Approaches to technical staff management

Oct. 8, 2007
There are several different organizational approaches to managing your technical staff. Asset Management expert David Berger examines the pros and cons of each in his latest column.

There are so many factors to consider whenever you try to optimize the organizational structure of your maintenance workforce. This includes the size of the maintenance department, the nature and size of operations, number and complexity of assets, the physical size and layout of facilities and equipment, hours of operations, the nature of the work expected of the maintenance department, skills required, space required and available for the work, and even the political clout of maintenance management.

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In weighing these factors, some maintenance departments have adopted a completely centralized structure. Others are decentralized, both physically and logically, with maintenance technicians reporting directly to production. Still others lie somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, such as distributing technicians throughout the production operations, but reporting directly to a centralized maintenance management. There are, of course, positives and negatives with any of these organizational structures.

Centralized: A centralized environment might enjoy better economies of scale. Examples include a well-equipped central shop and better parts control in a large, secured centralized warehouse that can justify a full-time stockkeeper. A centralized organizational structure also facilitates centralized planning and scheduling by highly skilled maintenance planners. The approach also provides greater opportunity for resource leveling. However, operations sometimes accuses centralized maintenance departments of being bureaucratic and unresponsive to the needs of individual production supervisors, all in the name of greater overall productivity.

Decentralized: Decentralized maintenance, on the other hand, sits well with the operating department. Many operational supervisors are less concerned that maintenance technicians in their areas aren’t all that busy, as long as someone familiar with the equipment is right there when needed. Although this “Maytag repairman” mentality works well to sell home appliances, it’s both costly and unnecessary. Furthermore, most technicians would prefer to be busy, to be challenged by a greater variety of equipment, and to have access to additional resources when needed.

Distributed: The distributed approach strikes a reasonable compromise. By locating technicians with the appropriate skill sets in a given operational area, operational supervisors perceive that at least they have the first right of refusal on a technician’s time, especially during emergencies. Also, maintenance management is somewhat comforted in that at least they have access to and some level of control over resources, by having technicians report on a solid line basis to maintenance and dotted line to operations. The overall result, presumably, is better balancing of the maintenance workload and minimization of downtime across operations.

Organizational gap

Obviously, none of these approaches are perfect. One of the most critical gaps, regardless of organizational approach selected, is who looks after the care and feeding of the technicians. Avoiding the gap means attending to the following critical functions:

  • Determining the skills required to do each job
  • Determining level of competency required for each skill, for each job
  • Assessing technician competency
  • Determining the training/certification requirements to upgrade technician competency
  • Maintaining job descriptions
  • Balancing short-term and long-term needs using an appropriate mix of internal skills and external contractors
  • Managing union/management relations
  • Conducting performance evaluations
  • Determining fair compensation
  • Resolving payroll disputes
  • Identifying promotion opportunities and ensuring candidate success
  • Assisting with career path planning and development
  • Succession planning
  • Managing overtime
  • Dealing with absenteeism
  • Handling discipline
  • Hiring and firing
  • Managing vacation schedules
  • Determining and policing environmental, health and safety policies (eg, wearing appropriate clothing for the job)

Whether technicians report directly through operations or maintenance supervisors, these functions sometimes are sidelined in the name of keeping the equipment running. While this might be a reasonable argument in the short run, often it leads to chronic, long-term neglect of these functions. Moreover, not every supervisor likes, is properly trained for, or is good at delivering on these softer management skills. Even with the addition of CMMS features, such as better human resource tracking and reporting, that facilitate these functions, many maintenance management groups still struggle to fulfill these duties.

The resource pool

One of the most innovative ways to address this problem, especially in large, complex environments, is using the resource pool concept. Think of the technicians as a pool of resources reporting on a solid line to a resource pool manager, available to do work wherever work is needed, in the most effective and efficient manner. That might translate into some technicians working steadily in a given plant area over the long term, some dedicated to a night shift, some specialized resources working centrally on an “as required” basis, and any other reasonable organizational variation.

Regardless of the number or nature of organizational variants used, the common thread is that technicians report on a solid line to the resource pool manager who looks after their care and feeding as defined above, and on a dotted line to either a maintenance or operations supervisor, who is responsible for at least the following functions:

  • Ensuring maintenance services are delivered in a cost-effective and timely manner
  • Ensuring the right parts, tools, and skills are available to do the job
  • Inspecting the work for quality assurance
  • Providing on-the-job technical training, both formally and informally
  • Assisting with problem-solving and decision-making
  • Providing on-site supervision to prevent environmental, health, safety and other problems from arising.
  • Providing feedback to the resource pool manager regarding technician performance
  • Conducting administrative duties such as approving time cards and work orders, preparing and tracking budgets, preparing regulatory-based reports
  • Using the CMMS to analyze and report on data for improved decision making
    To some extent, the resource pool is similar to an outside maintenance contractor that supplies resources to a company on a long-term basis. For example, if you’re unhappy with a contractor’s resource, you can provide feedback with the expectation that action will be taken, such as replacement, discipline, or simply performance feedback to avoid a recurrence. This is true for an internal resource pool, albeit less formal in the absence of a formal maintenance contract.

Resource pool manager

Selecting a resource pool manager with the right skills is critical to the success of the resource pool and the departments served. Ideally, this individual should be knowledgeable about maintenance and well regarded as an experienced practitioner. The resource pool manager should be at the supervisor level, depending on how big the pool is, and should have excellent people skills. If there are many good choices for the position, some companies rotate the position among the qualified supervisors, who serve for perhaps a two-year period. For smaller pools, the resource pool manager can be a role for one of the supervisors.

Role of the CMMS

One of the key benefits of the resource pool is that the care and feeding functions are handled more consistently across the pool. Thus, technicians aren’t as disadvantaged by weaker supervisors who lack the skills to perform these functions. The CMMS is a useful tool that helps ensure consistency for the collection and analysis of data across the pool, including information on technician education and certification, training schedule, skills, competencies, performance record, vacation plan and so on.

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

About the Author

David Berger | P.Eng. (AB), MBA, president of The Lamus Group Inc.

David Berger, P.Eng. (AB), MBA, is president of The Lamus Group Inc., a consulting firm that provides advice and training to extract maximum performance, quality and value from your physical assets, processes, information systems and organizational design. Based in Toronto, Berger has held senior positions in industry, including for two large manufacturers, and senior roles in consulting. He has written more than 450 articles on a variety of topics such as asset management, operations management, information technology, e-commerce, organizational design, and strategy. Contact him at [email protected].

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