Scheduling without a scheduler

Dec. 21, 2020
Scheduling is one of the cornerstones of a modern maintenance department, and is what sets apart proactive and reactive facilities.

Scheduling is one of the cornerstones of a modern maintenance department, and is what sets apart proactive and reactive facilities. The reason for this is obvious: by coordinating activities with the rest of the plant ahead of time, maintenance techs are more likely to be at the right place at the right time with the right tools.

Many smaller plants, however, make a business decision not to hire a scheduler because they do not have enough techs and planners to justify one. As a result, they end up not scheduling at all. So, what are these plants to do? Hope the stars align for equipment and maintenance to both be available at the same exact time and live with major efficiency losses that surely follow? Nonsense. Any facility can quickly benefit from scheduling by focusing on three key steps.

1. Step one is to create a workable schedule by means of weekly meetings with production and other stakeholders like engineering or EH&S. Use this time to coordinate maintenance and production activities for the following week. Production schedulers and supervisors are typically present, with the blessing from plant leadership to honor any agreements made in the meeting. With the right people in the room (and a well-prepared draft), it should not be difficult to set dates to shut down equipment for maintenance. That way, for example, electricians are not showing up to replace a motor in the middle of a batch nor are they checking equipment availability every day. While good attendance may be difficult to drum up at first, it will improve as the benefits of interdepartmental coordination become apparent. That last point is more important than it may seem at first glance.

Another important objective of the meeting is to persuade the other participants that the maintenance department can help them achieve their own goals. Ask engineering, production, EH&S, and everyone else in the room if any of their priorities are missing from the schedule. Incorporate as many as possible because their buy-in will help in more ways than you can imagine. (This is not an exaggeration!) You will also be covered if any work does not make it to the schedule. After all, everyone had an opportunity to voice their opinion beforehand.

2. With a fresh schedule ready to go, step two is to use it to plan the work week. This basic approach will help structure the maintenance department in an optimal way to maximize wrench time and free up resources. One of the biggest drags on efficiency occurs when a tech must switch gears and change from one job to another. Half a day can be lost easily, which is a major setback especially if it happens with any sort of regularity. Each such course correction is also a drag on the maintenance supervisor or manager. More time spent directing personnel means less time for higher level activities such as reliability improvements that would otherwise reduce future breakdowns. Without coordinating with production ahead of time through scheduling, such a scenario is common.

3. The third step is to trend schedule performance to push continuous improvement. Completion results are a gold mine of high-quality data because common causes for schedule failures tend to reflect problem areas for the department. Keep track of misses (scheduled work orders that were either incomplete or not worked at all), and bin them in categories such as the cause for the miss and the department that was responsible. Within weeks, you will have a rich dataset on which to base corrective actions. The same areas that will drive schedule completion – discipline, effective planning, and workflow efficiency – will also drive overall department performance, which is why completion percentage is also a great leading indicator and KPI.

Perhaps surprisingly, scheduling can be a “quick win” for new reliability programs rather than an advanced practice to be implemented further down the road. Even for smaller plants without the dedicated staff, it is well worth the time to create a schedule to drive weekly maintenance activities. This focuses the department, promotes discipline and high performance, and not just for maintenance but operations as well. After all, equipment needs to be available in the first place and returned on time, which requires prompt and predictable actions from both departments. Reliability professionals will find that not only does this high level of plant coordination put wind in their sails but is in fact a prerequisite for the genuine improvements they seek to implement.

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