A toolkit for world-class maintenance planning and scheduling

How to plan and schedule work orders like the best maintenance teams

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What happens when work order plans go wrong

The maintenance team at Century Aluminum was fighting an uphill battle from day one.

“The philosophy has been, ‘It’s what goes out the door that counts,” said millwright Linda Sibley in this interview with Reliable Plant, “not how well the machinery is running.”

Pumping out product, equipment health be damned, was obviously not a sustainable model. It fueled a culture of reactive thinking, leading to lots of breakdowns, data shortages, low morale, and much more.

“When you are in such a reactive mode, it’s next to impossible to do much planning. It’s all about putting out fires,” said maintenance planner Todd Harrison.

Needless to say, there was a hunger for change. But despite the maintenance department’s best efforts, the preventive maintenance program struggled to get off the ground. The reason progress stalled could be linked back to one thing: Poor maintenance planning and scheduling.

Probably one-third of the PMs are no good,” said maintenance manager Jim Doeffinger. “We waste time doing irrelevant PMs.”

No one wants to constantly take two steps forward and one step back. That’s why this post will go in-depth on best practices and simple frameworks for strong maintenance planning and work order scheduling.

How to get really good at maintenance planning

There are two ingredients you need to be really good at planning work orders:

  1. Clear goals for maintenance that align with the goals of the organization
  2. A way to prioritize maintenance activities based on your goals

All your work processes, schedules, training, and SOPs flow from your goals and priorities.

“You really need to go back to the fundamentals of the organization and find out what they’re objectives are for maintenance,” says Charles Rogers, a Senior Implementation Consultant at Fiix with over 33 years of experience in maintenance and reliability.

Four steps for aligning maintenance goals with business goals

A handy four-step process will help you align the organization’s goals with your maintenance plans:

  1. Confirm the goals of your organization. Your business may be looking to accomplish something really specific, like decreasing the cost-per-item. Or the goal might be a little less tangible, like entering new markets.
  2. Link maintenance KPIs to business goals. If reducing the cost-per-item is the big goal, maintenance could focus on reducing downtime and maintenance costs. If entering new markets is the target, you might want to standardize maintenance processes so they can be repeated at other sites.
  3. Choose your maintenance metrics. Set up metrics and benchmarks so you can track progress and measure success. For example, if you want to prevent unplanned downtime, you might track faults found and fixed through PMs on critical equipment.
  4. Plan maintenance activities to hit your targets. Let’s say your aim is to find problems with critical equipment before they cause failure. In this scenario, you have to figure out what your critical equipment is, how often it should be inspected, and what needs to be included in work orders for those assets.

Learn how to create world-class, standardized work orders →

How to get really good at maintenance scheduling

“Some people think a lot of scheduled maintenance is good and more is better,” says Charles.

“Those people are wrong. Doing PMs for the sake of filling a quota is costly and often increases the chance of breakdowns.”

The number of failed inspections per PM is the true mark of scheduled maintenance success, says Charles. Every problem you catch during a PM is an asset failure avoided.

And that’s the secret to really good maintenance scheduling: The constant tweaking of PM frequencies to find the right balance between too often and not often enough.

How to optimize preventive maintenance frequencies

The PDCA model (Plan, Do, Check, Act) is a framework for finding the right PM schedule over time:

  1. Plan: Create a baseline for PM frequencies by looking at recommended guidelines, repair history, criticality, and usage patterns for an asset.
  2. Do: Follow your plan consistently for accurate results.
  3. Check: Look at failure metrics for each asset to determine if your plan is working.
  4. Act: Fine-tune your PM frequencies based on your findings. Increase the frequency if an asset is breaking down between PMs. Reduce the frequency if your PMs don’t find failures or if the number of breakdowns between PMs is low.

Warning: This process is not quick. It takes a while to go around this cycle and implement improvements. But you will see improvements, including longer MTBF intervals, fewer labor hours, and fewer costs for spare parts and supplies.

How to convince people that maintenance needs to be done

“We would fight operations just to get a little bit of maintenance on a machine,” says Jason Afara, a Solutions Engineer at Fiix, remembering his time as a maintenance manager.

Although the tension between maintenance and operations isn’t going anywhere, a maintenance plan and maintenance schedule can’t reach its full potential without buy-in from production.

“This is where maintenance departments usually fail because they don’t have data to back up their asks,” says Charles.

“You have to be able to prove your case and show evidence that if you don’t do maintenance on schedule, there will be much worse consequences at some point—probably sooner than later.”

Creating a culture that chooses preventive maintenance over reactive maintenance doesn’t happen in a day. It can take years and a lot of conversations with everyone from CEOs to operators for it to stick. Here are a few resource to get you off on the right foot when it comes to change management and using data to change minds:

Scheduling around seasonality and sudden production changes

In a perfect world, plans would never change and your maintenance schedule would run like clockwork. But we don’t live in a perfect world. The holiday season can lead to a huge spike in orders. A global recession could completely dry up demand.

When things shift at your company, your maintenance must shift too. One way to stay flexible is with your maintenance schedule. This doesn’t mean abandoning all the plans you’ve put in place. Actually, it’s the opposite, says Charles.

“This is when it’s super critical to understand your asset criticality and asset priorities,” says Charles.

Knowing the needs of each critical asset is what helps you create schedules and justify maintenance windows required to ensure healthy equipment.

“It also becomes very critical to understand how assets need to be shut down and started back up so that they function as best they can in those situations,” explains Charles.

Plan work orders that cover all the nuances of each equipment and each task. Build airtight SOPs with this information so delays don’t make stopping and starting equipment even harder.

Everything you just read in three sentences

  1. Having crystal clear goals for your work orders will give you a clear direction for all your decisions around maintenance planning and scheduling.
  2. Never set your maintenance schedules in stone and always keep looking for ways to optimize each work order so you’re doing it at the right frequencies.
  3. Your work order plans and schedule won’t always be popular with everyone, but having proof that they work will help you justify your strategy and allow you to follow through with it.

See Part IV: A toolkit for improving health and safety with work orders →

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