Is It OK to break the maintenance schedule?

Doc Palmer
Tags: planning and scheduling, maintenance and reliability

In my previous columns, I've outlined the overall benefits of planning and scheduling as well as my six principles that make planning "work." The past two columns explained scheduling as a specific element needed for productivity and identified the first principle of scheduling, needing a planned backlog. In this issue, we move on to the second of my six principles of scheduling. This principle states that both the schedule itself and the priorities of individual work orders are important.

The statement "schedules and priorities are important" seems so obvious; it's almost overkill to include it as a principle. Nevertheless, planning and scheduling isn't rocket science. It's mostly putting together a framework of commonsense ideas. Let us review why productivity suffers at the feet of these issues.

Maintenance provides operations with equipment that operates. However, when equipment breaks, maintenance swings into its secondary role to restore equipment into service. Unfortunately, many maintenance forces (as well as the operations groups) see restoration as the primary maintenance role. This perception leads to some bad behaviors. First, maintenance generally rushes to respond to urgent maintenance work - the visible work of which everyone is aware - but never seems to start much of the lower-priority work that might head off later urgent work. Many plants have enough visible work to make maintenance feel productive (or at least effective). Second, the operations personnel feel that there are only three true maintenance priorities: "Now, Tomorrow or Never." Therefore, to get anything done, operators believe they must declare a false urgency or not bother reporting something at all until later, when it becomes really urgent.

In reality, the maintenance forces do have some extra time on their hands after urgent work. Yet, if they were to work on lower-priority jobs, urgent work arises and interrupts them. This further discourages maintenance from beginning lower-priority work. Overall, productivity suffers because there is usually not that much visible work to keep everyone busy all the time.

Scheduling as a process encourages maintenance to begin lower-priority jobs to do "enough" work. This goal of work created by a schedule is the key to productivity. Furthermore, we can advance productivity if we can avoid job interruptions. This avoidance depends on operations not declaring false emergencies. If we can put off a new job until next week, we can include it in next week's work schedule and help us meet our goal of work this week. If we can put off a new job until tomorrow (or later in the week), we can avoid interrupting today's schedule, which has given each individual technician a goal of work. If we can put off a new job until this afternoon, we can at least have a planner look at the job and see if we can develop a scope and a parts list to give the technician a head start. We can also provide the supervisor with craft skills and time estimates to allow work control. If we can put off a new job until we at least finish completing a current job-in-progress, we can avoid interrupting that low-priority job we finally started.

To have operations avoid declaring false emergencies, management needs to emphasize the importance of the schedule and the priority system. Management needs to have the maintenance crews start each week with a goal of work. Management also needs to empower crew supervisors to challenge the priority of new work to protect their schedules. When presented with a new "emergency," the crew supervisor asks the operator how long it can wait and then works it into the schedule as appropriate. Of course, if the new work can't wait, management must allow crews to respond. It is OK to break the schedule for the proper priority work. Finally, management needs to encourage operations to report that lower-priority work without delay.

With all of this said, once maintenance productivity increases by working to a weekly schedule, the fear of lower-priority work never getting done greatly decreases and abuse of the priority system lessens.

Experience shows that starting each crew with a week's worth of work (schedules are important) and allowing supervisors to interrupt these schedules (priorities are important) greatly increase productivity for completing not only more maintenance work, but the right maintenance work.

Doc Palmer is the author of the “Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook.” He is a CMRP and has nearly 25 years of industrial experience as a practitioner within the maintenance department of a major electric utility. From 1990 through 1994, he was responsible for overhauling the existing maintenance planning organization. The resulting success played a role in expanding planning to all crafts and stations owned and operated by the utility.