Why proactive work dies in the backlog and how to fix it

Why proactive work dies in the backlog and how to fix it

Jan. 9, 2024
Doc Palmer wonders whether your maintenance staff is sized for firefighting or for profitability.

Most companies simply fix things as soon as they break, the faster the better. This strategy misses the mark because proper maintenance works to keep things from breaking in the first place! Superior profitability comes from avoiding breakdowns altogether with proactive maintenance. 

Nonetheless, because we honestly have our hands full of reactive maintenance, proactive work requests simply die in the backlog before we can get to them. We have unconsciously sized our maintenance staffs to make that happen. Even so, planning and scheduling make it possible to do both the current reactive work and the proactive work to get ahead with the existing maintenance force.

Most of us basically misunderstand the fundamental concept of maintenance entirely. “Maintenance” is maintaining or keeping something in a state of working properly. But we think of maintenance as fixing stuff that has broken, restoring it to a condition of working properly. No, no, no! Something broke because we did not maintain it. If things are breaking, it is because we did not do our job of maintaining. We failed in our maintenance mission. 

(More technically, our mission should be to maintain system function. For example, a plant system has a primary pump with a backup pump. The primary pump fails, but the backup pump kicks in with no disruption to the system. The key here is that we do not have to rush to react to the failed pump. The design of this example system allows maintaining safe, legal, and environmentally proper production of our product even though an individual pump fails.)

Let’s define “reactive maintenance” simply as work where we have to rush. (This definition is an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” because reactive maintenance is not really maintenance.) More specifically, reactive maintenance is work that cannot wait until next week to address a situation after its being identified. We have already lost or we are in imminent danger of losing an important system function.

Accordingly, let’s define “proactive maintenance” simply as work where we do not have to rush. The need for action can wait until next week or longer. Examples of proactive maintenance include prescribed routine PM (preventive maintenance) to replace a filter and a vibration recommendation to replace a bearing on a seemingly smoothly running pump. Proactive maintenance can also be corrective work to stop a little drip that is not causing any alarm before it eventually rots out a deck or becomes a gusher that washes out a foundation. 

Profits-wise, the industry “1:10 Rule” says that every $1 spent on proactive maintenance saves $10 on the bottom line! For every $1 we spend properly greasing a bearing, we save $10 by not having to replace the bearing, fix collateral damage, and lose product. Doing proactive maintenance serves up superior profits! In addition, proactive maintenance is much safer! We do not have to rush out to work in the middle of the night or in terrible weather! And we have a better chance at assigning optimal personnel and getting a helpful planned package with a better head start for proper job steps, parts, and tools!

We could be a great company with superior profits, safety, and the rest, if it were not for the reactive situations. Nevertheless, the maintenance force simply cannot do any extra proactive work because its hands are full of reactive work. This exact staffing of not being able to do more proactive work is a result of misunderstanding the concept of keeping things from breaking. Over the years, as we get ahead of breakdowns, we do not replace natural attrition of craftspersons. We reason, “we had ten electricians and two are leaving. Let’s see if we can get by with eight.” But when we get behind, we will hire more craftspersons. We reason, “things are breaking quite a bit. Let’s hire a few more electricians.” Over the years, we have sized our staff to do enough PM to be a “good” company, but largely fixing things quickly as they break. 

Usually, management does not even know there are proactive opportunities! First, people try to “help” the maintenance force. They tend not to report little problems (i.e., the proactive opportunities) because they know maintenance has its hands full of reactive work. Second, they also do not report little problems because it is frustrating to see such work requests “die” in the backlog. These issues are especially true for operators, but also for predictive maintenance analysts who often spend more time diagnosing obviously troubled assets than reporting little problems on smoothly running equipment.

To rise up beyond being a good plant to become a great plant with superior reliability and profits, we must do more proactive maintenance to eradicate the reactive work as much as possible altogether. The well-versed management question is, “how can we do more proactive maintenance when we honestly have our hands full of reactive maintenance?” Proper planning and scheduling give the answer. Proper scheduling, supported by planned labor estimates, gives a pop of nearly 50% in work order completion. (That’s the purpose of scheduling: To help us complete more work than normal.) If we normally complete 1,000 work orders per month, we could be completing 1,500 work orders per month. All of the extra work orders, by definition, are proactive because we had staffed ourselves over the years to keep up exactly with the reactive work. So, with the same staff, we can indeed complete more proactive work. We must.

Our backlog drops! The reduction encourages operators and others to tell us about little things. Our freedom from the tyranny of reactive work frees up craftspersons to generate proactive work through more investigative PM or training and assignment to running predictive maintenance technology routes. We become a proactive superior company.

We must understand that “maintenance” is keeping things from breaking, not about fixing things quickly after they break. Utilize proper planning and scheduling to do more proactive work than your competition. Don’t settle for good. Be great!

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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