Even good storerooms need maintenance planners

Doc Palmer says maintenance planners can help rein in the impulse to slash storeroom inventory.

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

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For the want of a horse the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

This proverb dates back to the early-13th-century German poet Freidank and has been refined by the likes of William Shakespeare and Benjamin Franklin along the way to its present form. Applying this idea to industry, we can conclude that plant capacity is ultimately more important than the cost of inventory.

Maintenance planners spend a lot of time dealing with the storeroom. In fact, it’s important to know that a large part of the planning position is about coordinating the specialized storeroom with the specialized maintenance workforce. A maintenance supervisor assigns a job to a technician. The storeroom has parts. A planner creates a job plan that advises the technician on which parts to use – the planner might even reserve or kit the parts. The technician uses some of those parts and some other parts. The planner updates the job plan and takes other actions to provide better assistance for the next time that a technician needs to perform that job on that asset.

The storeroom, then, specializes in purchasing and carrying parts, while the maintenance force specializes in using them. Planners work to synchronize the two, not only advising technicians on which parts to use, but also advising the storeroom on which parts to carry in stock. Thinking that the planner role is a simple task for a computer database is overly simplistic. Human planners make a big difference in helping acquire and apply knowledge.

One might ask why the storeroom and maintenance need any coordination. Why can’t the storeroom simply carry spare parts that will be ready for the maintenance technicians to use? The obvious answer is that a company cannot possibly carry every part that could be needed without spending too much on inventory. There is some science involved in properly determining what, when, and how much to order. The time and knowledge involved in running a storeroom properly is a good area for specialization. Unfortunately, a group that specializes in managing a storeroom does not always understand maintenance itself. Specialization always requires coordination to avoid suboptimization.

Suboptimization with the storeroom occurs because maintenance inefficiency and its effects on plant capacity are much less obvious than the glaring high cost of inventory. Frequently the storeroom reduces stock levels to the extent that it hinders reliable plant capacity beyond the value of the “saved” money not spent on inventory. It does so either directly by not stocking a part needed to restore capacity in a timely manner or indirectly (and more subtly) by keeping the maintenance force from performing proactive maintenance to maintain capacity in the first place. The subtlety occurs because the maintenance force wastes time obtaining parts for work. The maintenance force could have spent that time completing more proactive work. If any maintenance job (reactive or proactive) takes twice as long as it should, it precludes completing an additional proactive job and in so doing reduces plant capacity. Management does not see this wasted time because everyone is “busy.” But the capacity is not as high as it could be and maintenance efficiency is lower than it could be because the company decided to save money in the short term by cutting inventory levels.

Some theories of “world-class maintenance” have the storeroom reporting to maintenance. However, many storerooms report to purchasing. The company fears that if maintenance controls the storeroom, it will stock a spare plant in the warehouse, so to speak. On the other hand, maintenance fears that the storeroom under purchasing control will simply slash inventory. Ultimately, these concerns are issues of specialization and coordination. Storeroom science demands some specialization in inventory practices. Simply placing the storeroom under the authority of maintenance does not by itself ensure good inventory practices. Some maintenance groups reason that planners compensate for a storeroom not being under the maintenance team’s control, but that is not the reason to have planning. Regardless of the storeroom reporting arrangement, planners greatly help coordinate the storeroom with the maintenance force on a job-by-job and asset-by-asset basis.

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