Don't be afraid to make mistakes at your plant and learn from your failures

Aug. 10, 2021
Doc Palmer says good planning embraces the uncertainty of all plant work in order to help set the best direction forward.

In the 1999 first edition of the Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook, I stated the second principle of planning as “planners focus on future work.” I probably could have said that “planners give head starts on all the jobs and later use feedback to make them better.”

I could have said that “planners run a Deming Cycle.” I think saying they “focus on future work” properly captures the action of the planning function. Nonetheless, the concept definitely needs some explanation. This is the most momentous part of a proper planning system. It resolves the primary industry frustration with maintenance planning.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American from Sioux City, Iowa, appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Largely ignored by the American industries he wanted to help, he sailed to Japan and helped turn it into an industrial powerhouse.

His revolutionizing concepts of continuous improvement are widely embraced today. Today, we see them embodied in the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) charts in the hallways of many of our companies. But PDCA was then, and honestly even today, difficult to put into practice, psychologically, because Dr. Deming’s primary concept of continuous improvement requires us to embrace failures!

In practice today, maintenance planning has a hard time running the Deming Cycle. The very word “planner” is troublesome. “Planner” makes it sound like the planner will develop “plans” that tell the craftspersons how to do their jobs. Managers also proclaim that “craftspersons will never have to hunt for parts anymore!”

Of course, that’s impossible because nothing is perfect. But the crafts, often with 20 or more years of experience under their belts, resent that someone is going to tell them what to do. They take every opportunity of “this plan is missing this part, and that plan is missing that clearance specification” to beat the planners to death. Planners are then dragged out into the field to help these jobs in progress find the missing parts and information because the plan was not perfect.

So, planners spend the majority of their time helping jobs-in-progress to the point where they are not planning all the incoming work. And then they have to help unplanned work in the field that did not get any plan at all. We see that the planners are not focusing on future work, work that has not been started. This is the root of the industry frustration with planning.

Palmer's Planning Corner

This article is part of our monthly Palmer's Planning Corner column. Read more from Doc Palmer.

How do we fix this situation? We need to back up and admit that plans are never perfect. Instead, we should recognize that crafts generally know how to work on equipment, or can at least find out on their own if they don’t have the information they need. (Psssst: That’s what they used to do before we had “planning.”)

We should recognize that best practice is to:

  1. Use planners to provide “head starts” on all the jobs
  2. Then, use crafts to do the best work they can while the crafts also mark up the plans for what would help better next time
  3. Then, planners update the plans
  4. Finally, planners give better head starts in the future.

Plan-Do-Check-Act. That’s what PDCA really is. That’s the Deming Cycle!

We don’t expect plans to be perfect. We expect craftspersons to exercise their skills, experience, and judgment not only to execute plans, but to compensate for imperfect plans. We want to slowly incorporate that great learning into future job plans.

We expect sometimes maintenance work will run into problems and present learning opportunities. We accept that “problems are not problems, but opportunities.” Don’t shoot the messenger; instead ask, “How can we update the job plan to avoid that problem next time?”

Better terminology from management would help describe what planners do. David Clemons (JEA Planner) says, “I’m not a planner! I’m a craft historian!” Warren Trojanoski (JEA Planner) says, “I don’t plant full grown oak trees! I plant seedlings!”

Let’s consider Procedures Driven Maintenance. Yes, we want great job plans. We have complex machinery to maintain. We want to minimize variation and promote consistency of work, especially because different craftspersons have different levels of expertise. But technology is changing. Equipment is changing. Processes are changing. And so maintenance is changing over time, even if not at a crisis rate. Therefore, we must continually update job plans.

But planning is not the “silver bullet.” We also must continually train our craftspersons. We do not provide job plans so we can save money by not training our craftspersons.

And furthermore, the exact condition of the asset needing attention is not certain. Yes, we want great job plans, but the plans and procedures are a guide for a new person and a reference for a senior person. The plans are normally not step-by-step mandates. It must be okay for craftspersons to exercise their judgment. It must be okay to do what is right.

Will those field decisions turn out badly sometimes? Yes, but we must accept imperfect judgment as well as imperfect plans. Then, we must learn quickly and update plans (and training where necessary). We must have a system in place that welcomes learning and growth, and not a system that punishes failures. That’s the Deming Cycle! That’s accepting failure as a part of growth.

Admit that plans are not perfect. Allow planners to focus on future work, work we have not yet started. Get craftspersons to help update job plans as they execute the head starts. Don’t settle for being a good plant. Accept mistakes and learn quickly.

Admit failure. Be a great plant!

This story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Doc Palmer
About the Author

Doc Palmer | PE, MBA, CMRP

Doc Palmer, PE, MBA, CMRP is the author of McGraw-Hill’s Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook and as managing partner of Richard Palmer and Associates helps companies worldwide with planning and scheduling success. For more information including online help and currently scheduled public workshops, visit or email Doc at [email protected]. Also visit and subscribe to

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