Starting a preventive maintenance program at Airbnb

A discussion with Joe Tormos–Facilities Engineering Manager for Hines at Airbnb–about the three main components of a preventive maintenance program.

Gridium: Hello everyone and welcome. Our guest today is Joe Tormos. Joe has been running buildings for 11 years and is currently in charge of all repairs, maintenance and operations at Airbnb’s headquarters here in San Francisco. Operational excellence has been a core values at Hines, and for 60 years it has been delivering unparalleled service, asset management and energy efficiency in buildings all over the world.

Joe: Excellent, yeah great. I’m happy to be here.

Gridium: As for Gridium, buildings use our software to fine-tune operations. Our chat today will focus on 3 main components of a preventative maintenance program and what Joe is doing to start up preventive maintenance at Airbnb. So Joe, let’s get started.

What do you like most about running the facility operations at a large tech company here in Silicon Valley?

Joe: Well, it’s kind of a little different than typical building engineering in that you have one client and it’s really a new frontier for Hines to be getting into facility management. We kinda’ grow our business and are able to take care of things that we don’t normally do–you know, talk about kitchen facilities and IT databases and stuff like that–but, it’s very interesting to get into a field that’s really blowing up and their needs and demands are a lot different than traditional building occupants and clients. So, it’s a lot of… it’s very new and up and coming.

Gridium: As you know Joe, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying one of those delicious lunches at Airbnb. What is it like to run a tech headquarters with such a large kitchen operation?

Joe: You know, we’re kind of getting into an area where we’re not used to dealing with these huge kitchen operations, or some of these commercial kitchens that serve not just like a restaurant serves a couple hundred people, but these places serve thousands of people a day. So, you have to keep in mind that their critical operations are a lot more important than just the…

Gridium: Lights.

Joe: …right, building operations. So it’s definitely, yeah exactly.

Gridium: And it’s all day long, right?

Joe: It is all day long: breakfast, lunch and dinner, 5 days a week. So, they really keep it going and minimizing downtime for them is huge and critical. And they really use the… these are top-of-the-line chefs and they’re using really top-notch equipment, so we try to keep them operating at their best capacity. It definitely provides a lot of challenges, but you get the benefit from really good food!

Gridium: Of course. You just had mentioned the difference between base building operations and kitchen facilities. What are some of the specific pieces of equipment which you need to think about as part of running the kitchen at Airbnb, compared to the base building operations?

Joe: Well, yeah. The equipment that’s in the kitchen is very unique and usually that, Hines defines as above-standard equipment, so that’s ovens, skillets, ranges… even up to the hood systems, exhaust-grease hood systems. They have a grease separation systems to keep the cooking grease from getting into the sewer stream… so, all those things are kind of not what we typically deal with or we’ve dealt with them but on much smaller scales. These commercial kitchens are enormous and the volume they put out is unbelievable.

Gridium: As part of the responsibilities you have for facilities engineering at Airbnb, and when I think about the differences between your job now and running a classic skyscraper in downtown San Francisco full of accountants and lawyers, what are some of the challenges in the new setting at a tech campus with a kitchen? Is it service levels? Is it retooling space for different uses as had been originally designed? Maybe it’s the construction management?

Joe: It’s a big challenge.

You always have different clients and usually in a building you have multiple ones that you kind of have to deal with. But, kind of in the tech world they really build around this culture and employee experience and we’re a part of that team–facilities is part of that team, along with security and stuff like that. But they really want the employees to feel like they’re taken care of, not have to deal with these regular things that you’d have to deal with in other settings, where they kind of get to focus on their work, but it’s also an enjoyable space to be in every day. So, in that, we have to vary the levels of service that we have to give and provide–it’s a lot of above and beyond.

Hines is very customer service-based, which is why we’re a great fit for it; but it also takes it to another level of we’re really getting into the tech company’s culture. If they need to change their space and they change their mind and then they’re going off in more directions and they’re hiring a lot of people all at once–we kind of have to adapt to that a lot quicker than we normally would. Some of these processes that are tried and true, that we’ve used for years, might not work or they might need to be adjusted to really cater to these clients.

Gridium: You mentioned that the space needs to be enjoyable. Can you help our audience picture what the Airbnb HQ looks like? How do you describe it?

Joe: I mean, it’s really an open office concept for the most part, and specifically with Airbnb. It’s very open office so everybody kind of has actually a lot smaller space than just a bunch of cubicles, but… that means you are always interacting with the people around you. Then they have these–Airbnb specifically–they have these meeting rooms that are set up like listings on their site from around the world. So you can… and they re-gear them towards, make them into conference rooms or small meeting rooms, so you feel like you’re in Greece or in Italy or France, or that sort of thing, so…

Gridium: That’s awesome.

Joe: It’s really a very unique space and a lot of people want to go on tours here to check it out. It makes for a neat environment. You can feel like the whole idea is they belong anywhere, so you can go work in a cafe where it feels like you’re at a really nice cafe outdoors with the windows open you can do your work there, but still be at work.

Gridium: And when you think about launching a preventive maintenance program, what are some of the key benefits? I know that Hines considers some of the key benefits of a preventive maintenance program to be the building equipment exceeding expected lifespans, optimal energy management, and of course, minimal unplanned shutdowns. How do you think about the main benefits of a preventive maintenance program?

Joe: Yeah, I mean in this environment, a lot of it’s very similar in where you’re protecting the client’s investment: they’ve spent a lot of money on the space, they want it to look great, they want it to operate great, they want the people to feel like they’re in an environment where they can be productive and flourish and grow as a company, grow as employees. That is very similar, so we kinda’ make sure that we’re protecting those investments, we’re operating invisibly–that’s kind of a big thing that I look at where the sign of a good engineering program or preventive maintenance program is that you never experience where things are down…

Gridium: Yeah.

Joe: …or where, that’s the idea. It doesn’t always happen that way, of course.

Gridium: Right.

Joe: Especially when it comes to the maintenance of kitchen equipment. You know, being down for a day is a huge undertaking and a huge cost to the company of Airbnb, specifically. And they have to make adjustments when the equipment goes down. So, that’s why we try to work with them for when we can actually work on the equipment, how often we need to do it, and along the way, make sure that it’s operating correctly–and that they are operating it correctly, which is also a challenge.

Gridium: Right. So, walk me through this Joe: when you’re starting a preventive maintenance program, what’s square one?

Joe: Yeah, I mean that’s kind of exactly what we’ve done here. We’re asked to do this from the client, they’ve never had any prior experience or they haven’t set anything up yet. So, really you have to walk into a building space that’s unknown, essentially, and start gathering information of: okay, what do we have, what are the leases say or what we’re responsible for? Get the basic information, at least this is like equipment lists, you can get the serial numbers and model numbers and stuff like that. But it’s kind of the basic information, get the basic layout, lay of the land of all of the space that you have, whether it’s multiple buildings and stuff like that, classify it that way. So it’s kind of like you set up a spreadsheet and start populating some data to see what you have.

Gridium: Yeah. Once you’ve got this inventory, and actually, I wonder, in your experience have you ever worked with BIM tools from the AEC community? Or are you always recreating that asset list from scratch by walking around with a flashlight and a notepad?

Joe: It depends. It depends on what resources are available.

Luckily with most, maybe in the last 20 years, almost everything is available through digital drawings, and not necessarily the physical ones. You can at least get a base and just record everything, you know copy-paste type of thing and then you kind of make little adjustments to that. So, there’s always that available and that’s the easiest way to start populating your list. So, that’s kinda’ where you usually start.

Gridium: And where do you go from there?

Joe: Then you kind of have to figure out what kind of system you need–the actual software; essentially it has to meet the needs of what you’re trying to do.

In general, most of them do and the great thing is is that they’ve come a long way, where you’re able to incorporate a lot more information and make it a lot more available on your computer, on your smartphone, on tablets and stuff like that. So, once you set that up, I think you have to go through all the paperwork and that sort of thing to make sure it’s in place, and then at that point you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Gridium: What are some of the things you’re looking for when selecting a tool?

Joe: Well, I’m kind of on the… I’d like to look at the most advanced, what should be expected from the current levels of technology today.

You know, a lot of times in building engineering you get a system when you first start the building and maybe it gets a few upgrades along the way, but usually it might be antiquated and it might not be the best that’s out there. We try to look at the best that’s out there or ones that have been successfully used at properties similar to the one you’re working at to see if they’ve had success. And then a lot of times you can piggyback off those and get that information, pre-populate it–at least some of the basic tasks and stuff like that–and then you kind of tweak it to your needs.

Gridium: What would an example of pre-populated preventive maintenance program task be? I mean, is it something as simple as change the filters once a quarter?

Joe: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, those are… Hines has a very specific set of preventative maintenance guidelines that we kinda’ go through. So, if they’re not provided with the manuals–the operation and maintenance manuals–those are the ones we kind of go off. And sometimes ours are more stringent and sometimes the ones for the actual equipment is more stringent. So, you kind of start there and then you… that’s why this data gathering really takes a long time, or it can, is that you have to go through a lot of manuals to really get specifics if you want to maintain things correctly. So, the implementation, the very beginning part of a preventive maintenance program takes a long time. Once it’s setup, you have most of the information in there, tweaking it, that’s the easy part and actually using it on a regular basis, that’s kind of the easy part.

Gridium: You’re at the point where your PM program is setup and it’s ongoing… do you find the PM tickets to pile up?

Joe: So, I’ve worked at buildings where they pile up. I’ve worked at buildings where we’re itching to get the next round of them.

It really depends on how many guys you have and your manpower, but the really great thing about having a system in place is it dictates almost hour-by-hour how much time it would take and how much manpower you need to accomplish these tasks. It creates the proactive approach as opposed to the reactive, which is like your day-to-day tickets from the clients which, they can vary, but you can kinda’ get an idea of how long it’s going to take to work on those. But it really… what I use it for is I can say, “Hey, these are how many hours I need to accomplish these tasks” with a little wiggle room of how frequently you do it, but then you say, “Hey, well this is grounds for: I need another guy, I need another utility, or I need another engineer or whatnot.”

Gridium: Right, that’s interesting. So, Joe, what is a preventative maintenance nightmare for you?

Joe: Well, usually when we have an issue or equipment does go down and we have to tell the client that we need to shut ‘em down or may have to impact their business in order for us to do our work. And a lot of times, those things are out of our control when things fail or they use things improperly, and it shouldn’t reflect on us, but a lot of times it does. I mean really, we’re kind of the face of operations, so when those things occur, we have to deal with it and adapt and really communicate with the customer and let them know what’s going on. And I mean, that’s part of any service that we provide, but in dealing with those things, that’s just part of what we need to do. And we hate to look bad, but it happens, and you have to do damage control sometimes.

Gridium: Yup. And I guess one of the ideas is that preventive maintenance helps you take an idea of what equipment you have and gives you an idea of where you might have some problems and try to begin to prepare for that?

Joe: Absolutely. You really engage with the equipment and then you start to see what’s going to work and what’s going to help keep these things going? You might end up finding things that aren’t anywhere on a Hines standard, for preventative maintenance, or a manual that,just from experience of being intimate with the equipment and understanding what it needs to do on a daily basis and how frequently you should do that work, you should perform those operations and fix things.

It takes time, and it’s not as cut-and-dry as it may seem. But it’s definitely a learning experience and it takes time to kind of really get it dialed in.

Gridium: Is there an idea… do the clients know that you’re working so hard to keep their… to preserve their investment?

Joe: I think the right people that understand facility management and stuff like that, I think they understand.

Obviously, in any environment, we are the experts of the equipment that they own. So, they rely on us very much–sometimes they’re very hands-off and they just say, “Let me know if you have a problem!” Or, sometimes they want to know the details of everything that’s happening and they want to understand where their money’s going and where our time is being used and if it’s being used wisely. So, you kinda get it both and you adapt to whoever’s paying attention. And especially, for example, the food team, they’re highly appreciative because they put in a significant amount of tickets. So, when you’re maintaining the system and it’s working properly, every day that it works properly is a “thank you” from them, you know?

Gridium: Yeah. You talked about your experience at buildings where the preventive maintenance tickets have piled up. What are some of the common pitfalls that you might be able to share with our audience? You know, are there things that you have learned to avoid? Consider a building which is just about to launch a preventive maintenance program–what are some of the pitfalls they should be concerned about?

Joe: Well, a lot of it is that, it’s that looking at the total time it takes and really getting an idea.

Sometimes you have to go through a few months, even a year, to really understand if it’s going to pile up or not. And you kinda’ have to adapt it and understand that it’s going to take a certain amount of time to do these tasks. And sometimes you have workers that do it a little bit faster than others and you have to get a really good average in there. It’s really a very interactive process with your employees–I mean, that’s the part where you really have to keep them on task, keep them motivated to continue to do things. ‘Cause it’s, you know, we talked about preventative maintenance not being a very glamorous thing to do, but there’s no question how critical it is and to keep things going and prevent things from actually happening, preventing downtime. You can guarantee that exhaust fan running non-stop for a kitchen is eventually going to fail, that belt will fail eventually. So, if you’re checking it regularly, just the fact that you looked at it can be a huge benefit for preventing something from going down, causing smoke to pile up in a room or whatever.

Gridium: Right.

Joe: So, it’s communicating that to my employees, my engineers, is a way to keep them motivated, keep them on track. They have to understand the impact of what we do affects people, it affects everything and that’s what we’re here to do. That’s our job description. So, succeeding in that helps our company succeed and helps businesses or helps our clients succeed, so it’s kind of part of the big picture.

Gridium: Are there other ways of describing the benefits of preventive maintenance? What are some of the goal posts? I mean, is launching a preventive maintenance program a lot of work? And if so, how do you justify that initial investment in time and effort? You know, what’s the point?

Joe: I mean, really it comes down to you end up saving a lot of money, you keep things running.

You get equipment that has a shelf life or an estimated life of 15 years/20 years, and it ends up running for 30-something or more, and we’ve had that happen at a lot of our Hines properties. And so, having that happen, you’re setting up for success. And when you minimize downtime, you’re saving money. Sometimes it’s not as quantifiable, but you’re really getting to a point where you’re becoming efficient. And then there’s those impacts which you can’t measure which is your company starts being known for somebody who keeps equipment running and that have a success rate. And then that begets more contracts and more buildings that people want us there, you know. It’s a lot, especially with these tech companies, when they operate they want the best talent. They operate within their own people, but they also want the best contractors that can provide the solutions for their business. So, they want the best group of people to do their maintenance: things that they don’t understand, but they know will help benefit their operations.

Gridium: And speaking of which, Hines has long been a leader in sustainability in the built environment and your CEO talks about the link between sustainability and investment performance, building resilience, and in product relevance and corporate longevity. Can you share with us a little bit about the role that preventive maintenance programs play in reaching the Hines sustainability goals?

Joe: Yeah, I think the PM system is really just a core thing–it’s a core operation. It kind of is… without that, we’re just out here kinda’ just sitting around and waiting for calls to happen and waiting for things to break. This really keeps things running, it keeps building healthy, costs down. And it also, some of the things that are not as, not dealing with energy and life of equipment, you’re confined by all of the standards that they’re coming out with. So, you’re making sure you’re not leaking refrigerant into the atmosphere, and you’re keeping the indoor air quality good for these people to be maximally productive, you know?

Gridium: Yeah.

Joe: Right. They want to operate in an environment where it’s safer than being out on the street and working at a patio at some restaurant, you know?

We take pride in keeping the best indoor quality that we can provide. Really, it’s a constant effort to prove that the way you’re doing it is the right way. We’ve been doing these, setting up preventative maintenance programs, for a very long time. You know, a lot longer than a lot of these tech companies have been around. And they, to have that reputation, this is kind of a way for us to expand what we’re doing and adapt because a lot of what’s happening in a lot of these buildings, are giving us less resources, less people, and these buildings are getting way more complex, are getting way more in-depth.

And one way that we’re kind of expanding our portfolio is to go into facilities management where these guys do want the best. So, it’s really a great way to help a lot of these companies along. And we’re creating new partners, you know the Amazons and the Googles and the Facebooks of the world, and Airbnb obviously. It’s kind of a really neat way to go and grow as employees, as well as our company, and help their company grow.

Gridium: Yes, that’s awesome and exciting. Well, cool! Thank you very much Joe for your thoughts on preventive maintenance and I hope that in the future I can come back for another one of those delicious lunches at Airbnb.

Joe: Anytime! You’re always welcome. Thank you for hearing me out! Appreciate it.

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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