Unplanned maintenance

Unplanned maintenance: Necessary evil or avoidable inconvenience?

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“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” If you’re involved in reliability at your organization, this quote might feel all too familiar. Who among us hasn’t pledged to plan their maintenance operations better, only to set aside those plans to address unexpected repairs and breakdowns? Unfortunately, backlog due to unplanned maintenance is a problem that plagues many.

Fiix saw this phenomenon firsthand in a recent survey we conducted. When survey respondents were asked to share the maintenance strategies they currently use, 25% reported employing a reactive maintenance strategy. When we asked which strategies they were planning on using in the future, that number dropped to zero. These numbers paint an interesting picture: reactive maintenance is something many people have to contend with, but most would like to do away with. But is it possible to phase out reactive maintenance?

To answer that question, it’s important to differentiate between reactive maintenance and unplanned maintenance, since they are often used interchangeably. As we’ve covered before on the blog, reactive maintenance can be part of a well-balanced maintenance strategy when used correctly. When it’s getting in the way of day-to-day operations and causing expensive downtime, however, it can be categorized as unplanned maintenance, which should be analyzed and improved upon.

So, how did we get to a state of chronic unplanned maintenance?

If no one likes dealing with unplanned maintenance, why does it continue to be a problem? As with most persistent issues, there is no one cause to point to. There are, however, a few commonalities among organizations that can’t seem to get out of the reactive maintenance cycle.

Different systems across different sites

An abundance of unplanned maintenance is often the result of a lack of standardization. As Tony Leombruno of Ardagh Group discovered, having multiple sites using different systems makes it very hard to understand where inefficiencies exist, which makes it more difficult still to correct things. “There was no uniformity of work practices,” he noted in an interview with Fiix. “Everyone was just doing their own thing, the best way that they could.”

No cohesive maintenance plan

Drowning in reactive maintenance is a common symptom of neglecting to focus on reliability culture. When maintenance fails to look beyond the immediate, one-to-one exchange of fixing something that’s broken, it’s difficult to get out of that situation. However, if you shift your organization’s attitude towards being reliability-focused, you can start to view maintenance as something that can be managed proactively, and something that everyone can be involved with.

No system to gather and provide easy access to data

Without a way to aggregate and organize data, it’s difficult to understand why your maintenance operations are flagging, let alone where you can start to make improvements. Sean Simon of CIG Logistics explained this challenge in an interview with Fiix when he described his organization’s reliability climate before implementing a CMMS: “There was no daily summary, no way of tying together comments or keywords… It was like owning a car in the 1950s. You had to try to remember the last time you did something and guess at the maintenance that needed to be done in the future”. Relying on memory alone basically guarantees that work will fall through the cracks.

Time wasted in paperwork and pen-and-paper systems

At other organizations, a reliance on cumbersome documentation procedures makes it difficult to focus on long-term reliability and proactive measures that could be taken. This was the case at Rambler Metals and Mining, where Scott Britton describes their situation thusly: “If something needed to be fixed, it would get written down on a post-it or a scrap of paper and delivered in person. This often meant that our maintenance team would have to spend time shuffling through multiple Post-Its or notes, trying to decide which problem could be fixed the most quickly.” Unfortunately, so much time was being spent documenting problems that they weren’t able to get ahead of the task at hand and start planning properly.

No defined KPIs

Many organizations simply lack a baseline for KPIs, making it near-impossible to know how they should improve, and on what metrics. When everything is done on the fly, it’s hard to establish what an ideal situation would look like, let alone begin to make the steps necessary to get there.

How to break the cycle

Now we know why it’s easy for organizations to fall into a pattern of unplanned maintenance—but how can they get out of it?

Define the problem

Your particular situation might look like any combination of the causes listed above. It’s important for you to take a serious look at your maintenance operations and identify which gaps exist.

Start small

No maintenance strategy can be overhauled in a day. Identify small, quick wins or impactful processes that you can implement right away, and measure the improvements that occur. It’s important to establish KPIs for comparison’s sake so that it’s clear whether or not the changes implemented are having their desired effect.

Invest in the right technology

For the organizations mentioned above, purchasing a CMMS was the solution they needed to standardize practices, create accountability, reduce downtime, and set up a proper preventive maintenance program. Once you have properly identified the problems that are causing an excess of unplanned maintenance, you can begin to evaluate solutions that will help you conquer them.

Want to learn more about ending unplanned maintenance?

Download the short guide to preventive maintenance

You’ll learn more about:

  • What preventive maintenance is and why you need it
  • How to stop reacting and start preventing
  • Which technologies can pave the way to preventive maintenance
  • How to evaluate maintenance software
  • Real-life examples of plants finding success with preventive maintenance

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