Ways to Reduce Machine Downtime and Make Your Machines Last
Once you know why you’re having machine downtime and machine lifetime problems, you can start solving them. The solution? Training your crew members.
Operators use machines day in and day out. They’re your first—sometimes only—line of defense for preventing machines from breaking down or wearing out.
Today, we’ll share how you can train your operators and other crew members to get the most out of your machines.01
Instill a sense of pride in your operators
This may sound like a weird starting point. But a culture of pride is crucial to training your operators to care for their machines.
People want to do work that matters, and the Dirt World is a great place for that. From roads to hospital foundations to water management systems—your crews are building everything society needs to live! That’s a worthy purpose.
Yet 56% of construction workers feel like their work doesn’t matter.1 Why? Because that’s not what the industry is telling them. The industry doesn’t say, “You’re making a difference in the world. Thank you for your hard work!” It says, “Hey, get this done now so we can get on to the next job.”
Talk about demoralizing. Why should operators care about the machines they use when they don’t feel like anybody cares about the work they do? Heck, why should they even keep working for you? Many crew members quit their jobs because they don’t feel like they have a higher purpose.
You have to give people the “why” behind their work. Operators take care of their machines when they feel a sense of pride in what they do with those machines.
When your company culture is right and your operators know they’re making a positive impact, they’ll be willing and ready to take care of their machines so they can keep being part of that mission.02
Train operators to know their machines
The world’s best company culture won’t solve your problems if your operators don’t know what makes their machines tick. They need proper training on how to perform daily maintenance and spot small problems before they become big ones.
The trouble is, many operators have never had training before. They’re out there winging it with multi-million dollar equipment—and that’s as stressful for them as it is terrifying for you.
Rather than skipping training to save time, take the time to train them properly. You’ll experience less downtime and save a ton of money on equipment repairs and replacements.
Here are some things to think about when you’re choosing an operator training program:
What daily service does this machine need?
Jay Collup is a cowboy-turned-heavy-equipment-trainer. As President of Collup Enterprises and Director of Field Development here at BuildWitt, he regularly teaches people how to operate heavy equipment and how to care for it.
“Greasing the machine should be done on a daily or 10-hour interval, but pay attention, as some grease points are not daily. Checking the engine air filter on a regular basis is also important, and if you’re working in a high dust area, make this a daily or every-other-day check,” he recommends.
Think about what machines your operators are using, what daily maintenance they need, and how the jobsite can change those needs. Then teach your operators these things, too.
What parts of the machine are prone to maintenance problems?
Just because it’s heavy equipment doesn’t mean you can beat the hell out of it. Certain machines have certain features that are more delicate and prone to maintenance issues.
For example, newer machines have some pretty high-tech emissions controls that malfunction easily. These controls can be a huge source of problems and downtime, where they weren’t so much of an issue on older machines.
It’s important to teach operators which parts of the machine are most vulnerable to breakdowns, so they can avoid unintentional equipment abuse.
Is the operator new to the job or the machine?
Rookie operators can be pretty hard on equipment while they’re learning the ropes. You can mitigate that risk by training them before they ever climb into the cab. (This will also cut way down on the risk of jobsite accidents.)
Experienced operators need training, too. Imagine someone is simply switching to a wheeled excavator instead of one with tracks. It’s still the same machine, but it has different maintenance needs. You’ll need to teach that operator what those needs are.
When you buy new equipment—especially with lots of tech upgrades—everybody needs training on it. You could have an operator with 30 years of experience who has no idea how to handle all those fancy new emissions controls.
Whatever the case, don’t just expect your operators to figure it out on their own. That’s how you end up with broken-down equipment. Educate them about each new machine they run, so they can operate it confidently.
Have you provided a clear maintenance plan?
It may seem like common sense that operators should know basic maintenance for machines they use, but trust us—just because somebody knows how to operate a machine doesn’t mean they know how to keep it running.
For example, they may not know that every machine has a maintenance sticker where they can see when a service got done last or when the next service is scheduled. (By the way, tell them which of those numbers the maintenance crew uses—it’ll get confusing if you don’t.)
Operators need training on maintenance checks, logs, costs, and more. We broke down the basics of heavy equipment maintenance for you. But you’ll want to choose a training program that covers these components in more detail.03
Teach operators how to do walkarounds—and let them practice
Operators should start every day by walking around their machines to look for any potential safety or maintenance issues. But it’s entirely possible that nobody ever taught your operators how to do a walkaround. In that case, they may as well be walking circles around a spaceship.
Walkaround training is absolutely crucial. Operators need to learn to look for all those little details that most people don’t think about like, “Are the bolts tight on the asphalt roller, or have they vibrated out of place?” and “Does the hydraulic hammer have enough grease?”
Sometimes, foremen and field supervisors have the technical knowledge to teach these things. Sometimes they don’t. It’s important to find a training program that can help fill in any knowledge gaps your crew might have. That could be classroom instruction, or it could be training software and video lessons from qualified experts who have real experience with real machines.
Check out some operator training videos to see what this could look like for your company.
Just remember that when operators learn something in the classroom or from a video, they need to try it out in the field, too. Make sure your crew gets time to practice the things they learn in walkaround training.04
Train operators on long-term maintenance
Heavy equipment may not look or handle like a car, but they have more in common with common vehicles than meets the eye. For instance, they both need long-term maintenance in order to last.
Since operators use the machines every day, they know how many hours are on them. So it’s helpful for them to know, “Hey, my dozer needs an engine oil change at 500 hours” or “My excavator is due for a full hydraulic system change at 2,000 hours” or “We can change the fluids early, but never late.” When that time gets close, they can let the field supervisor know the machine is due for maintenance.
The operation and maintenance manual (OMM) tells you what service the machine needs and when. But do your operators have access to that? If so, do they know how to use it?
One good thing Jay points out is that “most manufacturers try to keep service intervals similar to each other so that it’s not confusing to owners and maintenance personnel.” That’s good news for you, because operators who are trained on one machine will gain a better understanding of most other machines on the jobsite.
(You should still train them on everything, since every machine is still a little different. But this will help speed up the process.)05
Train your operators well—then train them again.
Repetition helps with retention. If you want your operators to really get it, provide recurring training.
Preferably, you should offer multiple training formats. For example, you could bring in a classroom instructor to do the bulk of the training. Then your foreman can add to that and help the crew practice what they learned in the field.
However, only using classroom and on-the-job training can be really expensive and time-consuming. If you want to save time and money, consider adding training management software to your program.
With the right software, operators can watch effective, engaging training videos as many times as they want or need to. They can also take quizzes and do assignments to help improve their memory and retention. Plus, it’s easy for you to monitor their progress and see what areas your crew might be struggling with.06
Teach your team how to deal with operator absences
It’s amazing (in a really bad way) how many supervisors get mad at operators for taking the paid time off that the company owes them. That’s nuts! Operators are people who happen to run machines—not machines who happen to be people.
These men and women do a very demanding job. They deserve time away to rest and recharge. On top of that, they have obligations outside of work to take care of their families and themselves.
It’s up to you to have a plan in place when operators are absent. Have people on the team who can help keep the machines and the project moving. Tell your operators what the plan is, too. They need to know it’s okay to take guilt-free time off and that the team will be okay without them.
That said, you also want to make it clear that habitual absenteeism is unacceptable. An operator who misses work without a good excuse really is leaving the team hanging.
You can help keep absenteeism from leading to a breakdown by training your crew members to stay accountable to each other. When you create a sense of accountability on the team, people are less likely to leave their workmates hanging because they know they’ll have to answer to everyone if they do.
You should also talk to the absent team member about what’s going on. There may be a reason they’re missing work that you don’t know about—or they may need to look for another job. But you’ll never know which one it is unless you ask.07
Teach effective communication
Operators need to be able to tell leadership what’s going on with their machines and what they need. However, most people aren’t naturally great communicators.
Some people are afraid of confrontation, and others are argumentative. Some are shy, and some are basically conversational bulldozers. Some people may yell at the foreman or blame them for problems; others may not share a problem with the foreman because they’re afraid he will yell at or blame them.
It’s important to train your operators how to communicate clearly and consistently about their machines. They need to know how to report maintenance issues, breakdowns, or mistakes without blaming others.
Likewise, supervisors need to know how to receive these reports and what to do afterward. They also need to be trained on how to respond to a breakdown without blaming or berating the operator—even if the operator made a mistake. The supervisor must work with the operator to learn what happened and help keep it from happening again.
When you teach your whole crew to communicate with respect for each other, they’ll start treating the machines with more respect, too. Then you’ll see less downtime, longer machine lifetimes, and more productive crews.08
Choose the Right Operator Training Program
When it comes to training your operators, you've got to choose content carefully. Not everyone understands how to take care of heavy equipment or what types of situations operators might encounter in the Dirt World. The last thing you want to do is waste money on a training program that doesn't work on top of what you're already paying to repair and replace your machines. You need a training solution that works.