How to get more from the maintenance planning role

The planner role can vary from plant to plant, says David Berger, so use yours to meet strategic goals.

By David Berger

How many maintainers does it take to justify establishing the maintenance planning role? Is it 50? 30? 20? The answer is that it does not matter how many maintainers you have. If you have any physical assets whatsoever, then someone must take on the maintenance planning role and determine how the assets will be maintained, by whom, and whether the maintenance program is effective. The maintenance planning function could be a small component of the duties of one or more individuals, or accomplished by one or more full-time maintenance planners.

Many companies, regardless of size or industry, struggle with the maintenance planning role. Small to mid-sized companies typically see it as a full-time position relevant only to larger companies, and not as a formalized function that must be addressed regardless of company size or industry. (This is similar to problems experienced when there is no full-time stockkeeper to manage spare parts inventory.)

Larger companies that can justify a full-time maintenance planner also seem to struggle. For so many years they survived without a maintenance planner, therefore it is difficult to gauge when a full-time resource is cost-justified. Some companies experiment by putting someone in the position of full-time maintenance planner, but the informal processes of the past prevail and the maintenance planner is rendered ineffective.

Even very large companies that have had maintenance planners for years tend to get stuck in their ways, and are not strategic about how they use maintenance planners. For example, some large companies use maintenance planners to primarily plan one major component of the maintenance program, such as a focus on planning and scheduling major shutdowns and outages, or a focus on a given critical asset or group of assets. For these companies, the maintenance planning function is sub-optimal because no one is held accountable for planning and optimizing the overall maintenance program for the complete asset lifecycle.

Thus it appears many companies of all sizes can do a better job of understanding what the objectives of the maintenance planning role are, who is best to take on the role, where the function should be reporting, and the responsibilities of the function.

Overall, the maintenance planning role is responsible for optimizing the work program, encompassing all assets throughout their lifecycle, and subject to regulatory compliance. The maintenance planning role is also responsible for planning outages, shutdowns, and turnarounds, as these are a key component of the asset lifecycle and the overall work program. However, this should not be the focus of the role, as the work program also encompasses daily work that will impact shutdown planning, and vice versa.

Specific objectives of the maintenance planning role include the following:

1.    Create, manage, and optimize the maintenance work program. This includes job plans for all maintenance work for all assets, starting with the most critical, whether triggered by asset condition, usage, or failure. The work program also documents the asset and location hierarchies, and requires that the asset master is complete and accurate at all times.

Job plans are prepared and planned for the life of the assets (e.g., a job plan to replace a pump every 5 years), but planned in detail for each month of the current and upcoming year. Many companies have a detailed plan and corresponding budget for three or more years out, especially if major shutdowns are required.

Each month, the annual plan is updated and released to the maintenance scheduling role at the shop-floor level, for scheduling labor, parts, tools, and facilities as required. Work order data is reviewed each month to analyze the work done, and report on performance and variances to plan. Results are used to optimize and adjust the work program, such as changing the frequency of parts replacement, or adopting an alternative maintenance policy such as condition-based maintenance.

2.    Ensure that the organization is getting the most out of the CMMS, in terms of keeping an accurate and current inventory of all assets, components, parts, and skills. The CMMS is also the tool used for planning, scheduling, and recording what work was done. It is the primary reporting and analysis tool, used to identify opportunities for improvement and optimize the work program.

3.    Act as a liaison for maintenance in dealing strategically with other departments such as Engineering (e.g., root cause analysis, new asset acquisition), Operations (e.g., planning downtime of assets), Materials Management (eg, optimizing spare parts inventory levels, managing lead times), and Finance (eg, repair/replace decision analysis). As well, the role assists with regulatory compliance and liaison with auditors.

4.    Manage the overall capacity of the maintenance function, including maintenance labor skills, parts, tools, and facilities. Planning capacity of labor may require decisions on training needed to address skill gaps, when to use external contractors, and the optimal balance of maintenance, non-maintenance, and project work.

5.    Maximize asset performance, availability, reliability, and quality of output, as well as minimize total cost of ownership.

Many companies, big and small, have failed to get value out of the maintenance planning role because of the background of the candidate selected to take on the role. The most frequent mistakes made by companies is giving responsibility for the role to someone who was made redundant in another area of maintenance, someone close to retirement looking for a comfortable transition job, an administrative person, or a student.

To avoid the most common errors, look for someone with the following attributes:

  • Strong maintenance knowledge gained from a background as maintainer, engineer, or technician, in order to command the respect of the front-line maintenance supervisors and management
  • Solid supervisory experience or equivalent, at a level equal to or higher than the front-line maintenance supervisors
  • Excellent people skills, as a key component of the job is influencing Maintenance and other departments to change their behavior
  • Good computer skills, including complete comfort with advanced CMMS tools such as planning/scheduling, budgeting, project management, work program, reporting, and analysis

The maintenance planning function typically reports into corporate Engineering and/or Maintenance, and in fewer cases, Operations. For best results, maintenance planning should be a centralized function, working towards shared goals alongside centralized Reliability Engineering, Operations, and Materials Management functions, at the same level and status in the organization. (In contrast, maintenance scheduling and work execution functions should be decentralized, i.e., at the plant level.)