Work Management

Christer Idhammar, IDCON INC

Planning and scheduling is at the center of good maintenance management. Here we arrive at what is “corrective maintenance” as part of our chain that must not be broken. It is important to understand the difference between planning and scheduling. These two elements of maintenance work management are essential and are too often mixed up. Most organizations, where scheduled shutdowns of the manufacturing process are common, we need to plan and schedule work for these shutdowns very well because there are immediate consequences if we do not.

In a company with 16 similar process lines that had scheduled shut downs every five weeks, we estimated that better basic planning and scheduling of these shut downs could shorten each of them by a whole hour. That would give this company 160 hours more total production time per year.

Unfortunately, many do not do weekly and daily planning and scheduling of on-the-run work very well. I suspect this is because the expectation on performance is more lax than that of a shutdown.

Planning of work is to prepare everything needed to carry out the work. It designates what, how and estimates the time it takes to do the job. (Scope and description of work, any safety requirements, tools, parts and material, documentation, need for scaffolding, skills required, a shutdown needed, or if the work can be done safely without interference with production etc.)

Scheduling of work comes next and determines when jobs shall be done, date and time, and then assigns who will do the work.

One best practice is to plan work before work is scheduled for execution and to schedule to the work that need to be done and then schedule people to the work.


“All work can be planned but all work cannot be scheduled.”

Planning is the easy part if you have dedicated people who are allowed to focus on planning. Even correction of a breakdown can, in theory, be planned because you know the work may—and most probably will—happen. Though, you cannot schedule all work because you do not know when a breakdown will occur.


“Zero failure theory is an utopia but zero breakdown theory is not.”


Breakdowns can be prevented but every failure cannot. Allfailures do not have a long enough failure-developing period, which is the time lapsed from the point when you discovered it, until the breakdown occurs. If the failure-developing period is short, it will develop into a breakdown before the corrective action can be planned and executed. This is common for electronic components. Troubleshooting has to be done before problems in systems with electronic equipment can be corrected.

Breakdowns of electronics can still be prevented with a cool and clean environment and with redundant components. A good example of this is aircraft, where backup equipment is crucial or it could end up with hundreds of people dead. A plane has several redundant systems to actuate landing gears, the last resort being a manual-, hydraulic- or pneumatic standby system that can be used to lower the landing gears to a landing position. While in flight, a pilot might discover that the first function to engage the landing gears is faulty and relies on the second system in order to bring the vessel safely down on the ground. The pilot immediately reports the failure and airport-based maintenance personnel will repair the landing gear after landing. A breakdown of the function to open the landing gears was avoided even if a failure was present.

Work Management Process

It is necessary to document and reinforce the processes of work management, defining how work is managed, or we will end up in the "Circle of Despair." A complete work management process that includes the functions responsible for each step (Operations – Maintenance Coordination, Prioritization, Planning, Scheduling, Key Performance Indicators etc.), can be big, and at a first glance—overwhelming. When developing a work management process, I recommend starting with an easy to understand overview.

An overview example of a work management process describes work that is requested with a certain priority, then it’s approved or rejected, for execution. Rejected work is fed back to the requestor and approved work will be given a final priority and put in the unplanned backlog. Work in unplanned backlog is planned by priority. It’s common that planned work has to be placed in hold codes such as:


  1. Waiting material
  2. Waiting approval
  3. Waiting Opportunity. Scheduled or unscheduled shutdown, for example. Work placed in “Next Opportunity,” often an unscheduled shut down, is planned but not scheduled.


Hold codes have to be cleared before added to a planned backlog for all work that is planned and ready to be scheduled. Emergency work will go direct from work initiation to execution and planned as good as it can be in the given situation. But be careful, too many emergency jobs will bypass the work management process and trigger the "Circle of Despair." The more reactive work, the less managed work we will have. Rules for prioritization, approval levels and so on, as well as the roles of people involved must also be clearly defined.

The biggest obstacle in work management is when the planners are too busy with other tasks. This effects adequate scheduling and the whole system becomes lopsided and inefficient. The lack of planning before a job is scheduled only leads to one thing—the craftspeople will end up doing their own planning. The fact is that a job can never be done without some level of planning.

Weekly and daily planning and scheduling is very often done poorly even if the position of planners are in place. As a rule of thumb, planners should use at least 60 to 70 percent of their time to actually plan work. According to an IDCON survey, including more than 1,400 participants, 90 percent responded that they use less than 60 percent of their time to actually plan work. Seventy percent said they used less than 30 percent of their time on planning.

When planners are pulled away to do other work, it becomes costly and inefficient because the length of a scheduled or unscheduled shutdown has an immediate impact on available production time and throughput.

Shutdowns involve many people and are expensive. When the plant executives then follow up on performance, responsible individuals (read planners who aren’t allowed to plan because they are busy carrying out other tasks ordered by operations and managers) will have to explain if a shutdown was not executed as scheduled.

            Some of the most interesting finds in our survey of why planners do not plan included the reasons why they didn’t. Emotional priorities came in at the top and equipment breakdowns was a close second. The reasons: the fact that operations do not support planning and that planners weren’t properly trained both came in third place. Other issues were poor bill of materials and “top management doesn’t support planning.” This is bad news, and unfortunately it’s nothing new. This same survey could have been done decades ago, and all around the world with similar results.

Unclear rules for prioritizing and planning and scheduling work can result in unsafe work and a waste of time on the wrong things. Setting the right priority on a work request is one of the most important steps in the work management process. Some wise men have said it better than I:


“Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible,

and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Saint Francis of Assisi


“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy

of things which matter least.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Using emotional priority, priorities decided by emotions instead of facts, in deciding what is most important to do for the business, usually does not end well. Requesting a higher priority on maintenance work than needed is very expensive because it makes it almost impossible to plan and schedule the most important work. Craftspeople are frequently interrupted by work that often is much less important than what they work on according to the schedule. Also, doing a maintenance job before it’s necessary can be compared to manufacturing something before it is demanded.

Many emotional priorities indicate that your organization is divided in such a way that operations look at themselves as customers of maintenance services and maintenance views themselves as providers of service to the customer. In a results-oriented and reliability-focused organization, people realize that the product of what a maintenance organization does is Equipment Reliability and asset preservation, and this is what they deliver to their equal partner, which is Operations. In this partnership, Operations deliver Manufacturing Process reliability. They have the expertise in this area and know how to make the product: what material to use, pressures, speed, chemistry, and other manufacturing parameters to deliver a reliable manufacturing process.

The common mission between operations and maintenance should be to deliver continuously improved total manufacturing and production reliability.

The reason for many emotionally urgent jobs is often that the requester of work, in this case operations, have learnt that you cannot trust that a job with a lower urgency than those of highest priority will be done. It is important that you build trust between operations and maintenance. If a job is prioritized in a work request to be completed at an agreed upon time, then the maintenance department must demonstrate that the job will be completed within this time.

A process I have used many times is to meet with key people in operations and maintenance to agree on a guideline to setting the right priorities on requested work. A great opening question is: "What constitutes that a job must be done immediately and overrides other less important ongoing work?" Answers will include that the situation indicates an immediate and unmanageable safety risk or risk for environmental damage; immediate risk for quality losses, shutdown of equipment, or high maintenance cost if equipment runs to breakdown.

Another important question is: "What situations would describe that a job can wait one day to one week?" Here we’ll likely learn that critical equipment is running at reduced speed or in manual mode, we have a manageable safety risk, PM activity, mandatory inspections, or an estimated time until a breakdown.

Early identification of work and disciplined and right priorities are at the core of safe and efficient maintenance. Equipment is just like our health—early detection is critical. If we ignore finding problems, we end up in a reactive mode, which is the least desired position for a maintenance organization. I have reviewed many backlogs in maintenance organizations all over the world and often find that the majority of work in backlogs has been assigned highest priority; and many of the high priority work requests are over two years old! Two common reasons for this phenomenon are that the maintenance organization is viewed as a service provider to operations, and the requesters do not trust work will be done unless they assign highest priority to the work order.

If your maintenance department is viewed as a service provider this often leads to that you obey to requests from operations without challenging the requested priority. This view must change to a working relationship where the maintenance organization is viewed as an equal partner with operations. The role of maintenance is to deliver manufacturing equipment reliability and operations deliver manufacturing process reliability. If your common goal is to improve manufacturing reliability and roles between partners are clearly defined and adhered to you have established and important foundation for success.

As one of the first steps in creating this partnership you should together agree on criteria for deciding priorities of maintenance work.In my opinion there are only two priorities: Do the work now or decide on what date it has to be completed. It may sound simplistic, but it works because people understand the logic. The overall criteria for setting priorities should include risk for:


  1. Environmental or personal injury.
  2. High costs for quality, time or speed losses.
  3. High costs for maintenance repairs.


Remember that the discussions between operations and maintenance in order to arrive at agreed priority guidelines are important because they are but one step of many in building an operations and maintenance reliability culture.

            As a motorman or engineer aboard a ship we did not have operations and maintenance, we were both. We operated and maintained the equipment, so it was natural in what must be done and in what order of priority. Knocking bolts was preventive maintenance, inspection and condition monitoring, which helped me as I operated the equipment and eliminated extra maintenance work (and kept it a safe work environment) freeing me up to keep preventing and operating. And that’s where I originally got this idea. Knowing both sides of the spectrum, this partnership has been a strong argument of mine for all my years as a consultant.



Christer Idhammar is the founder of IDCON, Inc., a management consulting firm (idcon.com).  This article was excerpted from a recent book authored by Mr. Idhammar entitled Knocking Bolts.  More information can be found on this book at https://www.idcon.com/reliability-and-maintenance-books/

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About the Author

Christer Idhammar is president of IDCONInc., a Raleigh, N.C.-based reliability and maintenance management consulting firm which specializes in education, tra...