Handle your labor standards with these helpful tips

April 19, 2004
Here are some tips for handling the delicate issue of labor standards

Nearly every computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) allows a user to enter "planned" or "standard" hours on a work order, and then report on actual versus planned hours when the job is complete. This holds true for both preventive and corrective maintenance work orders.

Determining the standard hours an average maintenance technician will require to complete a task under standard operating conditions should, in theory, provide everyone involved a sense of expected output. The standards provide management with valuable input for manpower planning, scheduling, budgeting and costing. Labor standards also form the baseline for determining labor savings for improved methods.

Many maintenance managers have observed firsthand the negative effect that setting a standard can have on the workforce. As methods improve, standards tighten and technicians perceive a noose that's getting tighter with each improvement. This situation discourages people who must do the work from coming forward with innovative ideas that might further improve efficiency.

At the other end of the hierarchy, many managers fear that a standard might set an upper limit on worker productivity. The thought is that people will work only as hard as they must. Therefore, managers don't want to set standards that are too loose.

A simple solution to this dilemma is to use standards for "accounting" purposes only, so that work orders won't need to reveal the standards to the technicians doing the work. This, of course, makes it difficult to fault a worker for not meeting expectations. With management expectations unknown to the trades, technicians whose work is consistently substandard have no reason to think they're underachievers. Thus, this solution is appropriate in a company with good relations between workers and management and workers are, in general, above average.

Some companies attack the problem by setting ideal, unachievable standards. Unfortunately, these standards make no allowance for the realities in the environment, such as having to walk to a remote location, equipment that's difficult to access and other less-than-ideal conditions. Unachievable standards can be disastrous because technicians, and their supervisors for that matter, are continually frustrated by not being able to meet the standard, no matter how they try.

Set achievable targets

First and foremost, shift the focus away from meeting management-imposed standards. Wherever possible, achieve a series of reasonable short- to long-term targets, set by or with the help of the technicians. This avoids both the frustration of never attaining ideal standards and the problem with easily achievable, loose standards.

Not for discipline

Use standards primarily for accounting and scheduling purposes, not for disciplining those who can't make the standard. If a technician consistently misses targets, management first should determine the cause, use other means to prove a problem exists and then deal with it. For example, the reason someone can't meet a standard can be as innocent as a lack of training, or as nasty as sleeping on the job. In either case, the problem will be identified first via planned-versus-actual reports the CMMS generates. However, management should investigate and confront the technician only after gathering evidence through other means, such as "management by walking around."

Focus on improvement

Rather than obsessing about simply meeting current standards, management and workers should focus on ways to improve productivity for a process or task by using methods improvement, layout changes, training or simply better performance. Various built-in CMMS analysis tools can determine problem areas, their causes and the cost/benefit of alternative solutions. The most effective method improvements not only result in tightened standards, but also improve working conditions and increase the level of technician responsibility.

Standards are much easier to accept when technicians are allowed to influence the decisions that affect their jobs. In turn, job satisfaction improves, as does productivity. Lean manufacturing, total productive maintenance, productivity improvement teams, suggestion plans, representation on task forces to re-engineer processes or improve systems are common vehicles for increasing worker responsibility. Proper training programs also are essential.

Friendly competition

Target setting can be even more effective when coupled with a productivity improvement program that involves competitive teams. Not only are there individual targets for various processes or tasks, but teams are responsible for establishing team targets for a craft, shift, department or even division. This pits one team against another to achieve the highest productivity level. As well, peer pressure and group dynamics help to identify and minimize bottleneck processes or people.

Supporting technology

A CMMS provides an excellent vehicle for entering, analyzing and reporting standard and actual performance data. CMMS-based analysis tools, such as Pareto analysis, root cause analysis and trend analysis, can switch the emphasis from discipline to identifying improvement opportunities.

As an extension to the CMMS, personal digital assistants are fast becoming the most valuable technology tools available to a technician. Mobile technology forces maintenance planners to assign tasks and download them to individual maintainers' PDAs based on planned hours. Each PDA then automatically tracks the time spent on each assigned task for comparison to plan and standard.

More sophisticated implementations of mobile technology can result in productivity gains of as much as 20% or more. Some of the advanced PDA features contributing to this gain include:

* Validating inspection readings.

* Capturing data as work is completed, instead of at the end of the day.

* Issuing work orders on the fly.

* Alarming capability.

* On-the-job access to work order history and analysis tools to assist in task completion.

More importantly, with properly implemented mobile technology, technicians feel they have a portal into the main system. They feel empowered to get the work done effectively, without the burden of additional paperwork.

Monetary incentives

Financial incentives for individuals or groups can provide significant motivation for improving productivity. Examples of incentives include profit sharing, gain sharing, suggestion plans with financial rewards and performance-based bonuses. As a word of caution, establish incentives that simultaneously encourage individual creativity, teamwork at the line or departmental level, and net positive gains across the division or company.

Non-monetary incentives

Non-monetary or low-cost incentives also can work well. Examples include providing pizza as a reward when the department or team reaches a milestone performance target or resolves a major problem. The easiest and lowest-cost incentive is recognition, such as a write-up in the company newsletter or a wall chart showing performance targets that were met or exceeded.

E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger at [email protected].