Planning and Scheduling / Workforce Development / Leadership Skills

Picking the perfect planner

Doc Palmer explores the skill sets necessary for success in the maintenance planning role.

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

Companies must take care when selecting planners if they want to achieve the enormous benefit of a successful maintenance planning program. Selecting the right persons to be planners is practically the most important thing a company can do to ensure a program’s success (or failure). Planners require certain skills, just as all crafts require certain skills for their trades. Understanding the skills required will help a company create the perfect position for picking the perfect planner.

Maintenance planning yields an enormous value simply via crew productivity gains. A single planner can help a group of 30 mechanics at a plant complete work orders at the rate of 47 mechanics. Gaining an extra 17 mechanics at a rate of $50/hour means that the plant gains $1.708 million in extra work-order completion for free. But the benefit does not stop there. The 17 free mechanics do more proactive work considering that the plant previously had been handling all of the reactive work.

The 1:10 industry rule of thumb holds that every extra dollar spent on proactive maintenance gives the company a $10 gain on its bottom line. The plant has solved the problem of how to do extra proactive maintenance when its hands were previously full of reactive maintenance. So the plant makes an extra $17 million dollars annually by having a single planner for its 30 mechanics. Sound too theoretical? How about if the plant achieved only half, or a quarter, or a tenth of $17 million per year? That is still a great benefit from having a single planner.

Yet if a company hires the wrong person as a planner and declares victory, it simply loses a craftsperson from the workforce. Planners require a certain skill set to be good at planning, just as a good mechanic requires mechanical skill or a good electrician requires electrical skills, etc. It would be great to have planners who have superior craft skills so their knowledge can be leveraged across groups of 30 other craftspersons. But the best planners also need to be good at organizing information and communication.

Some top craftspersons would not make good planners because they never save information that could help them in the future. Other top craftspersons are not very good at explaining what they do. The best planners would be top craftspersons who save helpful information in their lockers and are good at explaining their work.

Surprisingly, out of the three skills – craft, data organizing, and communication – a successful planner could be somewhat weak on craft skill. The reason is because there is no way a single planner can be as knowledgeable as the combined skill and experience of 30 craftspersons. A planner’s true job is to function as a craft historian, collecting feedback utilizing his or her communication skills, saving it somewhere by employing strong data organization skills, and improving future job plans via communication skills. Successful planners must have superior data-organizing and communication skills.

The craft skill requirement for planners works both ways. On one hand, having superior craft skills is a great advantage for planners in becoming successful. These planners can easily scope jobs and decide maintenance strategies such as “repair instead of replace.” They also command the respect of the other craftspersons because they previously showed that they know what they’re talking about. This respect also gives the entire planning program respect and makes people willing to give it a chance.

On the other hand, many craftspersons will outright reject the validity of any plans coming from planners who have little craft skill or experience and will disparage such a planning program. But consider that a planner with weak craft skills who is a very good communicator can position himself or herself better as a historian for the crafts. “What do you want me to do?” “What information do you want me to save?” “How can we make the plan better?”

A planner who has exceptional craft skills might be less likely to seek improvement advice, and craftspersons might be less likely to offer it. Nevertheless, it is more difficult to get planning initially working where a planner has less craft skill, so the company must be very careful to explain the historian role and not imply that the planner is going to be the expert.

Additional skills or traits of successful planners include being confident and being a self-starter. The planner role is similar to that of a crew supervisor, but whereas a supervisor supervises persons, a planner supervises data. Yet both positions are not really supervised themselves. They both are positions that go out and make things happen.

Creating the position itself is also a factor in getting the right planners. This extremely valuable position is worth its weight in gold. A plant would like to have all of its respected, top craftspersons apply so that the plant can pick the ones with great data and communication skills. But these top craftspersons sometime earn a lot of overtime pay – especially those who have earned a lot of respect over the years. If the plant simply offers a lateral transfer paywise, these top persons would take a serious pay cut. And so the plant ends up having a limited number of persons apply.

Many plants may not get an applicant pool sufficiently large to allow for picking the best persons as planners. And even if they do, the position will not be attractive enough in the future to sustain a proper program. Consequently, a good planning program should make the position at least equivalent to a first-line supervisor (organizationally and pay-wise) so that the respect the position commands might outweigh a sacrifice of overtime pay for the individual who accepts the role. Designating the planner position as supervisor-level also signifies that the company considers the position to be a promotion for a craftsperson; this gives the planning program itself some respect.

Choose your planners carefully. Picking the right persons, taking into account their craft, data, and communication skills, is critical for success. A lot of company profit is at stake, so don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Establish the planner position to be desirable enough to attract and keep the best persons as planners to make a great maintenance planning program a reality.