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January 2012

What We've Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

With a little face time and dialogue (and a lot of beer) the vehicle maintenance guys can get along with the operators...really.
Written by Tim Sweeney | 0 comment

"I don't know much about cars."
-NASCAR driver Cole Trickle in the movie Days of Thunder.

"Neither does any other driver."
-Crew-Chief Harry Hogge

That scene between Tom Cruise and Robert Duval in "Days of Thunder" may be an exaggeration of how things work in the ski industry, but a lack of communication-and sometimes respect-between those who operate heavy machinery and the mechanics responsible for the upkeep of those machines is a very common theme in the ski industry.

Ray Banta, heavy equipment manager at Mountain Creek, N.J., began his career operating a snowcat. He is quick to point out that the blame is never solely on one side. "It's give and take on every level. Mechanics aren't drivers, and operators aren't mechanics. It's two worlds colliding," he says. "The mechanics don't understand why the machine is always breaking, and operators don't understand why this thing can't be fixed.

"At our resort, mechanics know how it works and what it's supposed to do, but they are not operators on any level. Just like I wouldn't call my operators mechanics in any way, shape or form."

Ken Gaitor, snowmaking/grooming manager at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, W. Va., admits that personality clashes between mechanics and operators are probably inevitable. But he does his best to prevent them early on by weeding out potential problem children during the hiring process. "When we hire and train, it is always stressed that getting along and having a positive attitude is paramount," Gaitor says.

Because he believes face-to-face time between mechanics and operators is critical, Gaitor makes every effort to build it into the group's work schedule. "Mechanics who can listen and understand why a malfunctioning wiper switch may ruin an operator's whole week are great," Gaitor says. "An operator who knows what a pain it is to replace a wiper motor-perhaps because he helped do it once-may take more care and actually get out and clean the wipers off."

But, he cautions, that approach only works to a point; mechanics generally aren't "people persons," and operators can be touchy by nature, with plenty of emotion tied up in their work. In some cases, a supervisor has to mediate to solve problems, and "if all that fails, I like to buy the mechanics some nice new tools and buy the operators some nice new beers," he says.

As Gaitor hinted in his wiper motor example, operators with even a bit of mechanical experience can go a long way toward fostering team relationships. That is precisely the approach Mountain Creek leans on. Because the season starts relatively late in New Jersey, Banta keeps operators busy during the autumn with mundane mechanical jobs, such as replacing track belts or grousers. He believes this offers a great chance for operators to learn about the machines they drive. Fulltime mechanics still take care of the "bread-and-butter" major service items during summer.

"The key is having the operators do work that allows them to see how their actions affect the machine," says Banta, who manages four mechanics and 15 operators. "They take a bit more pride in the machine and the work that was done. It improves the communications between the groups, giving the operators a better understanding of how to explain their machine, rather than saying, 'It just doesn't work.' The mechanics respect them that way, too, because the operators have been lying on the ground doing that maintenance work."

And the operators gain respect for the mechanics. Performing tedious jobs like replacing a set of flaps and combs on a tiller, or a belt or two on a set of tracks, shows operators how time-consuming the work can be. Doing repair work on damage that results from situations that could have been prevented is a perfect way to encourage the operator to avoid making the same mistake over and over. "Doing jobs like these hopefully gets the operators thinking more before they drive over jagged rocks or back into trees," Banta says. "They begin to learn what goes into maintaining the equipment. More importantly, it provides a sense of ownership."

The key is to open up lines of communication between the two groups before the snow begins to fly, which will go a long way toward preventing chaos during the season. "They may even gain a little respect for each other," Banta says. "Just watch out for the flying wrenches for the first few weeks. Some of them communicate in different ways."

Face time matters. That's one reason that Logan Stewart, mountain ops manager at Timberline Lodge, Ore., like managers at many resorts, schedules a mechanic to work the swing shift. "This gives the mechanics a better view of what is actually happening at night when cats are breaking," Stewart says.

"It's the hand-off that often comes in the form of a cat log or note saying, 'My stuff is broken again!!' that doesn't help the cause," he adds. "That's why face-to-face communication helps." If possible, having the swing-shift mechanic operate a snowcat is another way to spend that person's time more efficiently and put him in touch with the root of mechanical problems.

Stewart says Timberline's mechanics rarely get enough time in a machine to work out the kinks and become familiar with it, which would likely help them diagnose problems. "Some cat problems only show up after an hour or two of running," he says. "The next day, mechanics fire them up, drive them 50 feet, and nothing is wrong. Problem solved, in their eyes. That night, groomers come in and wrestle with the same problem they had the last three nights. It's a tricky one because you have to have a trustworthy mechanic and a crew who supports him actually operating the cat. Perspective is the key."

Steve Kruse, general manager of mountain operations at Timberline, agrees that having greater overall perspective would make the lives of both operators and mechanics easier. "Both of those groups have different jobs to do," he says. "But if they were more cognizant of each other, they could make each others' jobs easier."

Kruse is quick to point out that there is more at stake than simply having your employees get along swimmingly. As he signs purchase orders for thousands of gallons worth of fuel-the price of which continues to rise-Kruse has the big picture in mind when he (or an engineer from a snowcat manufacturer) talks to his operators about running their machines a certain way to potentially save fuel and still do the job effectively. "Saving a gallon an hour would save us a ton of money overall, but it's not easy for everyone to see things on that level," Kruse says. "My job is to make all these people's jobs easier and make them successful, and at the same time make my boss's life easy." That's a tall order.

Clifford Mann, the outside area manager at Mammoth Mountain, began operating machines on and around the Sierra resort four decades ago. He's seen his fair share of operator/mechanic dynamics and chuckled when asked about the topic. "Neither one can survive without the other," he says simply. "Some cat operators get on the wrong side of the mechanics on day one and they never recover."

As a manager, Mann says his challenge is communicating to both groups. Despite cutting his teeth on all kinds of heavy machinery, he realizes that accountability, for everyone, is crucial. "It's true for the mechanics," Mann says. "But a mechanic also needs to see that the operator will be held accountable if he damages a snowcat, and know that there is some discipline. The hardest part is that as a driver, you just want to get the job done. In doing that, there are a lot of times where you can be abusive toward machinery. You have to strike a balance."

Mann says that when he began operating cats and other heavy equipment at Mammoth, he was introduced to the mechanics and told, "These are the guys who get to fix everything that you break." With that in mind, he makes sure that great attention is paid to how an operator communicates what is wrong with his machine. "It has to be hands-on and the operator has to be very specific and timely about what is broken," he says. "But it's an age-old problem no matter what you do. As an operator, it's very important to have a relationship with the guys who are doing the repairs."

And operators need to have a good relationship with their machines. To that end, at Mammoth, if a snowcat breaks down and there are no spare machines available to operate, the driver of the broken cat will sit and work with the mechanic who is fixing it, so that he sees the work being done. Operators are also responsible for cleaning and washing their cats so the machines are ready for the next shift.

Like Timberline, Mammoth schedules a swing-shift mechanic, and Mann agrees that this role is an important part of the communication chain. At least one mechanic is on hand 6:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m., with the cats running from 4 p.m.-9 a.m. Of course, having a mechanic on call 24/7 would be even better. "We get a lot of feedback from guys on the graveyard shift, saying they'd love to have a mechanic," Mann says.

Terrain parks have upped the ante in all this. Feature-building work puts increased pressure on both drivers and cats. "What we're building in terrain parks is incredibly stressful on the machines," Mann says. "Mechanics will get a cat in for a repair and say they haven't seen anything like this. They look at the operators and say: 'What are you guys doing with these things?' So we're definitely trying to teach the operators how to get a lot of work out of the machine while doing a minimal amount of damage to it."

If there is any consolation for resorts that suffer from testy operator/mechanic communications, it's this: You are not alone. "I would presume that this is an issue in almost any maintenance shop you go to around the world, whether it be in the ski industry or not," Timberline's Stewart says. "Any time you have one person responsible for upkeep on other persons' operating equipment, you're going to have this issue."