A day in the life of a savvy maintenance supervisor

Doc Palmer says having a schedule to help frame and focus work will let a supervisor steer jobs effectively.

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

How can a supervisor’s life benefit from having a scheduler who functions as a backlog researcher to give him or her a focus and mission for the week? This month, I wanted to consider just that question by providing an excerpt taken largely from my handbook’s epilogue, where I take a look at how life can change with a successful planning and scheduling program.

In the fictional account below, you can see how the schedule helps the supervisor envision the maintenance function as keeping things from breaking in the first place and not just as keeping everyone busy. Notice a wealth of specific behaviors and outcomes involved with proper planning and scheduling.

The supervisor does daily scheduling only a day in advance and assigns names to tasks. The supervisor is in the field. The supervisor handles break-in work even at the expense of schedule compliance. The supervisor encourages a proper quality balance against improper job completion. The supervisor encourages job feedback. The planner can plan some reactive work. The weekly and daily schedules reduce issues with break times, start times, and quit times. Scheduling increases productivity, which reduces overtime and promotes doing preventive maintenance. And finally, the scheduler creates the weekly schedule as a simple batch of work without specifying days for each job.

Sue, supervisor at Zebra Inc.


Sue considered herself a capable supervisor. She knew that to keep the operations group satisfied, the maintenance crew had to keep the equipment from failing. She worked the crew steadily and kept on top of all of the maintenance work that would keep problems from developing in the first place.
Nevertheless, when problems did suddenly develop, she could sometimes still get the benefit of planning. Whenever a new Priority 1 urgent work order came in, the planner would check with her to see if she would assign it right away. If she said it might wait a bit, the planner would try to knock out a quick job plan. But the planner would never make her wait if she wanted to start it without waiting for planning.

She sometimes assigned the new urgent work just as soon as someone finished what they were already doing. Even so, she almost never interrupted jobs already in progress unless it was for a Priority 0 emergency. The crew knew the importance she placed on completing urgent and emergency work and was always willing to work overtime when required.

Normally, however, the crew kept steadily after the batch of work orders that the planning group would select for the week and did not require much overtime. The planning group would take her estimate of how many labor hours she would have for the next week and give her that much work to assign. Sue recognized that plant management supported preventive maintenance because the weekly backlog contained a sufficient portion of it. She was sure that this mix of work was in the best interest of the plant in keeping production at high capacity.

Her normal method of job assignment was to assign each technician a full day’s worth of work. She knew how long each job should take and what type of craftsperson she should assign because the planning group planned each job. Sometimes deciding who would receive each job was an art. She could not simply hold back the critical jobs for certain persons, or she would not be able to complete all of the work. She would have to provide coaching for persons whose skills were not yet up to par. She selected the day’s work one day ahead of time from the week’s backlog provided by the scheduler. Thankfully, she did not have to dig through the entire plant backlog each time she wanted to assign a job. (No one wanted to go through the “black hole” of the entire backlog anyway. That was the weekly scheduler’s job!) She knew the crew worked productively because they generally completed all of the work assigned each week and made few extra trips to the tool room or storeroom.

Lately it seemed that fewer urgent and emergency work orders were being written. This less-hectic environment enabled the crew to work with less interruption to maintain the plant’s capacity. She used to feel that sometimes the operations crews would exaggerate the priority of minor jobs just to make sure they got done. However, from looking at the recent work orders, there seemed to be a team atmosphere between the maintenance and operations groups with both sides writing more non-urgent work orders to head off problems. She knew that the crew enjoyed receiving planned work orders where they had a head start on what to do and could suggest future improvements. Sue’s supervisory approach was to assign the work from the weekly backlog and monitor how much work the crew and individuals completed. She was usually in the field seeing where she could provide help to do work in a quality fashion. Because schedule pressure existed, she sometimes had to remind technicians that doing the job right was more important than meeting the time estimate or completing the entire weekly schedule. She just needed to know why they needed changes. The crew kept moving along with the visible goal of work. Break times, start times, and quit times weren’t an issue. Things seemed to be just fine.

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