The key period for advance scheduling of routine maintenance is only a single week. This does not mean that the plant engineers and managers do not have longer-term projects under way and are not looking at maintenance strategy several months or years in advance. It also does not mean that the plant does not plan lengthy shutdowns in great detail. But after the glory of the shutdown fades, plants need to consider productivity of routine, day-in and day-out maintenance. Down in the trenches, where the crews, supervisors and planners live, a single week is all that it takes to control productivity of routine maintenance.

As in most walks of life, setting goals helps achieve results. In routine maintenance, plants tend not to give this enough attention as long as maintenance seems responsive to urgent plant needs. They do not have a clear goal of maintenance productivity. Unfortunately, management noticing only maintenance responsiveness leads to maintenance organizing its efforts around quick repairs and not preventing problems in the first place. Fortunately, maintenance usually has excess capacity in its staffing to handle the emergency work and much of the proactive work to head off problems. The plant simply has to set a goal of work to help maintenance focus on completing more proactive work.

As it turns out, setting a goal of a week's worth of work for each maintenance crew provides an astonishing increase in productivity. One wastewater plant reported that its electrical backlog "disappeared" after starting weekly scheduling. A group maintaining buildings found it could do all of the usual reactive work plus its preventive maintenance tasks after they set a goal for the week. A seasoned crew supervisor at a power station exclaimed that he now understood his job in terms of completing work orders instead of simply waiting for operations to call with problems. These wonderful results are not due to brilliant new ways of managing maintenance. Instead, they are due to simply setting a goal.

The goal of maintenance work is set at one week for several reasons. First of all, a single week is short enough to allow supervisors to protect the schedule somewhat. Many new work orders might be able to wait a week, but far fewer could be put off for several weeks. Second, a single week is short enough to provide a reasonable goal. If the schedule were, say, three weeks of work, what is the difference between three weeks of work and the whole backlog? A goal that is too large is meaningless and tantamount to saying "We need to get busy." On the other hand, a single week is long enough to dampen out the effect of inaccurate job plan estimates.

Maintenance is not routine assembly-line work where hours can be estimated with great precision. A simple job estimated for three hours might take all day while another job estimated for a whole day might be finished before lunch. Fortunately, as many jobs exceed their estimates, other jobs will take less time.

A week's worth of work for a whole crew generally has great overall accuracy in the sum of the work order actual vs. estimated hours. There are enough jobs, so the inaccuracies of individual estimates cancel out each other. A week is long enough to provide a reasonably estimated goal of work. In addition, a week is long enough to include preventive maintenance tasks and other proactive maintenance activities in the goal. It is easier to skip this proactive work if only scheduling day to day. Similarly, a week is long enough to consider scheduling lower-priority work with higher-priority work for the same equipment. This is also harder to accomplish if only scheduling day to day. Thus, the one-week time period strikes a good balance between the advantages of shorter and longer advance schedules.

The form of the advance schedule is as uncomplicated as the concept of the goal. An advance schedule is a simple list of work orders. The advance schedule dictates neither the day nor the person the crew will use to work each work order in the following week. As simple as this list is, it provides the needed goal that produces an impressive boost in maintenance productivity.

As simple as it sounds, it cannot be emphasized enough that the great productivity boost from planning and scheduling comes from the goal provided by the weekly schedule.

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.