Approaches to technical staff management

There are several different organizational approaches to managing your technical staff. Asset Management expert David Berger examines the pros and cons of each in his latest column.

By David Berger

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There are so many factors to consider whenever you try to optimize the organizational structure of your maintenance workforce. This includes the size of the maintenance department, the nature and size of operations, number and complexity of assets, the physical size and layout of facilities and equipment, hours of operations, the nature of the work expected of the maintenance department, skills required, space required and available for the work, and even the political clout of maintenance management.

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In weighing these factors, some maintenance departments have adopted a completely centralized structure. Others are decentralized, both physically and logically, with maintenance technicians reporting directly to production. Still others lie somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, such as distributing technicians throughout the production operations, but reporting directly to a centralized maintenance management. There are, of course, positives and negatives with any of these organizational structures.

Centralized: A centralized environment might enjoy better economies of scale. Examples include a well-equipped central shop and better parts control in a large, secured centralized warehouse that can justify a full-time stockkeeper. A centralized organizational structure also facilitates centralized planning and scheduling by highly skilled maintenance planners. The approach also provides greater opportunity for resource leveling. However, operations sometimes accuses centralized maintenance departments of being bureaucratic and unresponsive to the needs of individual production supervisors, all in the name of greater overall productivity.

Decentralized: Decentralized maintenance, on the other hand, sits well with the operating department. Many operational supervisors are less concerned that maintenance technicians in their areas aren’t all that busy, as long as someone familiar with the equipment is right there when needed. Although this “Maytag repairman” mentality works well to sell home appliances, it’s both costly and unnecessary. Furthermore, most technicians would prefer to be busy, to be challenged by a greater variety of equipment, and to have access to additional resources when needed.

Distributed: The distributed approach strikes a reasonable compromise. By locating technicians with the appropriate skill sets in a given operational area, operational supervisors perceive that at least they have the first right of refusal on a technician’s time, especially during emergencies. Also, maintenance management is somewhat comforted in that at least they have access to and some level of control over resources, by having technicians report on a solid line basis to maintenance and dotted line to operations. The overall result, presumably, is better balancing of the maintenance workload and minimization of downtime across operations.

Organizational gap


Obviously, none of these approaches are perfect. One of the most critical gaps, regardless of organizational approach selected, is who looks after the care and feeding of the technicians. Avoiding the gap means attending to the following critical functions:

  • Determining the skills required to do each job
  • Determining level of competency required for each skill, for each job
  • Assessing technician competency
  • Determining the training/certification requirements to upgrade technician competency
  • Maintaining job descriptions
  • Balancing short-term and long-term needs using an appropriate mix of internal skills and external contractors
  • Managing union/management relations
  • Conducting performance evaluations
  • Determining fair compensation
  • Resolving payroll disputes
  • Identifying promotion opportunities and ensuring candidate success
  • Assisting with career path planning and development
  • Succession planning
  • Managing overtime
  • Dealing with absenteeism
  • Handling discipline
  • Hiring and firing
  • Managing vacation schedules
  • Determining and policing environmental, health and safety policies (eg, wearing appropriate clothing for the job)

Whether technicians report directly through operations or maintenance supervisors, these functions sometimes are sidelined in the name of keeping the equipment running. While this might be a reasonable argument in the short run, often it leads to chronic, long-term neglect of these functions. Moreover, not every supervisor likes, is properly trained for, or is good at delivering on these softer management skills. Even with the addition of CMMS features, such as better human resource tracking and reporting, that facilitate these functions, many maintenance management groups still struggle to fulfill these duties.

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