The Quintessential Blog

What are good ideas if you don't care to share them?

August 29, 2017 BY PATRICK ALBINA

Human Capital as Maintenance Policy

In the earlier part of my career as an Aeronautical Engineer in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), I invested much of my time maintaining military aircraft, ranging from fast jets, helicopters, large airlifters and VIP transports.  I was fortunate to be mentored by a variety of senior engineers, technicians and some world leading experts.  I was taught that ‘maintenance is everything’!  For the avoidance of doubt, the act of ‘maintenance’ that I refer to is the combined efforts of engineers, aircrew, technicians, logisticians, trainers and management staff in assuring an aircraft’s integrity, safety, availability and continued capability.

It recently occurred to me that it is not uncommon that we have a greater focus and resolve on the upkeep of capital equipment than we do in human capital.  In my current career as a Management Consultant & Executive Coach, I come across too many organisations who are very reluctant to invest in the maintenance and upkeep of their people when there are no perceivable issues, yet are all too willing to throw money at a crisis in order to solve a problem that could have been all too easily prevented if appropriate action had been taken earlier.

Every time we board our flight, perhaps we should spare a moment to consider the significant planning and effort that is invested in highly valuable assets such as aircraft to ensure your safe and comfortable arrival at your destination.  Then we should ask ourselves, why do we not invest similar effort in maintaining the human capital that comprises our workforce, ensuring their ongoing wellness, capability and performance.  For those non-engineers reading this article, I’d like to introduce the following concepts in maintenance policy:

Corrective maintenance is the rectification activity performed after detection of a failure.  It seeks to restore an asset to a condition in which it can perform its intended function.

Preventive maintenance is an activity performed for the purpose of proactively maintaining equipment, either before failures occur or before they develop into major defects. This is accomplished through prognosis, systematic inspection, monitoring, detection and the anticipation of incipient failures.

Relative to corrective maintenance, preventative maintenance is a leap of faith.  In preventative maintenance, there are no obvious defects to be ‘fixed’, there is no crisis that is happening and there is no immediate feedback to indicate whether the actions undertaken have indeed been effective.  In fact, when maintenance is done right, everything should work as per its intended function and nothing appears out of the ordinary.  However when maintenance is done poorly (or not at all), it’s anybody’s guess as to what might happen.  By its very nature, the results of poor maintenance is insidious as it is unknown whether a defect will appear next flight, or in 10000 flights.  In fact, there have been several well documented cases where catastrophic aircraft accidents have been linked to poor maintenance performed over 20 years earlier.

The conduct of preventative maintenance is a large reason why we are able to step on to an aircraft and have great confidence that we will arrive at our destination safely and in comfort.  So how do we go when it comes to the defining maintenance policy for human capital?

There appears to be a predisposition within industry to value productivity and profit over maintenance and support, so it’s not surprising that there is limited focus placed on the development, well-being and upkeep of human capital.  I find this highly troubling.  The world we live and work in is quickly becoming increasingly complex and the demands placed on us are relentless and unyielding.  We continually need to achieve greater levels of productivity with fewer resources, and work-life balance has, in a very short space of time, become work-life integration, i.e., we never really leave work.

If human capital were an aircraft subjected to these increased performance demands, we would certainly be implementing a rigorous maintenance policy to ensure continued high performance and safety.  However, when it comes to human capital, we are likely to wait until something adverse happens before we take action.  When we do take action, they are often reactive measures (‘corrective maintenance’).  In the wrap-up, do we learn from the event and implement a proactive program (‘preventative maintenance’) to minimise the possibility of that event occurring again?  I would suggest that we are likely not to, after all, the crisis has been treated and any evidence of the problems have vanished…on the surface at least.

When we fail to take preventative maintenance for human capital, over time individuals, teams and organisations become run-down, weary, dysfunctional, disillusioned and toxic.  We are really only compelled to take action once there is a crisis, specifically when there is clear evidence to justify action and the expenditure of budget.  Furthermore, we tend to reward ourselves and celebrate the resolution of the crisis, yet there is little acknowledgement when proactive measures are taken that prevents the crisis from occurring in the first place.

In aviation, the conduct of corrective maintenance in preference to preventative maintenance is fraught with danger, and it would only be a matter of time before something catastrophic would occur.  Both types of maintenance have to work in balance, and those who work in aviation commonly understand this.  So what do preventative maintenance and corrective maintenance look like in terms of human capital?  Here are some examples I can think of (certainly not an exhaustive list):

Preventative Maintenance for Human Capital

  • Resilience training
  • Health & well-being programs
  • Coaching programs
  • Professional development
  • Capability development & planning
  • Career management (as opposed to managing jobs)
  • Succession planning
  • Strategic HR
  • Focus on service and value

Corrective Maintenance on Human Capital

  • Performance management
  • Restructuring
  • Downsizing
  • Redundancies – layoffs
  • Budget cuts
  • Default to contract over relationship
  • Focus on maximising profit and minimising cost

Which of these lists fosters the vitality of individuals, positive workplaces and supportive communities? Which one is more conducive to emotional and mental well-being?  Ultimately, which one leads to sustained organisational performance, resilience and growth of capability through its human capital?  I invite readers to contribute their thoughts and opinions by building on this list.

I work with you to build your human capital and develop organisational capability.  Please feel free to browse my website and/or contact me to find out more.