Planning and Scheduling

The value of planning reactive work

Doc Palmer says don’t let reactive work wreck the success of your planning and scheduling program.

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

Reactive work often ruins a planning and scheduling program. Although companies want to plan most of their work, they often allow reactive work to bypass planning and scheduling altogether. The problem is that a company usually has enough reactive work that bypassing planning greatly diminishes the potential benefits of both planning and scheduling. However, there is a way to handle reactive work that makes the entire planning and scheduling program impressively effective.

When something breaks, maintenance crew supervisors hate to wait on maintenance planning. Many repairs are obvious fixes, and quickly restoring service brings praise from both operations and management. It is easy to say, “Proper maintenance should be about preventing breakdowns,” but most companies do have breakdowns. A common company target might be to have 20% (or less) reactive work, of which 3% is emergency and 17% is otherwise urgent and should not wait until next week. Why shouldn’t companies allow this 20% of the work to bypass planning and scheduling? Wouldn’t planning and scheduling the other 80% of the work constitute an effective program?

Unfortunately, such a philosophy of allowing work to bypass planning misses the significant opportunity to help craftspersons with lessons learned on past jobs. An easy route for bypassing planning also encourages more and more work to bypass planning, regardless of that work’s urgency. In addition, not fully loading weekly schedules with 100% of the available labor capacity greatly diminishes the goal-setting aspect of scheduling and its potential for dramatic productivity gains.

In a proper planning program, a lot of the reactive work can be planned simply by recognizing planners as craft historians who improve plans over time, especially with feedback. Emergency work has to start now, but not all urgent work has to start right away. Planners should continually check with crew supervisors as urgent work arises. Planners likely will find crews already starting (or completing) some of this work and about to start other urgent work. But planners also will find that much of the urgent work is not going to be started in the next few hours or even that day.

Why shouldn’t the planner be able to look quickly at the job and at plant files to see if there is any information that could help this work? Attaching an existing plan can avoid repeating a past problem. Simply estimating hours can help with assigning the work. Why doom a craftsperson to reinvent the wheel for that second gasket size, unusual bearing number, or special access method when relevant information from previous work is on hand? That’s what planners do: They collect and improve job plans over the years.

Why doom a supervisor to assign a job saying, “Come back when you are done,” when a quick site inspection or file information could have provided a decent job scope and time estimate? The keys are 1) knowing that any plan is better than none, and 2) never telling supervisors to wait.

In addition, quickly planning a good portion of reactive work will greatly enhance the credibility of a fully loaded schedule. Fully loading schedules at 100% capacity of expected labor for the next week is critical for higher-than-normal productivity. Fully loaded schedules provide a work goal that increases productivity. It is this goal that fosters a culture in which the crew exists to complete a certain amount of work (higher productivity), whereas in the normal culture, the crew exists to take care of operations (normal productivity). In goal-setting, if a goal is too high or too low, it will not change normal performance. (The caveat that crews working toward fully loaded schedules may break the schedule does fulfill the necessity of “taking care of operations.”) But the fully loaded schedule must credibly include the best selection of work available.

A company that allows a lot of work to bypass planning usually knows ahead of time a significant amount of specific work that will break the schedule. It is reactive work that bypassed planning but was not started after all. In this type of company, it is difficult to create a fully loaded schedule with much credibility. These companies usually lightly load the schedules to accommodate the specific work they already know will break the schedule. Furthermore, once they have decided not to load the schedule 100%, they go ahead and simply schedule a certain percentage of capacity, such as 65%, 70%, or perhaps even 80%. Unfortunately, these companies have lost the goal-setting aspect of scheduling that makes weekly scheduling most effective.

A proper planning and scheduling program where planners quickly plan a good portion of the reactive work will help the scheduler create the most-credible schedules. The scheduler can actually include reactive work in next week’s schedule if it is planned but still waiting to be started at the end of the week, so the known work that would have broken the schedule is now in the schedule to begin with. Including such waiting reactive work greatly increases the schedule’s credibility. The 100% loaded schedule is a key factor in high productivity, and it can be as credible as possible if planners have been aggressively planning throughout the week the new reactive work that did not start right away.

Don’t let reactive work wreck your planning and scheduling program. Quickly plan some of the reactive work, knowing that plans are helpful even if they are not perfect. But never, ever tell supervisors to wait!