How planners can leverage craft skills

Dec. 2, 2020
Doc Palmer says planners should leave room for the judgments of craftspeople, and not be “perfect plan providers.”

The whole argument of should a job be planned or just rely on the “skill of the crafts” is catawampus. It’s very awkward. It’s like saying walnuts taste purple. Instead, planning itself should leverage the craft skills, not the planner skills.

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The idea of letting the crafts handle a job without planning is two-fold. First, aren’t some jobs so relatively simple that skilled crafts can handle them without a planner telling them what to do? And second, the planner is busy with jobs of complexity that would obviously benefit from planning. You would hate to take planner time away from more complicated jobs.

Similarly, another planning approach is to have “procedures-driven-maintenance” where all jobs are to be planned to the level of a new craftsperson and so craftspersons “must” follow the procedures. However, planners do not have time to put perfect detail into every single new job. Management frequently resorts to planning the trickier jobs to a great level of detail and letting the “skill of the crafts” deal with the other jobs without any planning. The thought is that eventually planners will have a large bank of job plans with great detail for most of the jobs that will ever come up. At that point all jobs would go through planning.

Some plants try to bypass the time to develop the large bank of great job plans and thereby have procedures-driven-maintenance for all the maintenance jobs at the start. They bring in resources such as retired (or about to retire) supervisors to go ahead and write plans for all the anticipated jobs that the plant should experience.

But what is this notion that the planner is somehow smarter than the crafts? Are we saying that we will take the best craftspersons, and make them into planners that dictate procedures for the rest? Or perhaps more graciously, we say planners are good at getting job information from manufacturing manuals to share with everyone else.

In either case, it looks like we are trying to leverage the skill of the planner across the rest of the workforce. I can perhaps understand the desire that every plan should be planned for a new craftsperson. It does make sense to have more skilled persons plan jobs for new persons. Nevertheless, what about our craft skills training? Do wonderful procedures lessen the importance of training?

Let me share a thought: No matter how great the planner might be, there is no way a single person can be as smart as the cumulative wisdom and experience of the twenty to thirty craftspersons for whom they plan.

Consider craft experience. One particular mechanic simply likes sump pumps and has a wealth of knowledge about them. Other mechanics consult that mechanic before working on sumps. “Hey Jim, I’ve got a work order on the 1A sump at Northside. Anything I need to know?” Jim rustles through his locker to consult some notes and then pronounces “Sump 1A has a modified base. Take longer bolts.” The other mechanic then goes out to have a more successful job. Hmmmm… Shouldn’t we have some sort of formal system that saves or institutionalizes information for all the mechanics?

Consider craft wisdom. We don’t have perfect knowledge of all maintenance jobs. We never want craftspersons to blindly follow job plans. The planner gives a plan to replace a pump impeller. The mechanic opens up the pump and sees the impeller does have a problem. But the mechanic also sees a badly worn place on one side of the casing. The mechanic takes the entire casing to the shop, blasts it clean, and builds it up with high performance polymer. Do you want the mechanic to blindly follow the plan and just do the impeller? Hmmmm… Shouldn’t we allow our craftspersons to exercise their judgment?

I do want great plans a new craftsperson can use as a guide. And I do want great plans a senior craftspersons can use as a reference. I just don’t want to mandate craftspersons to follow the plans. If you ever punish a person for exercising their judgment to deviate from the plan, you’ll get to vicious compliance. In the future, that person will knowingly follow a flawed procedure that damages an asset rather than risk exercising judgment to save the asset. (I’m not talking about dereliction of duty or incompetence. I’m saying that no one is perfect and no plan is perfect.)

The problem is: how do you get to wonderful job plans for everyone? The idea of a “project” to develop all the plans at the start is problematic. One plant had supervisors develop three huge binders of job procedures before the plant even began operation. Ten years later, no single procedure had ever been updated. You can’t tell me they had developed absolutely perfect procedures at the start. Indeed, the notion of a “project” to develop great plans all at once may be flawed in that projects have “ends” and hence imply “we are done.” No improvements are expected or invited.

Instead, the best approach considers planners not to be “perfect plan providers” leveraging their knowledge, but “craft historians” leveraging craft knowledge. This thinking is simply Continuous Improvement and PDCA, Plan Do Check Act, from Dr. W. Edwards Deming. If we think we are perfect, we have already lost.

Yes, we want great job plans to guide new people and to provide reference for senior people. But the best way to plan is to let planners give us head starts and then forever put all jobs through endless cycles of improvement, especially from actual craft feedback. And the only way we can put all the jobs through the cycle is to plan all the jobs.

But didn’t we say we didn’t have enough time to plan all the jobs? Actually, we do have enough time to plan all the work if planners don’t try to be perfect. Instead planners should plan jobs within a time constraint that they must plan nearly all the work.

In this manner, jobs rely less and less on craft skill over the years because crafts will have better plans as the years go by. But actually the plans themselves are simply incorporating the skill of the crafts through feedback more and more over the years.

So, yes, we want to rely on the skill of the crafts as we plan all the work. Start planning all the work today without delay to leverage the skill of the crafts!

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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