads to downtime and project slowdowns. Other team members usually aren’t cross-trained, so they can’t fill in when an operator leaves.

Leaders in that situation can start to feel like they only have two choices. 

Number one, they can hire an operator—any operator—and hope they’re good. (If they’re not, well . . . you’re looking at more breakdowns, downtime, and worn-out machines.) 

Or number two, they can turn a pipelayer, grade checker, or other worker into an operator and hope they can start producing quickly, without hurting their equipment or their coworkers. 

Those options both leave something to be desired, to say the least. That’s because they’re reactive. In business, it’s far better to be proactive. Even if you have loyal employees, operators may retire, move away, or get promoted to foreman. You have to plan for those things before they happen and train people who can keep the machines running. 


Operators are absent from work

Bulldozer broken fixing

Every operator misses a day of work occasionally. That’s inconvenient, but generally, crews can get through it. 

When we talk about absent operators, we’re talking about people who need to take extended time off. Maybe they’re taking a well-deserved vacation. Maybe they need to deal with health issues or care for a loved one. Whatever it is, even the best operators need time away from work. 

(Now, if somebody frequently skips work without a good reason, that’s another story. Dave Turin—a long-time operator, gold miner, and business leader—talks about how to deal with someone who’s creating problems for the team.)

Many business owners act surprised when operators take time off, which is nonsense. Vacations, illnesses, and family matters are to be expected. Life is to be expected. It’s on you to make a plan to keep the machines running when an operator needs time away from the business.

To help you do that, we've covered how to decrease machine downtime, increase machine lifetime, and help your operators care for their machines so they can stay productive.

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