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Why I’d rather have a supervisor than a planner

July 7, 2020
Doc Palmer says planning is not a “silver bullet” that solves everything.

Usually my work is helping companies with new or existing planners, but sometimes I visit places where there are related organizational problems. I’ve seen many different style organizations in various industries around the world and planning is definitely not the “silver bullet” that solves everything. You still have to have the other positions and do all the other stuff. You still need skilled crafts available, and these crafts need a maintenance supervisor before just about anything else. If you have maintenance supervisors, the next position I would consider having is a maintenance manager. After a manager, I’d want a reliability engineer. After that, I’d want a planner. Let’s see why.

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It doesn’t matter what type of maintenance organization you have, if you don’t have skilled crafts. You can hire them or train them, hopefully both. They might be in-house or contract. You have to have crafts to do the work and they have to know how to do it. You can’t just rely on unskilled crafts using “really great” procedures. Instead, procedures and job plans help skilled craftspersons. Maintenance is too dynamic and uncertain for static procedures alone. You also can’t simply rely on unskilled crafts having “really great” supervision, even though supervisors can help shore up some weak craft skills.

Without maintenance supervisors (or a maintenance manager partially filling the supervisor role), crafts commonly report to operations that focus on running “today.” While the “today” focus ensures taking care of problems, the crafts are not necessarily as busy as they could be. The addition of supervisors adds a level of responsibility to take care of things operators don’t generally care about “today.” The supervisors keep the crafts busy doing more PM work and taking care of little problems that will reduce operator concerns “tomorrow” or soon in the future. Supervisors move the craft productivity from “taking care of problems” to “keeping everyone busy.” I have seen the results of one wrench time study that had crafts without supervisors at only 20 percent. Normally crafts are at 35 percent with maintenance supervisors. So the addition of supervisors increases plant reliability with the extra productivity. Common industry ratios are 1:10 to 1:15; that is, a single supervisor can lead 10 to 15 mechanics or mixed craftspersons, or up to 1:20 or so for electrical or controls craftspersons.

Adding a maintenance manager gives a further boost in reliability, if only by exercising more control over budgets and creating and executing policies for hiring, and training to ensure the availability of crafts and supervisors. Nevertheless, having a maintenance manager also fosters better coordination with operations, storeroom, purchasing, project, engineering, and other groups, which further improves plant performance. The manager could also establish staff reliability and predictive maintenance capabilities.

After having crafts, supervisors, and a manager, I would consider adding a reliability engineer or specialist if there are enough craftspersons. Commonly recommended industry ratios are 1:60; that is, having a dedicated reliability engineer for every 60 craftspersons. If there are much fewer craftspersons, the maintenance manager might handle these responsibilities.

A reliability engineer is not simply a project or maintenance engineer that specifies equipment or manages projects. A reliability engineer works with data to focus the maintenance efforts better. This person might lead the predictive maintenance effort deciding whether and where to employ lube oil, vibration, infrared, ultrasound, dye penetrant testing, root cause, and other analysis techniques. This person might lead criticality, reliability centered maintenance (RCM), or PM optimization efforts to establish what proper preventive and predictive tasks will best improve plant reliability. This person might build business cases for replacing or improving troublesome assets or systems. Most plants have a lot of opportunities to improve reliability, and a reliability engineer can help take advantage of them.

Nevertheless, many plants that have developed better PMs and proactive maintenance tasks do not become more reliable. The maintenance force simply does not execute the proactive work and it dies in the backlog. It is not executed in time to prevent reactive work. It’s not that the maintenance force doesn’t see the need for doing more work to keep things from breaking; it’s just that the crews have their hands full of reactive work. Over time, the maintenance force has developed its practices so that it does enough PM and quickly handles reactive work so that the plant is a profitable plant. And everyone is honestly busy. But we don’t want to stop at merely being a good plant that quickly fixes breakdowns. We want to be a great plant that usually keeps breakdowns from happening in the first place.

So the question is “How can we do more proactive work when our hands are already full?” The answer lies in maintenance planning. With supervisors in place and crafts working at 35 percent wrench time, proper planning and scheduling boosts the wrench time even higher from 35 to 55 percent. Going from 35 to 55 percent is a 57 percent increase. For practical purposes, consider that it gives a 50 percent boost in work order completion rate. Suddenly, the existing workforce can complete 50 percent more work. Because it has always handled the reactive work, all the new work is those backlogged proactive work orders that we just couldn’t make ourselves do in the past. And so, with the establishment of a proactive capability, I would then add planners to push the craft productivity past the “everyone is busy” level. A good planner ratio is 1:20 to 1:30; that is, a single planner can typically plan and schedule for 20 to 30 craftspersons.

A few notes: It is not practical to implement planning and scheduling before having proactive work available. That would improve productivity, but not reliability. The plant would simply
run out of whatever is in the backlog. There needs to be some generation of proactive work from a reliability function. Nonetheless, simply filling the backlog with more proactive work does not ensure its completion. Proper planning and scheduling provide the extra productivity for that. It is also not practical to implement planning without supervisors in place. The productivity part of planning and scheduling is primarily directed to help supervisors focus their crews. We also need a management function to better coordinate crafts and supervisors with other groups.

Planning is not the silver bullet. You should have all these positions or functions and do all this stuff. Ensure you have skilled crafts that can work on things. Then, give the crafts proper supervision to help them get beyond simply fixing things that break to the point where they are consistently busy. That will boost the facility to being a good plant. Improve staffing and coordination with other plant functions with a maintenance manager. Add a reliability engineer to help create better proactive work orders. Then, add a planner to help plan and schedule the work to give that extra productivity necessary to do the proactive work that operators are not calling for. Planning is the productivity piece of maintenance. Become a great plant!

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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