Zen and the basics of fleet maintenance

by David Hubbard

On a weekend in August I fixed an outdoor electrical socket that had been loose and rattling for about three years. The entire operation amounted to resetting and tightening three screws and took all of five minutes. I then got around to repairing a line in the sprinkling system that had leaked since spring. This raises the question of how I, of all people, dare to discuss the issue of maintenance.

I can say I have paid the price on more than a few occasions for neglecting to take care of business both before and after issues arose, but I am not impervious to the importance of preventative maintenance, and I am certainly trying to be more diligent.

My experiences remind me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a best seller of 30 years ago that I am sure only a few read, and fewer truly understood. I gave it a shot without gaining much enlightenment at the time.

With the subject of maintenance commanding much our attention these days at BUSRide, I revisited the philosophy of Robert M. Pirsig. He says maintenance can seem like dull and tedious drudgery for some or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime for others. It all depends on attitude. Somewhere in there he posed two basic approaches to maintenance by two very distinct personality types I must embody: the romantic and the mechanic.

The romantic approach is to basically deny the necessity of maintenance and simply hope for the best with property and equipment. When problems do occur the romantic becomes extremely frustrated and is at the mercy of professional mechanics stepping in to make the repairs. The mechanic on the other hand takes a more classic approach, relying on his intrinsic and rational problem solving skills to diagnose and fix the problem. The romantic is a big-picture kind of guy, the idea man. The classic type needs to know the details, understand the inner workings and feel in tune with the physical aspects of a situation.

Joel Levitt, professional maintenance trainer and author of Basics of Fleet Maintenance, says resolving such personality conflicts is at the core of what he does.

“A manager can try to control what happens and plan, or just let it happen and repair what breaks when it breaks,” he writes. “The debate of whether to manage or not to manage has raged since the beginning of the automotive era.”

For over 25 years Levitt has trained over 10,000 maintenance leaders from 3,000 organizations in 20 countries. He is president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services all sized clients on a wide range of maintenance issues.

Making his points easier to grasp than Pirsig, but as philosophical in his own right, Levitt too says the most important reason to apply the basics is to improve the quality of life for everyone in the company.

Basics of Fleet Maintenance is comprehensive in explaining why fleet management is critical to every factor in the business model. Levitt promotes fleet management in its entirety, noting thorough and methodical management has as much to do with success and profitability as it does for maintaining safe and compliant vehicles.

In addition to the basic tenets, Levitt incorporates questionnaires, assessments and case studies to give managers and maintenance supervisors all the information they need to safely, effectively and reliably manage a fleet of any size.

His guidance leaves no stone unturned as he plows through every aspect of the process. The dollars-and-cents of decision making, preventive maintenance, worker productivity, loss prevention, shop design, planning and scheduling, vendors, fuel, tire management and leasing are only a few of his topics.

Insisting on excellence in management and maintenance, Levitt’s points in Basics of Fleet Maintenance are particularly imperative for a tough economy. He encourages operators to resist the tendency to cut maintenance to trim expenses in favor of reliability and safety. By keeping equipment longer with less maintenance, he warns we could be stuck with our property and equipment — my outlet and your buses — for a lot longer than we ever expected.