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How to best control maintenance planning

May 11, 2021
Doc Palmer says KPIs, direct supervision, SOPs and more are all effective, but they all need the right staffing support.

Because we want a high performing maintenance planning group, we need to know the best way to control maintenance planning. When I think of “control” I think of driving down the street with both hands on the steering wheel making sure I stay on the road. I don’t want to drive into the gutter on the left or the gutter on the right!

For control, KPIs (Key Performance or Process Indicators) usually come to mind. But while KPIs might tell me how much time I spend in the gutter, that score by itself doesn’t keep me on the road. The primary “control” to stay on the road is me knowing how to use the steering wheel. So KPIs don’t necessarily control by themselves. And besides KPIs, there are other ways to control. From (not boring to me) organizational theory: Organizations are most effective (stay on the road the most) when they rely primarily on the control method that best matches their technology and environment.

Let’s look at some different methods to control and then connect the dots for planning. (Important note: The most effective organizations use all the control methods, but focus primarily on the method that best matches their individual circumstances. Don’t abandon the other methods!) Of course we’ve heard the saying “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” But we have grown to where you are not going to be able to do everything yourself. We now have an organization to allow specializing.

How about having meetings or everyone simply talking together all the time? This method should be the primary control during a crisis. In organizational terms: the environment is changing super rapidly, the “organization form” is an “adhocracy,” and the preferred control is “mutual adjustment.” The term “ad hoc” pretty much means making things up as we go along. (BTW: Many of our organizations experience “death by meeting” because they overuse meetings when they are not in a crisis.)

How about having supervisors to control the work? There is a lot of churn in maintenance with jobs taking longer or finishing early, and also operators calling with urgent needs. The environment is changing, but not at a crisis rate. The technology of working on machinery is fairly complex, but not necessarily the assigning of persons. We do need maintenance supervisors in the field directing traffic for appropriate spans of control. Organizational terms: the form is called a “simple form” and the preferred control is “direct supervision.”

We could have rules for every little thing. Many organizations create an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) every time something new pops up. Honestly, we do need rules in our organizations. But primary reliance on rules is preferred for assembly lines where the technology is simple or complex, but not changing. And the environment is also not changing. “We’re going to make the frame for the car this way by connecting this to that a zillion times, okay?” (Assembly line thinking probably doesn’t match many maintenance work orders, does it?) Organizational terms: the form is called a “machine bureaucracy” and the preferred control is rules.

Let’s say that the technology is fairly complex and changing, but not at a crisis rate. And the environment is also changing, but not at a crisis rate. I’m thinking of maintenance. We have some fairly complex machinery and its technology is changing over time. And in a maintenance environment, it does seem that a lot of our work is different from day to day, even if not at a crisis rate. (Yes, I know: We’d love to have a world-class plant where everything is ultra-predictable, but honestly we don’t.)

Palmer's Planning Corner

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In this case, the best method of control is to focus on hiring and training the right persons. We do some multi-craft, but as a general concept, consider: We could never write a good enough procedure (rules) for a mechanic to do a complex electrical job. We need an electrician. And we’d never assign an electrician to a complex mechanical job. The organizational form is a “professional bureaucracy” and the preferred control is “staffing.”

Already I’ll tell you that to stay on the road and not in the gutter, staffing is the preferred (remember, not the only) control for maintenance. Make sure you have the right supervisors, the right craftspersons, and the right planners. These roles are all professional positions in today’s world.

And now we get to using KPIs, the preferred control method for upper managers to control a larger (think spread out) organization. How is that group over there doing? Not doing much proactive maintenance? Slow to complete urgent work? The manager might consider that they need maintenance supervisors on the shop floor and not in meetings all the time. See how upper managers use the preferred control method of KPIs at their level to direct actions at a subordinate level? Form: Divisional. Preferred control: KPIs.

All of this talk is a roundabout way of explaining that to make sure planning itself is staying on the road, we need to get the staffing right. We also need meetings, supervisors, rules, and KPIs to help support the planners. But if we get the wrong persons or don’t train them, then meetings, supervisors, rules, and KPIs will probably just hint to us that we have the wrong planners at the steering wheel. The connected dots show a beautiful picture of management controlling a high performing maintenance planning group by first paying careful attention to hiring (or promoting) and training of the planners.

Author’s note: Much of my being able to help “get planning working” at the power station where I worked was this concept of having and training the right persons as planners and somewhat turning them loose. I owe my organizational theory professor Stephen Paulson and the class text by Henry Mintzberg an incredible tribute.)

This story originally appeared in the May 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 www.palmerplanning.com or email Doc at [email protected]. Also visit and subscribe to www.YouTube.com/@docpalmerplanning.

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