Optimize maintenance workflows

David Berger reveals four triggers that pull your maintenance staff to work.

By David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor

Most CMMS packages are designed with the work order as the primary focus of the system, from work initiation to the collection and reporting of data following work execution. But simply having a CMMS does not therefore imply your maintenance workflows are optimized. There are numerous ways to design key processes and configure the system in support of a given workflow. This column looks at some tips and traps in setting up and optimizing key maintenance workflows.

Work initiation

One of the key elements of any maintenance workflow is how work is initiated. Workflow optimization must start with an assumption that 100% of your maintenance workload is planned. If this is true, then you will have sufficient time to develop standardized job plans, properly prioritize work, pre-define optimized process flows using the CMMS workflow engine, and establish sensible business rules for approvals, exception handling, alarming, and escalation that ensure workflows are optimized.

In order to ensure 100% of your maintenance workload is planned, you need to categorize the work into four buckets, namely, fail-based maintenance (FBM), use-based maintenance (UBM), condition-based maintenance (CBM), and non-maintenance work. These are the only means of initiating work done by maintainers.

Suppose, for example, in reviewing maintenance history and using cost/benefit analysis for critical equipment, you determine that the optimal mix of the four triggers of work done by your maintenance department is as follows:

  • 20% FBM (maintenance triggered by equipment failure)
  • 50% UBM (maintenance triggered by time, meter reading, or specific events such as a snow storm or environmental spill)
  • 20% CBM (maintenance triggered by one or more condition indicators)
  • 10% non-maintenance work (capital projects, demand work such as hanging a picture and corporate improvement initiatives).

Armed with this knowledge, the next step is to develop standard job plans for each of these categories, starting with the most critical equipment and components. Each job plan provides a step-by-step procedure on how to prevent, inspect for, diagnose, or fix a problem. As well, each job plan states the labor skills required, estimated hours for each task, spare parts and tools required, safety or special instructions, engineering drawings or other visual aids, and any measurements that will be taken.

When maintenance work is triggered, a work order associated with the appropriate job plan is released for scheduling. Triggers can be automated, like time-dependent UBM tasks, such as quarterly lubrication, or triggers based on online, real-time meter readings prompting CBM tasks, such as monitoring temperature. The more processes can be automated through preventive and predictive maintenance, the easier it is to plan and schedule the work, and thus workflows will be optimized.

However, depending on your industry, you may have to deal with a significant percentage of your work that is triggered by external demand, manual inspections, or random failures or events. In these cases, standard job plans may still be relevant, but, typically, additional information is required from the initiator, such as problem code, problem description, level of urgency and relevant measures. In order to help optimize the associated workflow, CMMS vendors use a variety of electronic forms to collect data from the work requestor as described below. Note that terms, definitions, and intended use of the forms are far from consistent in the industry.

Work request: This is the most common form completed typically by those in operations, engineering, or other departments. It can be used to initiate demand work or FBM. A work request is essentially a work order with the status of “work request.” However, not all work requests will become separate work orders; for example, there may be multiple work requests received for what eventually becomes a single work order, such as multiple people across multiple shifts complaining separately about a noise, vibration, and smell, that turns out to be the same problem with a single piece of equipment.

Service request: There is not much difference between a service request and work request, except that the former is used more in the service sector at facilities such as utilities, hotels, property managers, municipalities, and airports where the requestor is more likely an external, third-party customer, or when maintenance is performed by a contractor. Service requests can be handled online or through a centralized call center. Maintainers are dispatched once the service request becomes an approved and scheduled work order, or immediately if deemed a true emergency.

Fault report: This form is more specialized in that it is used to report equipment failure in more detail. Although fundamentally a work request, the fault report focuses on detail around the nature of the failure, so that the maintenance organization can properly diagnose the problem and react accordingly. Ultimately, fault reporting will help track the history of equipment failures in order to make adjustments to maintenance policies and the work program.

David Berger, a Certified Management Consultant (C.M.C.) registered in Ontario, Canada, is a Principal of Western Management Consultants, based in the Toronto officeDavid Berger, a Certified Management Consultant (C.M.C.) registered in Ontario, Canada, is a Principal of Western Management Consultants, based in the Toronto office. David has written more than 200 articles on a variety of topics such as maintenance management, operations management, information technology, e-commerce, organizational design, and strategy. In Plant Services magazine, he has written a monthly column on maintenance management in the United States, as well as three very extensive reviews of maintenance management systems available in North America. David has done extensive work in the areas of strategy, information technology and business process re-engineering. He can be reached at
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Follow-on work request: When a maintainer discovers a significant amount of work is required, over and above the work covered by the current work order, a follow-on work request is completed. This ensures both work orders are cross-referenced. For example, suppose a maintainer is working on a work order to change the oil and notices a significant leak. Many CMMS packages will allow the maintainer to complete and submit a follow-on work request from within the original work order. Using the original work order for follow-on work is not optimal since it skews the planned to actual variances for hours and dollars. As well, the original work order would remain open longer than originally estimated, thereby negatively impacting schedule compliance, especially if you are waiting for parts or a specific skill.

Quick work request/order: One of the CMMS tools used to optimize workflows is some type of form for quickly entering a minimum amount of work order information. This is useful for, say, recording emergency work that was completed off-hours without filling out a full work order ahead of time. It is also good for quickly requesting small jobs around your facility — for example, if a maintainer walks by an asset and hears an unfamiliar sound.


Most CMMS vendors provide an easy way to manage approvals within workflows, using the workflow engine, using business rules, or through configuration. Approvals are an obvious bottleneck for maintenance workflows, if not set up properly. For example, look for a CMMS package that allows users to set up substitute approvers for instances such as when the manager is on vacation, or establish approver groups such as any maintenance supervisor, as opposed to a specific supervisor.

Exception handling

One powerful way to optimize maintenance workflows is to simplify and standardize them, while minimizing any exception flows. This is critical if there are multiple sites doing similar work, especially if there is a shared database and equipment hierarchy under a single company. Business rules, automated default values, mandatory fields, alarming, and a running clock for automatically tracking maintainer time, can all be used to detect and minimize exceptions. For example, these tools can help prevent the operations group from skipping mandatory steps or push through a demand work order to be completed immediately by the group’s favorite maintainer.

Feedback loop

Another key factor in optimizing workflows over time is constant reporting on performance indicators and making adjustments accordingly. For example, monitoring statistics such as average dwell time in each work order status —waiting for parts or awaiting approval — can reveal bottlenecks within a process flow. Additionally, drilling down on reports such as schedule compliance and average actual versus estimated hours on work orders will assist in understanding where the opportunities lie for process improvement.