Who is responsible for compiling and organizing all the activities that occur in the process of maintaining assets? Is it all part of the planner/scheduler’s job? What about the supervisors and maintenance technicians?
When I looked up the definition of the word “plan,” I found this definition: “a detailed formulation of a program of action, to arrange the parts of, to devise or project the realization or achievement.” This describes exactly what planners do. There are two distinct parts to the planning I’m talking about: production or manufacturing planning and maintenance planning.
Looking first at production planning, we find that, whatever the product, there is a great deal of planning that takes place. Manufacturing planning is usually supported by a strong support staff. Their functions include procedure and standards development, product design, raw materials, equipment, staffing, production duration, product quality, cost controls, inventory management, and possibly even operator training. Imagine the amount of planning that takes place to build an aircraft carrier or super tanker. Have you ever stopped to think about the complexities of planning that took place to build the 2,722 ft and 163 floors of the Khalifa Tower in Dubai? No company would ever consider beginning a production run without the upfront planning.
Maintenance planning, on the other hand, typically takes a completely different approach. A problem is encountered or identified, the maintenance supervisor is informed, and a maintenance technician is dispatched to correct the problem. The technician assesses the problem, devises the repair strategy, obtains tools and materials, and completes the repair. In every maintenance situation, some level of planning takes place. The questions are:
- Who’s doing the planning?
- When is the planning taking place?
- To what level of detail is it being planned?
In this situation, who did the planning — the technician? This is not the best way to utilize the technician’s skills. Frequently the wrong person is doing the planning while executing the maintenance action. This typically happens in a reactive/breakdown mode. The best way to manage maintenance activities is to implement a dedicated planning and scheduling function. The planning function can then address those questions through a defined process of work management, while the supervisor and technician perform their specific roles and responsibilities. The planner plans, the supervisor manages the utilization of their workforce to execute work, and technicians execute the assigned work. However, the supervisor and technicians do have roles in the planning and scheduling process.
Looking at the role of the maintenance technician in the planning process, we need to consider a recent trend of “leaning down” the maintenance organization. This ends up reducing planning capacity, often resulting in technicians being organized into self-directed teams. This approach focuses on the team members planning and scheduling their work, with a goal of increasing motivation, increasing their productivity, and making them more effective in problem solving. I don’t disagree with increased technician motivation and involvement, but are they the right persons to plan the work while executing the work? When we look at the loaded labor rate of a technician, this is not the best use of the company’s investment.
Consider a leaking drain valve. At face value this seems to be a simple repair job a technician can plan and execute. This approach may overlook a number of factors. Which fluid is associated with this system, and what is its possible effect on personnel or the environment? How will the system be isolated and drained to facilitate the valve replacement? Which systems or equipment will be affected? Is a direct replacement valve available? It’s not realistic to expect the technician to address these questions in the process of executing the repair. The more likely scenario is this: They are not executing the work when planning the job, their plans are usually constructed on the fly, they tend to overlook technical documentation that may be required, they rely on memory regarding specifications, and productivity is reduced.
Studies have shown that technicians typically spend two to three hours per day applying the tools of their trade. There are other factors that impact the productivity and effectiveness of the technician when they are tasked with planning their work. They lack the authority or position to direct scheduling and coordination with operations or to interact with vendors and negotiate availability, price, and delivery of repair parts. This often leads to delays in repairs, wasted efforts, excessive travel time, longer repair durations, and high maintenance costs. By design, technicians in the maintenance organization are not positioned for the activities associated with planning, scheduling, and coordination.
Shifting our focus to the expectation of front-line maintenance supervisors, we need to look at their basic responsibilities. They are positioned in the organization to concentrate on immediate maintenance issues, managing the execution of scheduled work and providing direct support to their work teams. Those responsibilities set the expectation that they’ll be in close proximity to the work being performed, leading problem-solving efforts, and communicating directly with operations. They understand their teams’ strengths and set quality-of-work expectations while handling the administrative aspects of leading a work team.
The trend of trying to save money by leaning down the maintenance organization has an impact here, too. It can result in combining the supervisor responsibilities with the planner/scheduler role. Those combined duties leave very little time to tend to the planning of future maintenance work. The supervisor’s time in the field is reduced and the supervisor typically ends up planning the work just prior to the job, leaving little time to consider better methods, tools, equipment, and coordination with other trades or work teams. This lack of attention often leads to a repair focus rather than a reliability focus for the execution of the work. Instead of focusing on how can we keep this from happening again and reduce the impact of downtime, the attitude of just getting the machine/process back up and running ends up prevailing. When we look at the loaded salaries of front-line supervisors and the responsibilities they’re being tasked with, management should consider whether they’re getting the maximum effective and efficient return on its supervisor investment.