There Is No Trade-Off Between Empowering and Scheduling

Empowering maintenance crews and personnel means allowing them to make decisions within their areas of responsibility.  This greatly increases the quality of maintenance work.  However, empowering does not mean turning each of the specialized areas of maintenance loose on its own.  The maintenance process takes a coordinated team effort to master and an explicit scheduling process is necessary to advance productivity.  Superior maintenance requires both empowerment and scheduling.  This paper explains where and how high performing maintenance organizations utilize and leverage each concept. Read More

Simplify Work Order Priorities: Low Tech, High Value

The work order priority system often goes unnoticed as a significant opportunity for boosting maintenance performance. We focus our attention on big initiatives and technology and few if any vendors try to sell us a new priority system. Restructuring the priority system requires no technology or cost. Yet, this system is one of those little things that can really help or really hinder progress toward maintenance excellence. It is a "low tech and high value" tool for improvement. Read More

Maintenance Planning: The Perfect Job Plan

A perfect job plan is not a single event. A perfect job plan develops over time built on the foundations of planner expertise and repeated maintenance work.

The Planners

The first foundation is planner expertise. Consider first two different planners, one from the electric utility experience of Palmer in Florida and the second from the wastewater experience of Pearl in California. The Florida planner is a Type A personality with a take no prisoners sense of mission. Very different is the California planner with a low-key approach to work and a concentration on developing relationships. Quite different. Nevertheless, both planners have distinctive traits in common that make them overwhelmingly at the top of their craft of planning. Both are extremely good communicators. They can deal with a variety of persons in a variety of plant levels obtaining and sharing the information needed. Both are also self-starters. A manager of either planner would never have to deal with motivation issues. The manager would have to slow them down long enough to have such a conversation first. Both the Florida and California planner want to change the plant. They want to make it better. They want to get maintenance done. They want to refine processes and continually offer suggestions for change. Both have a background as top mechanics. They have done many of the jobs in the plant and generally know what most jobs require. While they will be planning for good mechanics, both have superior skills themselves. Not only with machines, but both planners are adept with information. They can organize information through excellent filing and computer skills. Finally, they command the respect of the crafts. When they plan a job, the craftperson receiving the job plan honestly feels there is some helpful information to help the job. Thus, with different basic personalities, the common traits of excellent communication skills, machine skills, and data skills form the first foundation of the perfect job plan.

The Cycle of Maintenance

The second foundation of the perfect job plan is the concept of repeated maintenance work. Most plants need maintenance work on a repetitive basis over the months and years of plant operation. If a mechanic works on a valve today, the valve is apt to need maintenance again, if not a in a few months, then in a year or two. This repetition is not because persons do not do quality maintenance work or because plants have faulty equipment. It is because industrial equipment needs continual attention over time. The reason many persons do not sense this repeat of maintenance is because different mechanics often work the separate jobs giving everyone a sense of "It's always something different." Accepting the cycle of maintenance allows application of continual improvements to job plans over time to achieve more perfect plans. The first time equipment needs attention, a planner uses personal expertise and other research to anticipate the needs of the job. Then field technicians work the job. They may learn that the job anticipating one gasket actually required two gaskets. They record this learning as feedback. Later, when the equipment needs work again, the planner can send the technicians out with two gaskets and avoid delays. This minute learning on individual jobs for specific equipment contributes to a vast body of knowledge that helps plants get better and better at maintenance tasks. Technicians should be free to concentrate on skilled maintenance work, not trying to remember this or that detail that their file clerk, the planner, could supply.


To illustrate the development of the perfect job plan, the following sections observe the steps a professional planner uses in creating a plan and then using feedback. The sections identify principles of proper planning that the planner applies to the creation of the job plan.

The plan begins with the plant using a work order system. The planners do not simply receive phone calls or sticky notes suggesting work. The plant requires requested work be submitted in a designated format. After the requestor submits their request, the planning department will "code" the work orders and plan the work orders. Then the work order format provides for collecting technician feedback on the actual results of the work.

The Central Contra Costa Sanitary District is a regional agency that collects and treats over 45 million gallons of residential and commercial wastewater each day. Having a work order system, an operator at CCCSD's facility in Martinez, California, writes a work order. The gate in the west Forebay tank does not work correctly. This gate opens and closes to isolate one of the two Forebay tanks. These tanks provide storage of secondary effluent prior to filtration for tertiary treatment, the final process in producing recycled water, primarily used for irrigation. While both tanks are usually redundant and the process could even bypass them both, the weather at certain times of year makes these tanks critical to the process. At this particular time, the operator judges the priority to be a 3, generally requiring work to begin in several days. The operator has provided the gate tag number, hung a deficiency tag, and checked that no overall plant outage is needed. The operator has also suggested this is a mechanical job requiring clearance, but does not require a confined space entry.

The deficiency tag helps the plant in several ways. First, it helps both the planner and the work crew find the correct equipment needing attention. Second, it calls attention to others to be careful: this piece of equipment has a problem. It also helps operators recognize the problem has been reported, perhaps reducing duplicate work orders. Finally, it helps persons visually assess the current state of the plant: do many items have tags throughout the plant?

Next, the operator helpfully recognized and reported the tag number from the equipment. This is much preferred over simple verbal descriptions of the equipment or less successful attempts to drill down and find the equipment in a computer system. The planers depend on these numbers to find past file information swiftly and efficiently. The tags should match among the files, the equipment, and any computer system. Plants with hung tags matching file systems have an advantage in achieving effective planning.

After receiving a work order, the planning department will assign codes on the form (or in the computer). These codes allow sorting work orders later for reporting and analysis of maintenance and equipment. Is most plant work on tanks or filters? Is the plant doing more PM each year? Codes facilitate the analysis of this information.

In this case, the plant has not recorded prior maintenance on the gate, so the planner makes a paper file. The plant is considering abandoning the paper files in favor of the computer but want the computer to take a step up in terms of being user friendly first. There is nothing as user friendly as a paper file for accepting information. Some of the largest companies in the world on the path to maintenance excellence have decided to maintain paper files in addition to using a computer system.

One of the first steps of actually writing down a job plan is the general scope and any procedural steps. Maintenance wants a detailed procedure to insure quality work, but faces a dilemma. It cannot easily create a detailed plan for every job promptly. Should it create a detailed plan for 10% of the work and leave the rest unplanned? No. Maintenance must plan nearly all the jobs. Every job should have the benefit of at least having a planner look in the files for past lessons learned. In addition, planners must plan most jobs in order to support scheduling. Scheduling leads to superior maintenance productivity, the primary objective of planning. Nevertheless, planning can achieve planning all the maintenance jobs if it takes a long view of time. This job plan will never be perfect. That is okay because the next job will be better. The planner must facilitate a perfect system, not so much a perfect plan each time. The system is the genius of planning, made possible because of the cycle of repeated maintenance. This cycle also allows the planner to tap into the expertise of skilled craftpersons working the initial plans. Their feedback makes the product better and better. In addition, the planner also plans for good technicians. The planner can hold off including minute details that most craftpersons know. Such extra details take time away from planning all the work. The bottom line is to plan all the maintenance work. If there is extra time, include more details.

Plants can also accelerate their development of detailed plans by using "extra" supervisors or dedicated senior technicians rather than planners to develop detailed plans for commonly recognized jobs.

The acceleration of planning also treats reactive work differently from proactive work. This particular gate work order is deemed reactive because the operator found the problem. The planner especially wants to avoid extensive research of manuals in case the crew supervisor wants to begin immediately. In this case, the planner writes a sentence explaining the job and then four job steps. Essentially this job is to fix the gate, but the tank should be cleaned since it has to be drained anyway. The planner also especially notes this is "non-permitted confined space” since air testing is unnecessary.

The next issue is identifying the required skills to complete the work. The planner wants to identify the lowest skills necessary to give the supervisor the most flexibility in assigning the work. Even though the gate adjustment itself requires two mechanics, only one needs considerable expertise. The planner puts in one Mechanic 3rd Class (the highest skill) and one Mechanic 1st Class; the planner does not include two Mechanics 3rd Class. Similarly, the draining and cleaning requires only general utility workers.

Next, the planner considers labor hours. Rather than utilize complex built-up estimates, the planner simply uses personal best judgment for what good technicians should take to perform a “smooth” job. A smooth job would have no unanticipated delays. Development of super-precise estimates is usually not possible due to the nature of maintenance work. This is not an assembly line. Extra time developing estimates does not create estimates that are more precise and often wastes limited planner time. In addition, experience has shown that such estimates are useful for assigning work and creating schedules even though they are not precisely accurate. They are still useful because the estimate is a good median, as many jobs run over as under the time estimated. These useful estimates are achieved when using planners with extensive craft experience.

Include the labor hours on the printed work orders for the technicians. They are adults and need to gauge their efforts against the target. Give them enough work each day for an entire shift.

Next, the planner considers parts. The planner may not be able to identify parts on more reactive work the first time. Yet, the planner can be an excellent clerk to file and retrieve the part numbers discovered on previous work. On this gate job, there was no history, but the planner was able to specify the part number from the inventory system. If there had been any non-stock purchases required, the planning department would lead the purchasing effort. Note that the planner includes the cost. The technician needs this information to judge whether the part should be handled especially carefully.

Tools for this job include a pump and lengths of hose to drain the tank. The technicians know to connect the lengths together and where to drain the discharged water. The planner does not take time to recount this information. The planner does mention fall protection gear and a ladder. The planner does not know the bolt details, but provides a blank to collect the information to make the next plan better. The planner consciously uses the technicians to help develop the plan. Interestingly, the planner does not think to include the hose itself for washing down the tank, but hopefully would improve the plan eventually and help someone possibly avoid an extra trip to gather a hose on short notice.

The planner finally totals up a job cost estimate. Technicians and planners should be conscious of the cost of maintenance work. Maintenance is expensive and recognizing the cost is one way to help lower it. This cost is also a “bid” against the continual onslaught of contractors trying to take their work. Planners might also have cost limits against which they should seek approval before finalizing plans. For example, a planner might have to run the estimate by a supervisor for any job costing over $5000. The planner uses a standard $50 per hour for labor estimates including direct benefits.

This job is finally put out as a planned job ready to schedule and work. The technicians do learn and provide feedback. The actual crew uses less time than expected for both mechanics and utility workers. It is also interesting to note that two Mechanics 3rd Class performed the work instead of one 3rd Class and one 1st Class mechanic. The feedback also included the bolt details as expected. Finally, the feedback reports that the job required the use of a boom truck. This was probably to remove the old and lift the new gate guide into place.

The planner completes the closeout of this job by updating the actual cost. The planner files this information to help the plant determine the cost of equipment when making repair or replace decisions.

Improving the Plan

As expected, the wastewater plant experiences the similar problem again. This is what the perfect plan is all about, continual improvement. In this instance, the planner adds the bolt details and the boom truck. Although the mechanics last time were both top mechanics, that does not make the planner upgrade the skills required on the plan. The planner stays with one mechanic being only 1st Class. The planner also considers the reduced time on the part of the utility workers and the mechanics, but still considers the original time an appropriate "goal" or "standard" for this job.

(A special note for a maintenance group with a CMMS would be including a section to call out reference material and past plan improvements. Showing technicians the fruits of their feedback on the job plans encourages their participation in the system. In the presentation slide, the plan portion has been enlarged and the feedback and coding would be on a subsequent page.)

Thus with every maintenance cycle, the plan approaches perfection, hence the perfect job plan.


Contact Doc Palmer for questions about planning and scheduling or for a proposal for training at your facility. Email Doc