RL Magazine
Technical Trends: The Care and Feeding of Technicians
by L. Bryant Underwood

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The truth is tough sometimes. But it is the truth nonetheless and the truth is this; the bane of all depot repair management is the struggle of dealing with repair technicians and keeping them productive.

This is a truism most managers know, but strain to understand how to address. I had the opportunity recently to review and meet with the managers of a repair operation that were near their wits end. They had been working for months to develop some form of stable and productive technical repair. It was just not working. What they were missing was that repair, especially technical troubleshooting is a very complex amalgamation of skill, equipment and luck. There is no one magic way to get an operation sorted, but let me share the three key tactics that have most often worked for me.

BS-Proof Leadership: I really considered alternate wording here. But other words do not convey the crisp meaning nearly as well as this. Be aware that technicians can be an assertive lot. They often delight in probing and testing those managing them. They will do this by postulating various excuses and assertions as to why the work isn’t getting done. This may seem deceptive. But really, It is not. They are just questioning you in order to find your limits as a manager. In a sense they are applying their troubleshooting techniques to you, trying to learn and understand their boss. In a way, you should be encouraged.

To be sure, the number one requirement to managing your troubleshooting and diagnostics technicians is to gain their respect. To accomplish this, they need to know you respect and value the very complex and challenging work they perform. In addition, they need to respect you, your management and that your council is of value and that you can and will work to make them successful. If you are a first line supervisor or production manager struggling to stay ahead of all the various excuses and other nonsense the technician team can test you with-you will be exasperated. But if you get into the trenches of the work they have and help them grow in their skills and performance, you will gain a tremendous level of commitment and support. That commitment is powerful and will often be THE deciding factor to a satisfied Customer.

From this, don’t assume I mean that every manager has to be some whiz-bang super tech themselves. No, not at all. I saw a manager that was weak in his technical skills but really loved the staff working for him. From that care, the manager pressed every other department to support the technician team. From training, to materials and floor support everyone knew that management expected the technician team to be supported. In turn, the technicians were expected to and HELD TO PERFORM.

Structure: Short of the cold snap of strong management leadership, structure is the most critical element to address. In most every case of poor operational performance that I have seen, the greatest benefits result from a better organizational structure. The critical need here is to recognize that for a team of troubleshooting technicians to perform on a sustaining basis, the time they spend troubleshooting MUST be limited. There are very few technicians that know enough about any device to spend more than 15 minutes performing troubleshooting or repair. The leading symptoms an operation will display as the result of poor structure are;

  • Bone piles, large backlog of products that have aged like fine wine waiting to be repaired.
  • High Scrap Rates, as the Technician staff run out of ideas they resort to shotgunning. Parts are blindly swapped and the boards become overworked. In the end the product is total destroyed and becomes trash.
  • Poor Shop Floor Control, since the staff has few controls they will attempt to fix several units at once. This results from an effort to use the measurements from other defectives or their parts as a tactic for better yield in the shortest time. All that this will really produce is mixed inventory or worse phantom and lost units. Costly time is then wasted chasing down missing units and responding to angry Customers.

With an updated organization much of this can be averted. The organization changes are in the form of three essentials; Single Unit Flow, Multi-Leveled Response and Limited Repair.

Single unit flow is the classic Lean Sigma tactic as a first response. Often this is already in force or was tried. If it was tried the tactic is typically not enforced. Single unit flow, is just not effective unless it is part of a balanced organization change. There is no good way to have a successful repair operation without single unit flow. The main reason for this is that you will never be able to control TAKT time without it. However you should be using single unit flow with the other structure changes. This will create clear and powerful synergies of production.

Multi-Level Response is an organizational change that recognizes the differing level of technical skills the staff possesses. In essence, recognize not all are the best at troubleshooting. It is also a method to help manage compensation and ensure a career path. Both are good things that your HR department will like. Most operations will have three levels of Repair Technician. The first level will be the most productive and have the highest yields. They will make wide use of reflow and replacing of cracked components or touch-up bad solder. The level two technicians will be able to accomplish more detailed troubleshooting and tuning or adjustment. The level three folks are really Engineering Level Technicians. All but the most horribly smoked boards should be able to be repaired by these savants of repair.

Limited Repair is simply the practice of setting a limit on the time a technician can spend in performing both the diagnostics and the repair. For most technicians and product complexity I often set this level at no more than 10 minutes or two repair attempts per technician. In short, if one technician cannot repair a product in 10 minutes total time with no more than two attempts, then the product is moved up to the next higher level technician. This is a powerful production control. The reason is that in an eight hours shift any technician should be processing at least 45 units with a target yield of good units in the 60-80% range. In the end your worst case unit should never have more than 30 minutes of troubleshooting time. The exception is that if you have a very long test cycle. In that case, you can amend the single flow process. This is done by placing one unit under automated test while the other unit is being repaired. But that will be the only exception to single unit flow and even then there should only be one unit at a time under repair.

Tools, for product to be repaired you need as a minimum;

  • Proper training
  • Test equipment
  • Spare parts

This is the triad of support vital for a successful and sustaining repair operation. I stress sustaining. The most often neglected ‘tool’ in a struggling RL operation is training. Having good training is often seen as an unnecessary cost that should be eliminated. But in reality is the only way to maintain sustained success. If you have an operation that is performing inconsistently it is typically because the good performance periods are only accomplished from the effort of the dedicated few. When these team members become ill, or take vacation or worse-quit, then the entire operation suffers. Having training will help provide the intellectual nourishment to keep the team performing but also help the team understanding the objectives so that everyone can help pull in the same direction.

Every challenge is different. I hope this has helped you develop some thoughts as to how your operation can be improved and produce a stronger, better troubleshooting team.

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