Home > The Lean Post> The Hunt for Alligator Eggs
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

The Hunt for Alligator Eggs

by Ellis New
September 20, 2013

The Hunt for Alligator Eggs

by Ellis New
September 20, 2013 | Comments (2)

When I think about problems and abnormalities, I think about alligators. Like alligator eggs, which are about the size of a goose egg, problems often start small. Of course, if you wait a while and ignore them, those harmless-looking “eggs” will hatch. Wait a little longer, and the hatchlings will be swimming around, growing stronger, and well on their way to becoming six-footers.

When a six-footer bites you, it hurts. And when it occurs on a piece of equipment, that’s often the first time maintenance gets called in to take a look. But in the early stages of development, abnormalities are usually not doing enough damage to stop your machine. So the operators just keep clearing those alligators away 15 or 20 times a day. Keep ignoring them, and the next thing you know one of them is going to rear its ugly head and you’ll find that it’s grown up to be an 18-footer. And that noise you’ve been hearing and ignoring? It will take out a critical piece of equipment that you need to keep running in order to fulfill a contract order for your key customer. I’ve had some personal experience with that, when people’s jobs were on the line. So I know how the cost of taking out an egg compares with trying to fix an operation that’s been broken by an 18-footer.

That’s where TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) comes in. TPM is often thought of as the equivalent of implementing predictive and preventive maintenance to keep things running smoothly; and perhaps as a way of applying lean thinking to the maintenance department so they can fix things faster with less waste.

Those statements are partially true. But at its heart TPM aims for total asset reliability, and requires total employee involvement. Like lean, TPM is a process that’s systematic, data-driven, and engages those closest to the work. Achieving true lean flow is not possible without it. And TPM, used effectively, lets you transition out of reactive maintenance and create low-cost—even free—capacity.

So it’s a lot more than predictive, preventive, or “lean” maintenance. A fair analogy would go something like this:

  • changing your car’s oil regularly is “preventive maintenance”
  • analyzing the oil would be “predictive maintenance”
  • knowing the engine and understanding what keeps it running smoothly would be “autonomous maintenance”
  • performing all of the above is TPM

Where I come from, we started calling TPM a “gator hunt.” Our objective was to find as many alligator eggs as we could, because the eggs don’t bite at all. But they are hard to find. To do it, you need to develop a partnership between production, maintenance, and engineering. That includes training operators how to properly operate and maintain their equipment so that they know what to look for, listen for, smell for, and feel for—that’s autonomous maintenance, one of the pillars of TPM. (By the way, that’s not “autonomous fix and repair,” or getting operators to do repairs so you can eliminate maintenance.) Autonomous maintenance is a rigorous process that involves operators and promotes systematic restoration of equipment by controlling abnormalities and losses to the point of eliminating them.

You also have to empower operators to use their knowledge. And that means that when they call you and say, “Something’s not right about that gear box,” you don’t say, “Hey, don’t call me up anymore if that machine’s still running.” In other words, TPM is a true cultural change – a change in everyday behavior across your organization.

Leaders often ask me, “How do you go about getting buy-in from operators who don’t consider this to be their responsibility, and from maintenance staff who believe they’re being asked to give up key parts of their jobs?” My answer, based on 20 years of experience with TPM, is this: You won’t have any problem getting buy-in. Your people have wanted to do this for a long time. When the goals, structures, and methods of TPM are communicated effectively, any resistance you encounter is the exception, not the norm. Maintenance and production people who are worth their salt know that working the “old way” (without a TPM culture) is not the way to run a business.

Not every alligator egg grows up to be an eighteen-footer, but guess what every eighteen-footer was at one time in its life cycle? The more eggs you take out of the process, the easier you’re going to make everyone’s jobs, and the less likely you are statistically to get bitten by a six-footer or an eighteen-footer. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Search Posts:
Lean Problem Solving
Sammy Obara
Learning to See
By Mike Rother and John Shook
Was this post... Click all that apply
21 people say YES
31 people say YES
23 people say YES
10 people say YES
Related Posts
2 Comments | Post a Comment
Olga Flory September 23, 2013
What a great metaphor! From now on, every time I come across a problem, I'll have an image of a gator's head sticking from the water. Puts things in perspective and helps one develop a sense of urgency in dealing with problems :)

Reply »

Matt November 13, 2019

It's the best analogy I've ever heard for problems in a plant and an easy one to communicate to the entire workforce.  Everyone can understand this a quickly takes you to the need for cleaning as a form of inspection.  Thanks Ellis!

Reply »

Search Posts:
Lean Problem Solving
Sammy Obara
Learning to See
By Mike Rother and John Shook
7 Things Coaches Need to Get Over
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean