Hydraulics 101: The Importance Of The Unimportant Detail

how to heat hydraulic oil safelyDetails matter in hydraulics. A lot. Take a deceptively simple task like topping off the hydraulic tank. There’s one right way to do it, and 101 ways to screw it up.

Just in the last week I’ve had two emails from people with stories about cross-compartment contamination of the hydraulic tank. In the first, the hydraulic tank was topped off with diesel – by an apprentice who was apparently clueless; and in the second, the hydraulic tank was topped off with gear oil – by an owner-operator who foolishly thought whatever oil he had on hand would do.

Needless to say, in both cases, the stupidity involved wasn’t appreciated by the hydraulic system; it stopped working.

Written procedures – with pictures if necessary, of which I am a BIG advocate of, can help a lot. But ONLY if they are read, understood and adhered to. And if you hand someone a procedure then walk away, how do you know if they didn’t pay attention to it; that they filled the hydraulic tank with diesel instead of VG68 hydraulic oil?

Truth is of course, unless you check everything yourself, you don’t – well, not before the hydraulics stop working, that is. But there is one way to know if the lights are on but nobody’s home: the embedded ‘idiot test’ – a step within the procedure that has nothing to do with the task at hand, but which instantly tells you if the person following it, did not pay attention.

Rock star David Lee Roth of Van Halen fame was notorious for his insistence that Van Halen’s contracts with promoters contained a clause specifying that a bowl of M&M’s had to be provided-with every single brown candy removed. Despite how it might appear, this was not another whimsical demand from some arrogant rock star; it was an intentionally constructed ‘idiot test’, as Roth himself explains:

“Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine,18-wheeler trucks full of gear…. There were many technical errors. Girders couldn’t support the weight, doors weren’t big enough… the contract read like the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment and so many human beings required to make it function. So, just as a little test, buried in the middle… Article 126, the no brown M&M’s clause. When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl, well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed there’d be problems. The mistakes could be life-threatening; once, we found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements in the contract and the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.”  (From the book: ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Dr. Atul Gawande).

Van Halen very cleverly embedded a device in their contract procedures that warned them if the people responsible for their execution had not paid attention; the discrete ‘idiot test’ It’s a cunning idea – and one that, where possible, I’m now incorporating in procedures and checklists I write for clients. It’s something for you to ponder too.
Bottom line: not paying attention to apparently unimportant details is a mistake. And to discover six other costly mistakes you want to be sure to avoid, get “Six Costly Mistakes Most Hydraulics Users Make… And How You Can Avoid Them!” available for FREE download here.

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