Optimize industrial plant maintenance time

Nov. 8, 2011
David Berger says maximize wrench time, minimize employee downtime and ensure CMMS data integrity.

With continued economic woes and a steady stream of jobs being exported overseas, you’d think that now, more than ever, management and workers might focus on improving maintenance technician productivity. Doing so would result in not just improved technician efficiency and effectiveness, but, more importantly, there’s a potential to improve the quantity and quality of production output from the assets they maintain.

Some companies preach and rigorously defend a philosophy of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. However, there are always companies reluctant to push their technician workforce for fear of making matters worse by going to battle with employees, especially in a union environment. Sadly, this reluctance means management looks the other way and low productivity is accepted as the cost of doing business.

It’s much easier to establish a fair expectation in terms of output for operators on a paced production line. But for maintenance crews, who are far more mobile and typically not doing highly repetitive tasks, it’s much more difficult to set fair expectations and determine if “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” was actually achieved.

There are ways to set expectations for technician utilization, efficiency and effectiveness, which are viewed as relatively fair to all stakeholders.


It’s somewhat secondary to be efficient or effective if you’re not first on the job, working on value-added work. If a technician is paid to work, say, 40 hours per week for 52 weeks a year, thus totaling 2,080 paid hours, what are the true hours available for work? One must subtract statutory holidays, vacation, paid breaks, paid lunch and other contracted time away from the job that affects utilization. The 2,080 hours quickly shrinks to more like 1,600 hours, depending on the terms of employment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.

Turnover: When companies lose technicians through resignation or firing, it can be an expensive proposition to find, hire and train a replacement. From a utilization perspective, there’s usually a time gap following the departure of the old employee and hiring the new one during which money, such as severance, is being paid. And, there’s little or no value-added work being performed during training of the new employee.

Absenteeism: There are many reasons why a technician might be absent, but the company still pays salary and benefits without value-added work being performed. This form of poor utilization can be expensive if workers are taking advantage of generous contracts, for example, excessive use of sick leave, or abuse of minimum pay for on-call work.

Tardiness: If workers are paid even though they’re late for work, it’s a reduction in utilization. Tardiness should be tracked and controlled before it becomes habitual.

Startup: Even if workers arrive on time or even early, there’s no guarantee that they’ll begin productive work at startup. Many managers turn a blind eye to the fact that some technicians are still drinking coffee, getting changed or chatting with one another as much as 40 minutes past the official start time. Just as workers don’t get paid for the morning commute, they shouldn’t be paid until work begins in earnest. Operators on a paced production line typically are dressed and ready to begin production at the start of their shift, so why not expect the same from technicians?


Cleanup: Similar to startup, technicians should be working productively right until end of shift. Another 40 minutes can be lost in terms of worker utilization, especially on Fridays, as workers prepare to depart. Excuses such as no point in starting a new job, or time needed to get changed or cleaned up, abound. However, unless it’s part of a union contract or stated duties, this time should be productive.

Non-scheduled breaks: Technicians are entitled to paid breaks. However, like the start and end of shift, some managers struggle to ensure break times aren’t extended. As well, some technicians chip away at utilization by taking additional breaks outside for a cigarette, conversing with a colleague or taking extra personal time.

Coaching/training/communication/meetings: Although any of these utilization categories can be considered productive, it’s important to ensure the time is neither too much nor too little. Beware of irrelevant training or inadequate guidance on what work needs to be done.

Travel/moving: Most technicians walk or drive quite a bit on the job for a variety of reasons, such as moving tools, parts, equipment or oneself from one location to another. However, this category of utilization can be hugely excessive because of poor planning and scheduling — not kitting/delivering spare parts or tools ahead of time — or inefficient routing, such as not doing jobs in a logical sequence for the entire shift.

Waiting/searching/selecting: In most cases, these are non-value-added categories of utilization, in whole or in part. Examples are queuing at stores, searching for relevant information or selecting tools for a job. In these examples, in order to improve utilization, the right parts and tools might be placed on a cart prepared ahead of time by the stores keeper, and detailed instructions and equipment history should be attached to the work order.

Data entry: Garbage in means garbage out, for management and maintenance workers alike. Data entry is an extremely important slice of a technician’s utilization, as it provides an accurate asset history, troubleshooting database and snapshot of labor productivity. However, the CMMS should be configured in such a user-centric manner that workers never will view data entry as a waste of their time.

Wrench time: One of the most productive utilization categories is the value-added work that actually is spent repairing or replacing parts, components and equipment. Work sampling is a technique used to track wrench time, along with a breakdown of other value-added and non-value-added categories, including some mentioned above. Although it varies by industry and other factors, for a well-run maintenance shop, wrench time can be consistently above 50% of the total paid day. However, in my experience, many maintenance shops have an average wrench time of only 20% to 30%.

Efficiency and effectiveness

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As can be seen above, productivity can’t be maximized until utilization is optimized. However, the reverse isn’t true. Even if wrench time was an unimaginable 100%, productivity would still be minimal if technician pace was unbearably slow or the quality of work atrocious or the methodology deployed horribly flawed. Thus, productivity is highly dependent on efficiency and effectiveness, not just utilization.

Efficiency refers to how quickly a job is done — the pace or percent of some engineered standard time. Efficiency expectations must take into consideration factors such as fatiguing over the course of a shift, the learning curve and allowances for anomalous conditions, such as carrying excessive weight on an uneven surface in a cold and dark environment.

Effectiveness refers to how well the job is done, considering factors such as the methodology used, the skills and experience required versus actually deployed, the minimal pay rate required versus used to avoid overtime and the quality of output achieved.

Email Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at [email protected].