COVID-19 and maintenance planning: The importance of planning during a crisis

June 2, 2020
Not sure of your next steps? Doc Palmer says proper planning helps you handle uncertainty and mitigate risks of any kind.

You are reading this article a month or later after I have penned it. As I write, most of the United States is slowly coming out of a social and business lockdown.

About the Author: Doc Palmer

There are widely different views on the COVID-19 virus. On one side, many say that it is “just the flu” (but perhaps a bit nastier) and on the other side, many say it will devastate us for some continuing time. And there are many views in-between.

Any death is a tragedy and I am not making light of illness by considering our livelihood of maintenance alongside the virus, but I would like to share three thoughts. These thoughts are (1) “we don’t know;” (2) planning helps with both productivity and knowledge lost in illness; and (3) we should keep planning especially in these times.

We don’t know

My first thought is that, just as in maintenance, we’ll never know if we did the exact right thing.

With the advent of the virus, most communities started proactive activities. Many persons limited their social contact activities and increased their hygiene activities such as hand washing and purification. These activities are proactive maintenance, activities persons do before they become ill to try to stay well (or perhaps to try to improve their ability to get well if they later become sick). Reactive maintenance would be activities persons do to try to get better after they become ill.

Did these proactive activities lessen the suffering of what would have happened otherwise? We don’t know. We can’t live in two universes at the same time. We don’t know what would have happened if we had done something else. Forever people will argue that it wasn’t as bad as it might have been because it was never going to be that bad. And forever other people will argue that it wasn’t as bad as it might have been because we did what we did. We don’t know.

Doesn’t that sound like plant maintenance? There are persons that say we do too much maintenance and there are persons saying we do not do enough maintenance. But “we don’t know” what will happen if we don’t grease a bearing every month. Will that bearing fail? If so, when? Can we cut our maintenance cost in half by greasing it every two months instead?

If we could predict the future precisely, we’d buy lottery tickets with winning numbers. Some companies buy sealed bearings that don’t require greasing. Is that a better practice than properly greasing bearings? Will a sealed bearing ever fail? Would a program to hire and train craftspersons to grease bearings be more cost effective? Would our work management system deploy and allow our trained craftspersons time to grease bearings properly? If we greased the bearings properly, would they still fail? When?

Ultimately, our problem is that while we might know the cost of current maintenance, we don’t know the cost of not doing maintenance or doing other maintenance. If we are spending $10 million per year doing maintenance, we can’t say that we would save $10 million per year if we stopped. What would be the loss in profit from assets that break and stop plant production from lack of maintenance? We don’t know what would have happened for sure if we stopped doing a certain amount of maintenance.

In maintenance, common sense and industry experience have led to rules-of-thumb and so-called best practices over time. (An entire field of maintenance, Reliability Centered Maintenance, has emerged to select the appropriate maintenance.) Generally, though, the industry rule of thumb is that every $1 spent on proactive maintenance saves a company $10 on the bottom line. And every $1 spent on design to get a better asset that needs less maintenance altogether saves $100.

And so, best practices dictate designing and buying equipment with an eye on life cycle cost and doing proactive maintenance after installation. We could compare our company with other similar companies that have significantly different asset strategies, but we still don’t know the cost at our own company of doing what we did not do.

Note that with all our experience with maintenance, there is significant disagreement in industry about what is the right amount of maintenance. We still don’t know for sure. I’m glad we have even less experience with viruses such as COVID-19 and any associated suffering. Of course we will have even more disagreement about what amount of proactive activities is correct. We don’t know. The reader of this article will have more information about the results of what we did do about the virus, but still will not know what the results would have been if we had done something else.

Planning helps

My second thought is that plants returning to operation will have labor constraints to reduce social contact and possibly virus-depleted staffs, which will reduce the amount of ongoing maintenance. Maintenance planning can help make up this difference.

Proper scheduling can increase a typical workforce by 50% in terms of productivity. That means that if a plant had up to a third of its workforce effectively lost to inefficiency or illness, the plant might be able to complete the previous levels of work order completion.

For example, say a 30-person workforce is crippled and only completes the amount of work that 20 persons could do normally. The addition of a planner could give this 20-person workforce a boost of 50% to restore its productivity to a 30-person effective level.

Furthermore, the craft historian aspect of planning also provides a boost in the case of illness that keeps some persons at home. Plants that have developed helpful job plans and databases can rely somewhat less on having a particular knowledgeable craftsperson on hand for immediate consultation.

Keep planning in times like this

My third thought is that because planning can boost productivity when it might be sorely needed, plants should avoid the temptation to drag the planner into the craft function.

For example, the plant with a 30-person workforce that is crippled to an effective 20-person level should use the planner function to restore the 30-person effect. The plant should not drag the planner into the craft in an attempt to have a mere 21-person effect. The plant would also lose the leverage of using job plans that avoid past problems.

Keep the planner planning. Add a planner if you don’t have one. You ought to also have a backup planner if you are worried that the planner might become ill.

Also keep in mind that we don’t have the luxury of living in two universes. Gracefully allow your colleagues to have differences of opinion about what “would have happened.” We don’t know. But utilize a planning function regardless.

Proper planning gives a boost to the normal plant allowing the completion of more proactive work, but also allows a constrained workforce to do more maintenance than it might otherwise. Planning is so vital that we cannot consider dropping the planning function, especially in times of labor constraints.

Palmer's Planning Corner

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