Maintenance Management: New Attitudes About Purchasing

They were the most comfortable shoes ever. Forget that they were falling apart; the top laceholders were ripped off, one shoe had a split down the side, and the other was about to lose its sole.

One day I asked my wife where they were. She announced that she had finally thrown "those old filthy things away" and bought me a new pair.

How could she? I loved those shoes. I ranted and I raved. And when I saw the price of the new pair I really went ballistic.

I wore the new shoes, and they didn't seem quite right. But pretty soon they started winning me over. They didn't flop when I walked down a grocery store aisle. When I played basketball in the driveway, they stuck to my feet and did not fall off. After a few days I realized I liked them better. I wouldn't want to go back to the old shoes even if I could.

Maintenance equipment can be like that old pair of shoes. A lot of it has been used for so long and has become so comfortable that maintenance departments cannot see the shortcomings.

Bells and whistles When looking at new equipment, people often can see only two things, neither of which is very appealing-having to get used to all of the new bells and whistles, and the price. Many features or safety devices were not available 30 years ago, when the machine the maintenance crew is using may have been built. A new piece of equipment also may be unfamiliar, and you might conclude that it is inferior to the equipment you currently are using.

Often, these differences stem from construction advances. But for most people, replacing solid-steel parts with plastic does not always seem to be an improvement.

Price can be another obstacle, especially if you have not bought equipment in a long time. For instance, a school needs to buy a new pickup truck. But at a price of $25,000 or more for a stripped-down model, it would take three years to save enough to buy it with the present budget. So instead of buying new, the school spends another $5,000 to fix the old one again. It will be "good enough"-that is until it breaks down again.

With my old shoes, my wife stepped in to buy new ones. But no one is going to do that with maintenance equipment. At some point you have to stop spending large amounts of money-and time-fixing up old equipment.

Bucking the trend The maintenance industry has its own "old shoe syndrome"-over-reliance on familiarity and sameness. People tend to buy what they have bought before. Some physical-plant directors buy one brand of vehicle because they have been buying that particular brand for 30 years. In other cases, they had a bad experience with a certain brand 30 years ago and refuse to try it again.

For instance, 30 years ago, facility managers were fairly limited in the brands, sizes and types of tractors available to perform grounds work. Most had familiar brand names that had been around for years.

Today, the choices are almost unlimited. Less-recognized names have replaced the old familiar ones. Manufacturers are building better, more innovative machines. In reality, the situation has improved for both the consumer and manufacturer.

Purchasing power Purchasing the right equipment should rely on three basic principles:

-Work on increasing the budget for equipment purchases every year. Even if you do not think you need new equipment, innovations often are available on items you already own that will enhance the efficiency of your maintenance department. And prices always are rising-if a maintenance department does not look to increase its budget each year, its purchasing power will decline.

-Set up a long-term replacement schedule for all equipment. All types of equipment have industry standards for life-cycle usage. Use those industry standards to create a replacement schedule that is realistic, yet aggressive. Sometimes you can lose equipment unexpectedly from an accident or because a major repair costs more than the unit is worth. This, however, is an unusual occurrence.

-Do not automatically buy more of the same old thing. Look at all of the options and, more important, look at the true usage the various pieces of equipment are getting. No piece of equipment is more costly than one that sits in storage and never gets used.

I once worked for an organization that had a standardized purchasing program for new buildings. The custodial department in a new building received five regular-speed floor machines and two eraser-cleaning machines automatically. But the building was almost entirely carpeted-they did not need floor machines; they needed an extraction system or two. And they did not need the eraser cleaners-there were no chalkboards in the building. All the writing surfaces were markerboards. The school also got some slow, heavy, large upright vacuums that were quickly slid into custodial closets never to be seen again.

Buying smart With all the purchasing choices available, it is possible to find exactly what you need, often at a price that is very competitive. You probably will not be able to buy equipment for the price you paid 10 years ago, but that new machine that costs twice as much as its predecessor may be three times more efficient.

Whether it is replacing a tattered pair of shoes or an aging inventory of maintenance equipment, it is harder than ever to buy smart. But good decisions can lead to more comfortable feet-and a smoother running maintenance department.

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