Managing the unexpected with your CMMS

David Berger uses case management to investigate anomalies, surprises, and occurrences of the unexpected.

By David Berger

When it comes to managing your assets, there are only two possible outcomes. The most likely outcome is that the expected comes to fruition. This includes meeting expected production targets, components failing when expected, and observing measures within an expected normal range upon inspection. The less likely but potentially higher-risk outcome is that the unexpected happens, such as not achieving expected production targets or premature and catastrophic failure of a component. Sometimes the unexpected is a pleasant surprise, for example, a maintenance job expected to take two days takes only one day to complete.

The work management process used for managing the expected is well known, from planning and work initiation and scheduling to work execution and evaluation. Virtually all CMMS packages offer solutions in support of this work management process. However, not all CMMS vendors offer comprehensive software solutions for managing the unexpected. I refer to this process as “case management” because each occurrence of the unexpected results in the opening of a case, which remains open until its disposition.

Case types

A case should be opened for any significant anomaly, surprise, or occurrence of the unexpected, whether deemed positive or negative. All cases should be investigated and follow-up action taken where appropriate, regardless of the case type. There are numerous types and sub-types of cases, but the following are some typical examples, regardless of your industry:

  • fail-based maintenance (asset fails much earlier or later than expected; consequences of failure are much greater or less than anticipated)
  • use-based maintenance (asset requires maintenance earlier or later than expected, such as the oil is not really dirty after each 3000-mile interval)
  • condition-based maintenance (off-normal condition; unexpected condition trend line)
  • cost variance (material variance in internal or external labor, material, or other costs when comparing actual versus plan/budget, for a given project or work order)
  • schedule variance (material variance in actual versus planned time to execute work, such as work that takes much more/less time than estimated on a job plan)
  • scope variance (material change in the scope of work, such as procedures that were added, changed, deemed unnecessary, or require more detailed explanation)
  • operational variance (unexpected production quality or volume variance caused by equipment design, operation, or maintenance)
  • incidents (health, safety, and environmental events and near misses)
  • regulatory deficiencies (audit deficiencies; notice of violations)
  • original equipment manufacturer (OEM) improvements (recalls; technical bulletins)
  • internal-based improvement ideas (changes suggested by operators, maintainers, engineers, and other employees)
  • external-based improvement ideas (complaints or suggestions from suppliers, customers or the general public; lessons learned from competitors).

Case management steps

Regardless of case type, each case follows a similar flow. The following are key steps in the case management workflow.

1. Case initiation: Anyone can initiate a case, just as anyone can initiate a work request. The case request records the name and position of the requestor, date/time, case type and sub-type, any reference to relevant assets, case description, and any other information required depending on the case type and sub-type codes entered. The case should also cross-reference, attach, or link to all relevant documents, such as work orders, projects, purchase orders, photos, and contracts. For example, if there were an environmental spill that was cleaned immediately under a given corrective work order, then a case should be launched to follow up.

As soon as a case request is opened, someone is assigned responsibility for managing the case until it is ultimately closed. If an asset is involved, the case owner is typically the asset owner — someone from engineering responsible for the relevant asset group.

2. Investigation: Every case requires investigation to gather data and determine the facts surrounding the case. This can take minutes or years, depending on the type, complexity, and importance of the case. The work involved in investigation is recorded on one of two documents, namely, the work order if the work will be charged to an asset (a maintainer opens the equipment and takes pictures and measurements) or an activity if work will not be charged to an asset (an engineer does some research).

Each case type may require a different level of investigation and data gathering, including possible completion of relevant forms. For example, investigating a safety-related incident will require far more rigor and documentation than, say, investigating a job that took less time than expected.

3. Analysis: The objective of the analysis step is to determine the root cause and alternative actions, in order to correct the problem and prevent recurrence. There are numerous analysis tools that may be available on the CMMS or using external software, such as Pareto analysis, cause-and-effect (fishbone) diagram, and correlation. If analysis reveals gaps in the data, then investigators must gather more data until a decision can be made as to alternative actions.

4. Risk management: It is important to understand the risk associated with alternative actions in terms of probability and impact. Some CMMS packages have sophisticated risk management modules to assist in the risk scoring of actions. This makes it easier to weigh the cost/risk versus benefit of each alternative.

5. Management of change: Where appropriate, review the risk/benefit of recommended actions by running them through a formal management of change process. This is a critical step that is often overlooked. Unfortunately, maintainers have a reputation for providing a temporary quick-fix solution to a problem, which is rarely replaced with a more permanent solution in a timely fashion. This fire-fighting mentality and lack of follow-up leaves especially asset-intensive companies with significant risk exposure.

A few CMMS packages have a management of change module that can be used to evaluate and document the impact of recommended actions/changes contemplated. There are four possible categories of actions requiring evaluation:

  • corrective work (issue a work order for a short-term fix that is good enough)
  • work to prevent recurrence (issue a work order or launch a campaign/project for a more permanent fix)
  • changes to the work program (launch an activity to change a maintenance policy, procedure, interval, drawing)
  • changes outside the work program (launch an activity to change the training program, signage, equipment design).
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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Benefits of case management

A strong case management process that is fully integrated with your work management workflow provides a basis for continuous improvement by ensuring constant communication between asset owners and front-line workers who are executing work. If the unexpected is discovered, such as a procedure or drawing that should be corrected, then the case management process provides a simple but effective tool for investigating, evaluating, and documenting any change. This gives comfort to front-line workers and their supervisors that the asset owners will not be able to ignore their observations, corrections, and suggestions. The reverse is also true: Asset owners are better able to manage approved changes such as launching a campaign to replace a problematic part.

The case management process must be scalable; otherwise, it will be perceived as more of a burden than an aid to effecting change. More significant, higher risk changes should of course be subjected to the level of rigor described above. However, there must be business rules in place to simplify or even bypass the case management process when the risk or impact of change is minimal. A job plan must be consistently executed within 20% of expected completion time; otherwise, a case is triggered.

Read David Berger's monthly column, Asset Manager.