How to plan and schedule reactive work at your plant

How to plan and schedule reactive work at your plant

May 1, 2024
Doc Palmer argues that even emergency work can benefit from the support of planners and schedulers.

The best maintenance forces use planning and scheduling to help with some reactive work, but this process needs some helpful role clarity. Most importantly, planning and scheduling help reduce reactive work in the first place. But when reactive work does arise, the planner role can indeed plan some of that work. And schedulers can surprisingly include some of that reactive work in next week’s schedule. Helping larger reactive jobs that approach project size also merits our attention. 

What is reactive work? Generally, reactive work is when a situation requires a maintenance response “before the next week.” Reactive situations immediately compromise or have a significant risk of imminently compromising our company mission, whether it be for production availability, cost, safety, environmental, or legal considerations. 

Emergency work and urgent work are different

Reactive work can be broken into two categories: (1) emergencies and (2) urgent work. Emergencies require a response right now or at least this day. Urgent work merits a response this week. In both cases, this is work that cannot wait.

Formal maintenance planning and scheduling help with reactive work, sometimes helping reduce the very incidence of reactive work. First, planning runs a Deming Cycle of continuous improvement to improve the quality of execution. Planners give craftspersons head starts, and the craftspersons provide execution feedback to help future jobs: “Next time we work on this pump, it would be better if we bring extra crush gaskets so if we over-torque one, we won’t be tempted to leave it there.” By helping future executions, we promote ever-increasing reliability. The assets will last longer and longer after any work execution because we get ever better at working on them. 

Secondly, scheduling increases productivity so crews complete more proactive work. Proactive work is generally work that can wait a week after its need is realized. Proactive work includes work such as preventive maintenance to keep filters clean or fixing little drips before they cause problems. Proactive work keeps reactive events from happening in the first place. The best maintenance forces help reduce reactive work with planning to improve execution quality and scheduling to complete more proactive work. 

Nevertheless, even the best companies have some reactive work, both urgent and emergency. The most common strategy in industry is to let both kinds of reactive work simply bypass planning and scheduling. This strategy intends to speed response by not letting planning and scheduling get in the way of maintenance crews.

Planning can help with both reactive work types

Even in these companies, planners commonly do help with emergency work without giving a head start. For example, in a loss-of-power emergency, planning could be involved, but hopefully to help look for information that would help a crew (probably already working on it). And planners should only help if the supervisor (or craftsperson) calls for their help. For example, a boiler feed pump breaks and the spare pump is not doing very well. The crew starts on the failed pump and a planner might gather some manuals and spare parts lists. 

But planning should also help with some of the urgent reactive work that is not an emergency. When new urgent work requests pop up in the backlog, the planner simply checks with the crew supervisor and asks if the crew might start any of them today. The planner then knocks out a quick plan only for the ones that will not start today. The planner can give a helpful head start for these jobs without telling a supervisor to wait. For example, simply by looking at the job, the planner might note the job needs a scissor-lift and a senior mechanic for five hours. That information alone will help the supervisors assign the work and the mechanic arrange for the scissor-lift. Even better, the planner might be able to attach a plan that includes a multitude of little tips saved from the past five or six years. Thus, planning runs the Deming Cycle for what might be a significant amount of the plant’s work. 

Weekly scheduling can also help with some of the urgent reactive work. Because setting priorities is not an exact science, some of that supposedly urgent work does not start this week after all! But that reactive work, having had a quickly made plan, is available to schedule for the next week. The scheduler makes the next week’s schedule more credible by including that planned “reactive” work. The scheduler also has the ability to bundle other work (same LOTO, same area, etc.) with the now-planned reactive work. The weekly schedule is a better selection of work to help crew productivity, and we also reduce the productivity-hindering nuisance of breaking the schedule next week for this work.

Even so, these considerations for reactive work envision a fairly typical maintenance job, not one spanning 10 or 20 days. For a larger job (reactive or proactive) spanning, say, 10 or 20 days, usually a maintenance engineer or a manager is sort of leading a “project” to handle the work, whether in-house or with a contractor. Who ordered the new transformer? Their responsibility would be to lead the project to install it. Planning might participate on this project team, but not necessarily lead it.
Planners do generally arrange for contractors on little jobs (reactive or not), but as the size of the job gets larger and turns into a project, a “project manager” (usually not the planner) arranges or leads everything. Planners can be on some projects, but projects must not overwhelm planners away from planning day-to-day maintenance. Having planners participate on any projects depends on how many planners we have. We do not want planners to become bogged down on projects instead of keeping up with planning the day-to-day maintenance.

Don’t let reactive work just bypass planning. Leverage planning to help execution quality for reactive work that does not start the first day. Put that planned reactive work if it does not start this week into next week’s schedule to help productivity. (And do more proactive work to reduce reactive maintenance in the first place.) Don’t settle for common. 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 or email Doc at [email protected]. Also visit and subscribe to

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