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Is reactive work really maintenance?

May 6, 2020
Doc Palmer says rethink your maintenance priority system to stop overvaluing repair work and start improving costs.

A normal business making and selling widgets has a mission of making a profit to share with its employees, owners, and other stakeholders (in a safe, legal, environmentally conscious, and socially conscious manner, of course). The maintenance priority system tells if a plant is doing a good job using its plant assets to make widgets.

About the Author: Doc Palmer

After construction, a plant wants to keep operating in the proper manner. The priority system tells how well the plant is operating. A good priority system might have five levels:

0    Emergency             Do Now
1     Urgent                     This Week
2    Routine High          In 2 Weeks
3    Routine Normal     In 1 Month
4    Routine Low           >1 Month

The 0s and 1s (emergency and urgent work orders) are surprises. Something went wrong that is either hindering or imminently about to hinder the plant operation. The maintenance force specializes at swiftly correcting 0s and 1s to the point where the plant is operating and making a profit.

Unfortunately, the plant might not be doing as well as it might. By definition, “maintenance” is about keeping things from going wrong in the first place. In 6 Sigma terminology, 0s and 1s are “defects” to be reduced. The plant should want to reduce the sheer number of their 0s and 1s. Many plants have over 50% of their work being 0s and 1s, but better plants with much higher performance have only 20% of their work being 0s and 1s.

The management problem is that 0s and 1s are not even “maintenance,” but people think they are. The plant praises the maintenance force for restoring order. The 2s, 3s, and 4s are work designed to keep the plant from experiencing 0s and 1s.

Consider the 0s and 1s being “reactive” and the 2s, 3s, and 4s being “proactive.” The industry 1:10 rule of thumb is that every dollar spent on a proactive task is worth ten times its value. In other words, $1 spent proactively lubricating a bearing avoids a later $10 reactive cost replacing a failed bearing, collateral damage, and loss of equipment availability. But many plants normally do not praise the maintenance force for completing 2s, 3s, and 4s. Their resulting maintenance forces specialize doing reactive maintenance. How can a plant do more proactive maintenance when it already has its hands full of reactive maintenance?

An easy indication telling that a plant is mostly reactive is if it only has three priority levels: Emergency, Urgent, and Routine. That plant is providing two levels for what should be 20% and only a single level for what should be 80% of its work. Having only a single level for 80% of its work does not provide enough segregation for proper scheduling. A good way for this plant to introduce a better priority system would be to keep the “routine” label, but have Routine-High, Routine-Normal, and Routine-Low.

Planning and scheduling provide the means where an existing maintenance force can do more proactive maintenance. Starting crews with 100% loaded schedules often produces a 50% increase in work order completion rates, with the same size maintenance staff! And because the existing maintenance force had been completing all the 0s and 1s, then any new work, by definition, would be 2s, 3s, and 4s.

The biggest push back against the plant reducing its 0s and 1s, of course, is the notion that what maintenance people do is simply fix things that break. But after management overcomes this obstacle, there is still significant resistance to proper planning and scheduling throughout the whole plant organization.

First, management trusts its supervisors to keep crews busy. But that trust alone does not give the 50% increase in productivity to the already busy crews. It helps to give managers an understanding of Parkinson’s Law (i.e., the amount of work assigned increases to fill the amount of time available). This means it is better to fully load schedules and later allow break-in work (0s and 1s), than to under load schedules in anticipation of break-in work.

Second, supervisors resent being given fully loaded schedules. It helps to give them an understanding that the weekly schedule can be broken and also is a great opportunity for a scheduler to look in advance for bundling of work orders. The scheduler can bundle work orders in the same area or system.

Third, crafts resent being told how to work on something. It helps to give them an understanding that a job plan is more of a reference, and that the planner is more of a craft historian who helps share learned knowledge.

Learn to talk in terms of the priority system to explain what maintenance really is and how to improve plant performance. Talk about 0s and 1s being defects and not maintenance at all. Talk about how to lessen 0s and 1s. Talk about increasing productivity to do more 2s, 3s, and 4s.

The whole business mission hangs on the priority system. That’s what it’s all about.

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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