Lines blur between maintenance and operations

David Berger says data in CMMS and control systems should reflect evolution of skill positions.

By David Berger

Combining the skills of operator and maintainer into a single position is by no means a new concept, albeit not all that widely adopted over the past 50 years. But that seems to be changing, especially for asset-intensive companies. More and more companies have adopted the philosophy that all work is created equal, whether for the purpose of a setup, changeover, condition assessment, downtime prevention, maximizing production output, minimizing energy consumption, or any other reason. This philosophy is relevant regardless of how data is collected and analyzed, from manual to fully automated control systems.

Your processes and information systems must complement this philosophy in terms of recording and interpreting any data relevant to the management of your assets. Irrespective of who inspects the equipment or turns a dial, whether it’s an operator or it’s a maintainer, your CMMS should be able to track who did what work. The only exception to this philosophy seems to be in the few remaining companies that have very labor-intensive operations, where operators accomplish their work by hand, such as a craft or manual assembly.

To better manage your assets in light of this emerging philosophy, there a number of critical success factors that must be considered.

Organizational design

When combining the operator and maintainer roles under position titles such as equipment operator maintainer, production technician, or simply tech, it is clear that multiple skills are required for the job. The common thread is that the combined role is responsible for both operating and maintaining the assets. This includes production equipment, safety equipment, mobile equipment, facilities, infrastructure, IT equipment, or equipment that monitors/controls the product, environment, process, and the asset itself.

Depending on the size, industry, and nature of your operations, techs can report through engineering or through operations. In some cases, it is useful to have separation of duties between these two complementary functions. For example, asset owners and planners may reside centrally in engineering, whereas schedulers and techs report through a local plant manager and up through regional operations. At each level in the organizational structure there should be a matching of levels of authority among engineering, maintenance, and operations functions and a sharing of common goals and performance targets. This should be true regardless of scale — for example, if operations is larger than the other functions or vice versa. If your company has a control room, either at each site or centrally, the control room specialists can report to the same function that the techs do, since the control room either feeds work to the techs and/or operates and maintains equipment themselves.


The key to happy operator/maintainers is to provide adequate training to do the job. If new skills are acquired and/or used on the job, the expectation is that pay levels will adequately rise to reflect the increased responsibility. However, one of the greatest fears of maintainers is a phenomenon referred to by unions as “de-skilling” — new skills learned will only be applicable to your company. For example, a licensed mechanic who learns how to clean equipment, conduct setups and changeovers, and make simple operating adjustments might feel less like new skills have been added and more like job and trades certifications have been watered down, and that mechanic is now less marketable to other companies.

Job positions and career-path movement should be based on skill level required. For example, entry-level techs would have responsibilities requiring the lowest skills and level of experience. As skills are developed, and experience gained, techs may choose to move to higher levels in the organizational structure, such as greater technical roles (for example, technologists and engineers), or into supervisory and management positions. In some cases, consideration should be given to outsourcing some low-skill positions such as cleaning of the equipment, if economies of scale provide a business case. This is also true of certain high-skill or specialized responsibilities that are required on occasion, where it is difficult to cost-justify bringing the skills in-house, such as maintaining HVAC systems.

The real difficulty is transitioning from a world of separate operator and maintainer silos, to a culture that embraces a combined operator/maintainer perspective. Training operators to become technicians is time-consuming and may not be easy or desirable for everyone. Training maintainers to operate equipment may improve overall productivity, but skilled trades might perceive their training and new responsibilities as a step backward in their desired career paths. Sometimes it may be necessary to move staff around to find the best fit job or even replace your staff over time in order to change the culture to match the new reality.

Process design

Breaking down the silos between maintenance and operations begins with process design in light of the new strategy. For example, daily route work orders and inspections may bundle the needs of operations and maintenance for improved productivity. Companies that have historically had a single resident mechanic or a pool of maintenance workers sitting around waiting to respond to a call for maintenance will require a major change in culture and process design. To be sure, many of the maintainer processes for breakdown maintenance will be passed to combined operator/maintainers; however, there may still be a need for pure maintainers with higher skills to diagnose and repair more complex maintenance issues.

Information systems

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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Historically, one of the main objectives in using a CMMS was to collect and analyze maintenance history in order to better manage your equipment. But for many companies, a significant amount of equipment-related data, such as adjustments done or readings taken by operators, is either never recorded or handled by other systems that are not fully integrated with the CMMS (for example, the plant automation systems). This makes it difficult for the CMMS to assist in optimizing the performance, reliability, and total cost of ownership of your assets.

If you are contemplating merging the operator and maintainer processes and positions, then clearly, the information systems must support your efforts. The CMMS is the hub of the wheel in consolidating all data related to your assets, whether entered manually or through integration with another internal or external system. Even if not all asset-related systems are fully integrated with the CMMS, summary and/or exception data should be readily available to planners, reliability engineers, and asset owners.

For example, suppose that by studying data from a process control system and linking it to asset history on the CMMS it is determined that there is a correlation between ambient temperature readings and the reliability of assets. A reliability engineer may then find benefit in increasing the interval between inspections or the timing of an overhaul. There may also be benefit in tracking and translating the length of time excessive temperatures are experienced into an aging factor, which in turn, will be reflected in the asset’s work program on the CMMS.

Other sample features on the CMMS that facilitate the merging of the operator/maintainer roles are operator’s log, standing work orders, and operating instructions.

Operator’s log: The log allows techs or control room specialists to electronically record observations, simple events, or notes such as actions taken during the shift. The log should maximize the use of coded fields so that data can be easily searched and analyzed.

Standing work orders (SWOs): For cleanup, setups, changeovers, an adjustments, an SWO can provide an easy way of recording and charging work of less than 15-30 minutes to an asset.

Operating instructions: When a work order is issued, corresponding operating instructions, such as reducing equipment throughput for a period of time, may be necessary.

Read David Berger's monthly column, Asset Manager.