When maintenance backlog gets out of control
The National Parks Service has a serious problem with backlog. And it’s costing everyone.
The cost of maintenance backlog at over 400 national parks across the United States was recently billed at $12 billion. That’s 500% more than the operating budget for the department. And although $6.5 billion has been set aside to address the backlog, it barely covers half of what’s needed.
The parks bear the scars of deferred maintenance. Safety hazards. Unusable equipment. Expensive infrastructure needs upgrading years too early.
It’s not pretty. Not many maintenance backlogs are. That’s why this article explores tips for avoiding work order backlog and how to reduce maintenance backlog if you already have it.
What is maintenance backlog?
Maintenance backlog is all maintenance work that’s been planned, approved, and scheduled, but not completed. It is not work that is simply past its due date.
Think about it like your household to-do list. You were planning to clean the garage last Saturday, but never got to it. You’re also planning to organize your closet next weekend. Both chores are in your backlog.
How is maintenance backlog measured?
Maintenance backlog is often measured in the number of hours or weeks it would take to complete the work with the resources available. And backlog doesn’t discriminate between emergency and planned work orders. Every scrap of maintenance is included in the calculation.
How much maintenance backlog is too much?
Having zero maintenance backlog is not healthy. If a backlog is too small, it will be difficult to keep tradespeople and technicians on priority work, according to this article in Reliable Plant. This usually leads to an increase in unplanned and corrective work.
That same article recommends having a total backlog of about four weeks. This includes a planning backlog of two to three weeks (work that’s planned, but not ready to start) and a scheduled backlog of one to two weeks (work that can be started at any time).
Six steps for reducing maintenance backlog
A long list of backlogged work orders is scary, but the consequences of keeping it that way are scarier. These are six tried and true strategies for chipping away at that mountain of backlog:
#1: Get buy-in
The idea to put maintenance ahead of some other things (like production) might not be too popular. But getting access to equipment and resources is essential for working through backlog. That’s why changing everyone’s mind is the first thing you should do.
Getting people to buy into your plan starts with telling them how it’ll help them and backing it up with numbers. For example, your plan might cut into the production team’s goals and quotas in the short-term. Show them that this work will help them hit their targets long-term through better asset performance (less scrap and rework) or cleaner startups for the next few months.
#2: Prioritize the work
There’s a lot to do before diving into the work. The first thing is ranking tasks by priority. The way you prioritize backlogged work orders depends on your business and maintenance goals, but here’s one way to choose tasks to do first:
- First, prioritize based on asset criticality. Outstanding work on critical assets should move to the top of the list.
- Filter work on critical assets by how late they are. If a PM was missed four times, it’s probably more urgent than a PM missed once.
- Determine the length and difficulty of remaining work orders. Work that can be done quickly or with less downtime should be your number-one priorities.
#3: Assess your resources
The next step is to assess what resources are available for you and your team to get the work done:
- How many people are on your team? What training, skills, and certifications do they have? The capabilities of your technicians will change what you do, the order you do it in, and how long it’ll take.
- Do you have all the parts, supplies, and safety equipment for your work orders? If not, how long will it take to get them? This might push back your timeline.
- How big are your maintenance windows?
- Do they have all the information needed so technicians can do the job safely and properly in the time given?
#4: Plan for risks
There are three kinds of high-risk jobs usually found in a work order backlog:
- Major rebuilds
- Time-consuming and complex projects
- Work your team hasn’t done in a while or at all.
Make note of these work orders. Analyze the risks associated with each and find ways to mitigate them. Reduce risk by giving technicians extra training, putting more technicians and labor hours towards the work, and making sure the right PPE is available.
#5 Build work orders for efficiency and safety →
Creating great work orders helps technicians to knock backlogged maintenance off the list safely, efficiently, and properly so you can make the most of your time, staff, and budget. There are some key areas of a work order that make this possible:
- Clear and detailed task lists: Clear, detailed, and concise task lists eliminate confusion and wasted time
- A list of required parts and PPE: Including a bill of materials, along with where to find those parts, will speed up most jobs
- Manuals, diagrams, and pictures: Giving these items to technicians upfront cuts a lot of time spent searching for them or troubleshooting without them
- An in-depth description of the problem and completion notes: Any additional information that gives a technician context for the job will help them avoid mistakes, risks, and wasted time
#6: Keep track of everything
It’s important to measure your progress once your plan is in motion. This allows you to adjust your strategy as new challenges come up and work is completed. It also gives you more data for building buy-in across the organization.
Keeping track of everything means staying up to date with your team and helping them tackle the tasks you’ve assigned. Schedule frequent touchpoints with them to ask:
- If they’re comfortable with the work
- If they have all the resources and equipment they need
- What processes are helping the most and which ones need tweaking
What causes maintenance backlog and how to prevent it
Whittling your backlog down to a manageable size is an accomplishment. But it’s just the beginning. Keeping your team from reaching code-red status again is next. Here are a few ideas for your next fight against backlog:
- Eliminate duplicate work orders and fine-tune your PMs: Get rid of duplicate work orders so they don’t inflate your backlog. Review your PM schedules regularly and adjust the frequency of scheduled maintenance based on how often they’re finding faults. No faults means they could probably be done less frequently
- Standardize work orders for requesters and technicians: Build one template for all work orders. Be very specific about the information required when creating or completing work orders. It’ll make requesting and reviewing work faster. It also helps you track trends in work orders so you can catch problems sooner and adjust schedules easier.
- Align your goals and processes: Get everyone on the same page about the expectations for maintenance. For example, define priority work orders and what ‘high priority’ means? Fewer important work orders will be missed when everyone is talking the same language.
- Track your parts and staff skills closely: Keep a dashboard of commonly used parts so they never go out of stock. Find skills gaps in your maintenance team and bolster training in those areas.
Everything you just read in three sentences
- The best way to change a culture of reactive maintenance at your organization is to frame backlog as an obstacle to everyone, align on a solution, and make everyone part of the process.
- More time planning means less time doing so make sure to prioritize your tasks, figure out the risks, and build strong work orders to maximize efficiency.
- Optimize your PMs, track trends in your work orders, and push for standardization across your processes to prevent backlog from emerging or reemerging at your organization.