Daily workflow management: Helping the maintenance department dictate plant activities

Aug. 19, 2020
Daily workflow management must be mastered if a maintenance department is to dictate plant activities, and not the other way around.

One of the more difficult aspects of industrial maintenance optimization is a concept we’ll call daily workflow management.

What is daily workflow management? A maintenance department has to balance a variety of service needs: preventative vs. emergent work, projects vs. daily work, safety vs. operability priorities. In a disorganized plant, maintaining this balance might be as simple as getting delivered through a phone call directly from the plant manager, while a more structured organization may have a well-developed work order system.

Regardless of where your facility stands on this spectrum, every morning the question is the same: What work needs to be done today? That’s where workflow management comes in. A systematic approach to solving the puzzle of competing priorities, inputs, and demands is one of the keys to maintenance optimization. This article outlines one such framework.

World Class Maintenance programs usually target a ratio of roughly 90% to 10% planned vs. unplanned (reactive) maintenance. And planned maintenance, as it were, takes planning – the backbone of workflow management. One vital aspect of resource optimization is effective planning and scheduling. (Actually creating a schedule, one that is coordinated with operations, ready to execute, and realistic, is a subject for a future article.) Here, let’s assume that a well-loaded and ready-to-work schedule is in place. That means that every morning, 90% of the day’s work should be pre-planned and ready for assignment.

Of the many benefits to scheduling, perhaps the most important is workforce efficiency. Knowing what to work on in advance gives operations time to prepare equipment for service, including lockout/tagouts and permits for workers – and this preparation can be a huge time saver.

From a maintenance perspective, prior scheduling aids efficient prioritization. Scheduling meetings usually involve representatives from other departments and therefore balance the interests of the business quickly and effectively. That’s one less thing to worry about on the day of execution – and a big load removed from the shoulders of managers, supervisors, and leads. Extra mental bandwidth is vital to sound decision-making when it comes to allocating the remaining 10% of available resources.

One thing any maintenance professional knows is that 10% of his or her time is never enough to cover emergent work. Some days are good, and some days are not so good, but either way a core competency for leadership is determining what gets worked and what waits. Often, part of the 90% targeted scheduled load must be delayed or compressed to keep operations moving and product flowing out the door.

A key element to optimal load balancing is to have a single individual ultimately making assignment decisions. In the restaurant industry, this person is called the expediter. They take as inputs open orders, prepared food, and available waitstaff. A restaurant’s survival is tied to the satisfaction of their customers as a whole – not necessarily individuals – and this is where the expediter’s outputs come into play. Some orders have to wait, others need increased priority by the kitchen. Food runners have to take partial orders, or delay a task subordinate to a more principal goal.

A maintenance department is no different. Competing priorities have to be balanced, and there’s just no effective way to divide the responsibility amongst different people – or worse yet leave it up to individual technicians. First, no two people will agree on prioritizing a full workload and the disagreements will likely lead to friction, miscommunication, and ultimately delays. Second, it’s human nature that technicians tend to gravitate towards work they find rewarding or where their aptitude lies. A decentralized decision-making framework only ever lines up with plant and business priorities, if ever, by pure chance. That’s not efficient from a plant or department perspective.

Finding the right person to allocate daily work is difficult. The lead or supervisor that typically fills this role needs to have a big-picture perspective on plant needs. He or she must appreciate the importance of planned maintenance so as to resist the temptation to tackle only emergent work and cause bigger problems down the road. Another quality often overlooked is effective communication. Morning meetings are usually quick and jam-packed. It’s very important to effective execution that assignments are delegated clearly and understood by the entire team. Technicians are then responsible for successfully completing the assigned tasks or otherwise communicating any developments. A lead or supervisor must have a mandate to demand this from his team. Only then is there sufficient individual accountability in place for a maintenance department to execute reliably at a high level.

There are, of course, many necessary elements to effective workflow management that are not included in the narrow scope of this post. The need for a well-trained work force accustomed to reporting breakdowns through a CMMS can’t be understated. Bloated and ineffective PM programs mean that the 90% of time spent on planned maintenance doesn’t advance the core goal of reducing future breakdowns, which in turn means the 10% of time allocated for unplanned maintenance will never be enough. However, daily workflow management must be mastered if a maintenance department is to dictate plant activities, and not the other way around.

About the Author

Alex Ferrari

Alex Ferrari, CMRP, is a Maintenance Manager of a specialty cosmetics manufacturer in Charlotte, NC. He has worked in the chemical and nuclear industries both in the US and abroad in Argentina. As a blogger and as a maintenance professional, Alex aims to explore the challenges faced by small and mid-sized facilities without the budget for by-the-book reliability programs.

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