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Are your planners juggling too much?

June 18, 2021
Better job prioritization and improved job plans can help your crew leave the three-ring circus behind.
When I was a kid, I recall a trip to the circus. What an amazing experience. The sights, the smells, all the action, the animals, the crowd cheering, and of course, the clowns. At that age, the clowns were my favorite. How on earth did they fit so many into that little car?

I recall one part where a clown was juggling two balls. Another clown then threw a third into the mix, and the juggler did not miss a beat. Then, a fourth ball was tossed, and the juggler adjusted and kept on going. Then, a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh. By the time the act was at its pinnacle, there must have been a dozen balls in the mix. What talent to juggle so many at once.

As a planner, our job is much like our clown friend. We must juggle no matter what is thrown at us. Unlike in the circus act of my youth, we as planners do not always have a choice in how many balls we are juggling. Many organizations create the planner position with good intentions but only set it up for failure. Instead of starting out with two balls, they immediately throw a dozen or more at us.

The planner, to ensure he touches all the work orders, tries to juggle all the balls. Inevitably, he fails. Or, more appropriately, he falls short of providing well planned work packages, which add value to the company. Let us explore this a bit deeper.

Planning pitch and execution

Here is a scenario that I see all the time. Company A, who has 40 technicians across multiple crafts, has a maintenance manager who decides that he should “get into planning” to save efficiency. The pitch to leadership goes great. However, leadership decides the company should gain just a little efficiency to see how it goes and decides it can only hire a single planner to plan for the 40 technicians.

The planner, usually hired from within and having little to no formal training, does his best to understand the expectation and deliver. With 40 technicians to plan for and the company saying we need to plan every job, the planner attempts to juggle it all. Unfortunately, this typically leads to limited or no success or efficiency gain.

The planner, under the pressure to plan for 40 technicians, feels that he must plan all work orders that fall into the planning bucket. This is typically achieved by limiting what a work package is. The hardest thing to do is secure all the parts ahead of time and have them staged. This is the first ball that hits the ground. Work orders go out to the groups with a job plan and an hourly estimate, but that’s about it.

THIS IS A MISTAKE! When parts need to be ordered, the technician goes back to the planner and he orders the necessary parts. When the parts come in the technician can then execute.

The organization, to hold the planner accountable, measures the accuracy of the hourly estimate. In response, the planner focuses on these estimates and attempts to get them as accurate as possible. Months go by under this approach, but efficiencies are not gained. As such, there are no plans to add additional planners, and the company continues onward happy that it has checked the box and can say it is planning work.

I see this exact scenario far too often. Variations of this approach often include even worse practices of having the planner working on emergency work orders and/or also performing the scheduling function in such a large organization. These organizations are just clowning around with planning, throwing every ball they can into a juggling act, which is doomed.

Scheduling by logistics

These courses of action are due to a fundamental misunderstanding of how planning and scheduling delivers value to the organization and what it takes to deliver that value.

The two major contributors to increased efficiency though planning and scheduling are (1) limiting trips to the storeroom, and (2) scheduling by logistics. Having the parts on hand and staged by the time the technician is ready to execute will dramatically reduce time wasted back and forth to the storeroom and searching for parts. Scheduling by logistics means limiting trips to the job site and taking advantage of asset availability. Technicians who will be in a specific area are given other work that can be executed simultaneously. This again reduces trips to the storeroom by having the technician pick up the staged materials for both jobs and head to the job site to execute.

Additionally, when production or your customer identifies work that they want completed, the planner/scheduler should be looking into the backlog to see if other work can be done simultaneously. Sometimes this may require a request for additional time but allows more work to get done without an additional asset outage.

To get to this level of backlog readiness requires the planner to also be efficient. Here is where the real work comes in. The planner must focus on the future, we have heard that often, but what does this mean? The planner is not just focused on future work orders that the technicians will execute, but future work orders that the planner must plan. That’s right, the planner must make his own job easier over time, so it takes less time to plan work. This means ensuring that bills of materials are up to date, saving non-PM job plans to a library for future reference, and filling out classification/specification attributes so the planner can plan from his desk whenever possible. The above steps will, over time, make the planner more efficient at planning and thus allow him to plan more work than today.

However, today the planner is frustrated and needs help. While the planner has a clown car full of reasons to be overwhelmed, we are going to focus on a few key things you can do to turn that frown upside down and start succeeding in your planning efforts.

Perfectly planned job

First things first: take a deep breath. There are some simple things you can do, even as the planner, which will reduce stress and put you on the path to success.

The hardest thing to come to the realization that you do not need to plan every job. As a matter of fact, it is the attempt to do so which is stopping exponential efficiency gains. Before the planning position existed, work was executed. Before the planner position, parts were ordered. Before the planner position, work orders were completed with no job plan. Amazingly, the planner is not needed for work to get done.

I know, harsh, right? Well, this realization is necessary to understand how to become a better planner. The balls have been falling on the ground for decades before you were a planner, stop trying to juggle them all. Let a few hit the ground in exchange for perfectly juggling the others.

Once we accept that we cannot possibly plan all the work appropriately, our next step is to understand what a perfectly planned job includes. This seems obvious but as we dig into it perhaps there will be a few surprises. First, you tackle the fundamentals—identification of parts, labor needs, appropriate job plan steps for the complexity of the job, and the skillsets of the technicians, any necessary permits, specialty tools, safety plans, drawings, pictures, etc. Now, the work is planned from the perspective of being part of the ready backlog.

But wait, just like our clown friend’s handkerchief, there is more. The job plan created should be saved into the CMMS and linked to any asset it is appropriate for. The asset bill of materials should be updated to include the parts which were necessary, the quantity which exists on the asset, and maybe even where on the asset the part is used (inboard vs. outboard bearing). Also, any identical asset by make/model should have its bill of materials updated as well.

One of the most underutilized features of a CMMS is capturing equipment and spare parts attribute data. Attributes such as horsepower, frame size, voltage, or RPM help a planner find alternatives if exact make/model are not available. Sometimes these alternatives are right in the storeroom. Having this information within the CMMS allows for searching equipment or parts that match in attributes.

These attributes are not just for equipment and parts. If you are a planner at a campus style facility, you will want to create attributes at the location record. Attributes such as paint color, ceiling tile number, outlet color, light fixture size, flushometer number, and many others can drastically reduce the time it takes to plan general facilities work orders.

If your CMMS has classification attributes or specification attributes, it is highly recommended that these be created/edited as part of the work package creation. Some systems do not have this capability but rather achieve similar results by having equipment or location templates. For example, a motor template is created with custom fields for hp, voltage, or RPM, as part of the record. The template is applied to all motor records and the attributes can be populated. While this is an extremely time-consuming task, your future planning will take less time and allow you to take on more work orders.

Prioritize the plan

Now that we know how much work there is to “plan for planning,” our next step is to prioritize and descope, so we can handle the workload and make a difference.

Limit what work gets planned by craft such as planning for only the mechanics or electricians or perhaps in an area or single crew. Get down to about 10 technicians. Then, pick the work that occurs most often and focus on those work orders. The goal is “one at a time, perfectly.”

Perfectly means not only the work order’s package, including all planned parts necessary, but also the information that makes planning in the future easier on the planner. Let the remaining balls hit the ground. As proper planning, coupled with scheduling by logistics, takes place the group will become more efficient. The planner will also become more efficient. Gradually increase your workload until you are at the 15:1 ratio. 15 technicians for 1 planner to plan for is a maximum, not a minimum.

I used to think the clowns really crammed into that little car. Perhaps you still do. You see, the car pulls in front of some prop. The clowns are all prepped and ready to go inside the prop. They simply pass through the car from the prop and come out the other side to amaze the audience. The reality is that the goal is not how many clowns can you fit into the car. The goal is how many clowns we can make the audience see come out of the car. This takes planning, not cramming.

Our goal is not how many work orders can have a job plan and an estimate, it is how many are achieved for the customer. The prop is the information within the CMMS. The more we populate the CMMS, the faster and more accurately we can plan down to all materials and reduce trips to the storeroom.

You have got some big shoes to fill. Do not spend too much time sniffing the carnation or you will be all wet. Take a deep breath, descope, and focus on planning all materials and making your job as a planner easier in the future. Now stop clowning around and get planning.

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

About the Author: George Williams
About the Author

George Williams

George Williams, CRL, CMRP, is the founder and CEO of ReliabilityX and is a blackbelt in reliability. He has a master’s degree in reliability engineering from Monash University. Williams spent 16 years with a major pharmaceutical company, where he began as a technician and worked his way up to global asset management. In 2015, Williams’ global team won the Uptime Award for Best Maintenance and Reliability Program. In 2016, he earned recognition by SMRP as CMRP of the Year. He has earned certifications in vibration analysis, infrared thermography, ultrasound, motion amplification, and plant maintenance management. Williams is a published author and a recognized leader in reliability. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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