Maintenance planners: Go back to the future

Doc Palmer says planners need to focus on preventing tomorrow’s fires, not fighting today’s.

By Doc Palmer, PE, CMRP, Richard Palmer and Associates

This month, we want to discuss the second principle of planning, namely that planners should focus on future work. We define future work simply as work that has not yet been started. There is still time to avoid a potential delay through planning.

Most plants experience enormous frustration with planning because they start planning with the false notion that proper planning will eliminate problems from the execution phase of maintenance jobs. Instead, the proper approach to planning is to realize that planners cannot create “the perfect plan.” Planners should be giving jobs a head start and later collect feedback to improve job plans.

Those plants with frustration typically start planning programs by telling all of their craftspersons, “Now that we have maintenance planners, you’ll never have to hunt for parts or information anymore!” Consequently, as soon as craftspersons at these misguided plants find problems with their jobs, they complain to the planners that they did not get a perfect plan. The planners apologize for being wrong and abandon planning to help these jobs-in-progress. The planners are soon helping so many jobs-in-progress that they cannot plan much of the incoming new work.

The craftspersons then come to the planners for help with work they started without job plans, and the planners assist those jobs-in-progress while apologizing that no plan had been provided. See how the planners change from focusing on future work to jobs that have already begun?
Furthering this misapplication of planning is the fact that the help planners provide to jobs-in-progress is quite valuable. For spare parts, planners are in a great position to understand both the inventory system and the purchasing bureaucracy. For equipment information, planners have ready access to the CMMS and other files for nameplate and other asset information as well as history records. In addition, craftspersons think that it’s “only right” that planners help them, given that the planners ultimately failed to give the craftspersons everything needed for the job.

Unfortunately, many times planners are helping solve a problem with an in-progress job that was solved years ago. Plants need to recognize that maintenance tasks are repeated over the years. Not even counting PM, if crafts work on an asset today, there is a 50% chance they will work on it again within a year. There is an 80% chance they will work on it again within five years. This repetitive nature of maintenance means that if planners can plan all work in advance, they can solve many problems before those jobs even start.

As an example, let’s say a planner sends out a plan requiring one gasket. During execution, the mechanic struggles with the equipment and determines a second gasket is needed. The mechanic records this feedback and sends it to the planner after the job ends. The next year (or whenever the job comes up again), the planner includes two gaskets in the job plan. See how this is different from the planner helping the mechanic in the field the first time so much that the planner has no time to plan future work, resulting in the planner year after year having to help with that same job-in-progress because no one ever recorded the need for a second gasket and the plan was never adjusted accordingly?

The greatest value is gained when nearly all incoming work receives planning so that better job plans grow over time. This idea of the cycle of improvement is hardly new; the philosophy is simply the PDCA cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act, also called the Deming Cycle) taught by Dr. W. Edwards Deming in the 1950s. Maintenance planning runs a Deming cycle of improvement for the maintenance department. Plants must never see plans and procedures as perfect or complete but rather as living, growing documents.

Plants achieve this focus on future work by understanding two concepts. First, plans can never be perfect. It is almost impossible for a planner to account for every single circumstance that any particular craftsperson might encounter on a particular maintenance job. Maintenance is not assembly-line work wherein industrial engineers can precisely prescribe individual steps for a line worker to repeat without variance. Second, maintenance does repeat itself.

Focusing planners on future work to run a Deming Cycle of learning in maintenance provides the second principle in making planning successful to accelerate maintenance productivity. We will enjoy continuing to discuss the principles of successful planning and scheduling in future columns.

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