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Keep it simple: Learn to trust your craftspersons more

Jan. 18, 2021
Doc Palmer says giving crafts more control over the weekly job schedule will free time to learn from each project.

We all know what KISS means: “Keep it simple, Sherlock” or something similar. Maintenance planning and scheduling practically beg us to make them over complicated, but both greatly benefit from more simplistic thinking. Having planners spend the time to create really detailed job plans would seem to be the best way to improve job quality and productivity by reducing job problems. But trusting the crafts more is more effective and simpler. Having schedulers create weekly schedules that set daily schedules would seem to be the best way to improve productivity by setting expectations. But merely giving the crew a batch of work for the entire week is more effective and simpler.

Palmer's Planning Corner

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

A current, popular planning strategy has planners create “really good job plans” that anticipate and head off maintenance problems on individual jobs. A great job plan reduces mistakes by craftspersons who follow step by step instructions to complete a job correctly. Less variation comes from having different craftspersons all follow the same instructions. The plans rely less on craft skill and tribal knowledge. The plans reduce the possibility that less skilled craftspersons might otherwise compromise the job. As a result, jobs encounter fewer delays and so increase productivity. As a result, jobs also are completed correctly and so increase quality of work.

One problem with this “really good job plan” strategy is that such great job plans take time to figure and write out properly. How can a planner stay ahead of all the jobs constantly coming in for 20 to 30 craftspersons? One common solution is to have a project at the very beginning of establishing the planning program to create a library of commonly anticipated procedures. A plant could staff this project in various ways, such as having a group of about-to-retire (or recently retired) supervisors or even having extra planners at the start. Another common solution is to bite the bullet and have more planners altogether. Still another common solution is to consider that not all jobs need planning anyway and have planners only plan the more complex jobs. Unfortunately, plants that run projects to develop a super library of job plans upfront often find the plans are fairly generic (unsuited to individual circumstances) and the plants hardly ever update the plans to make them more useful as learning takes place over the years. After all, “projects” have ends, don’t they? (A third common solution is to beat planners unmercifully, insisting they plan all jobs perfectly to stay ahead of 20 to 30 craftspersons.)

Another, and perhaps more significant, problem with this “really good job plan” strategy is that it presumes a planner is smarter than the cumulative skill and experience of 20 to 30 craftspersons to tell the planner what to do in the first place.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could somehow instill the wisdom and knowledge of all the craftspersons into each individual job plan? And we can! Enter Dr. Deming and the Deming Cycle. Perhaps you have heard of it as PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) or Continuous Improvement. The best strategy uses the planners as “Craft Historians” to develop really good plans over time. Planners continuously give head starts and update job plans with craft feedback. In this manner, the planners admit they are not perfect. The planners give as much information as they can when they plan a job, but operate under the constraint that they must plan nearly all the work. The planning goal is to put all jobs through the Deming Cycle. That’s a lot simpler isn’t it? The planners can plan all the work and they don’t have to be perfect. We are counting on the skill of the crafts.

Both strategies, having really good plans at the start and developing them over time, desire that craftpersons have great job plans. The preferred Deming strategy to develop them over time is superior in that it actively incorporates the wisdom of the entire workforce, it updates the plans, it makes the plans specific for individual circumstances, it plans all the work (necessary to support scheduling), and it is a whole lot simpler. “Hey, planner. You don’t have to be perfect.” Whew! What a relief!

Similarly to the way many plants make planning very difficult, they also overly complicate scheduling. A current, popular weekly scheduling strategy is to create five daily schedules for all the labor capacity a week in advance. Haha. Not only does that take a lot of time and effort, but it is also useless on Monday morning or soon thereafter. Planners do not have perfect knowledge of all job needs. They do not know if the slowest or fastest craftsperson will be assigned. They don’t know how many times operations will interrupt with new urgent work. (Yes, you can say a “world class” plant doesn’t have these problems. But you have a “real world” plant, don’t you?) There is a lot of churn in a real world plant. To compensate, many plants modify this strategy to schedule only certain jobs on days throughout the next week and do not fully load up the available labor capacity. But under-loading the labor capacity does not increase craft productivity over that of not having a weekly schedule at all.

The best weekly scheduling strategy has the scheduler simply giving each crew a batch of work for the next week where the batch is fully loaded for the labor capacity, but does not specify individual days or persons as much as possible. The fully loaded schedule without specified days beats Parkinson’s Law (the amount of work assigned expands to fill the time available) and compensates for the daily churn. Such a batch of work for the week greatly improves productivity (one of the primary purposes of scheduling). The key to making such a simple schedule work is to expect schedule compliance of between 40% and 90%. It has to be okay to break the schedule. Plants that expect 90% or higher schedule compliance invariably under-load the schedule and do not increase craft productivity at all.

Imagine that. Allowing planners to be imperfect and having schedulers provide simple buckets of work are the best strategies. Both planning and scheduling can be simple and super-highly effective, a “win-win.” Keep it simple, Simon.

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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