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Mastering the fundamentals: Maintenance work orders

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Work orders are the engine of your maintenance operation. They power your team and move work from point A to point B. But there are millions of engines in the world, from rusted duds to high-powered studs. This article is about mastering the maintenance work order so your operation can run as smooth as a luxury sports car.

Table of contents

What is a work order?

A work order is a document that provides all the information about a maintenance task and outlines a process for completing that task. Work orders can include details on who authorized the job, the scope, who it’s assigned to, and what is expected.

Work orders are the engine of your maintenance operation. They power your team and move work from point A to point B.

Work orders are are crucial to an organization’s maintenance operation. They help everyone from maintenance managers to technicians organize, assign, prioritize, track, and complete key tasks. When done well, work orders allow you to capture information, share it, and use it to get the work done as efficiently as possible.

While a work order and work request sound similar, they have a few key differences. A work request is used by non-maintenance staff to make the maintenance team aware of a task. For example, a machine operator might submit a work request when equipment breaks down. The work request is reviewed by a maintenance manager, who adds extra information, schedules the task, and assigns it to a technician. The work request is now a work order.

The work order process

work order process flow
Every maintenance work order has a lifecycle with three main phases — creation, completion, and recording. These phases can be broken down into several steps. Understanding each step and having a solid work order process ensures tasks don’t get stuck in one phase and turn into backlog.

Step #1: The task is identified

Maintenance tasks fall into two groups, planned maintenance and unplanned maintenance. Planned maintenance encompasses all the jobs you know of ahead of time, like routine inspections, and unplanned maintenance includes all the tasks you can’t foresee, like an unexpected breakdown.

Step #2: The maintenance request is created

The details of the job are put together and submitted to the maintenance team for further action. For example, when a machine breaks down, an operator creates a work request and submits it to maintenance. If a task is planned, a work order is created and triggered at the proper time.

Step #3: The work order is prioritized and scheduled

Some jobs are more time-sensitive than others. A burnt-out light bulb doesn’t need to be fixed immediately, but a broken conveyor belt might. That’s why you need to prioritize every work order that hits your desk.

After prioritizing, it’s time to schedule. Work orders can be scheduled based on a set deadline, planned maintenance triggers, or dedicated blocks of time. Setting a deadline keeps everyone accountable and informed so nothing falls through the cracks.

Step #4: The work is assigned and completed

It’s time to turn those words on a page into action. The work order is assigned to a technician, who completes the task. This can be a five-minute check of equipment, or it can be a complex repair job that takes several days.

Step #5: The work order is closed and documented

Once all the terms of the work order are completed, it can be closed. Managers may need to sign off on the work order for compliance requirements. Once closed, the work order is filed away. A properly organized work order log is crucial for building asset histories, reviewing past solutions, preparing for audits, and more.

Step #6: The work order is analyzed and/or reworked

Closed work orders contain valuable information. They can provide insight into your processes and systems that can be used to fine-tune your operation. Having a work order log also allows technicians to quickly spot any missed steps or alternate solutions if an issue flares up again.

How to create a maintenance work order


Work orders are like anything else your facility produces — they must be made well and free of defects. If one part of the process is off, it can affect the entire line. So what information makes up a great work order?

  • Asset: What piece of equipment needs work?
  • Description of issue: What’s the problem? What did you hear, see, smell, or feel at the time of failure or leading up to it?
  • Scope of work: What work is required to get the job done? What skills are needed?
  • Parts and tools required: Are there any parts that need to be replaced or special tools that need to be used?
  • Health and safety notes: What safety procedures and equipment are needed? Have there been any accidents or near-misses while working on a similar issue or asset?
  • Date requested: When was the work order created and submitted?
  • Requester name/department/contact: Who created and submitted the work order?
  • Expected completion date: When should this work order be completed?
  • Actual completion date: When was the work order completed and closed?
  • Expected hours of work: How many hours should it take to complete the work order?
  • Actual hours of work: How many hours did it take to complete the work order?
  • Task checklist: Is there a step-by-step guide to completing the required work?
  • Priority: How important is this work order? High, medium, or low?
  • Assigned to: Who will be doing the work? Is more than one person required? Is an outside contractor required?
  • Associated documents: Are there resources that can help the work order be completed more efficiently, like SOPs, manuals, diagrams, videos, asset history, purchase orders, or images?
  • Notes: Are there any other observations that might be helpful in completing the work order or reviewing the work order after it closes, such as the frequency of an issue, troubleshooting techniques, or the solution reached?

Maintenance work order management

Simply creating a great work order doesn’t guarantee success. That work order must also be managed properly. A solid system for managing the lifecycle of a work order ensures it is passed smoothly from one step to the next. This helps you avoid all sorts of problems, like a lack of accountability, high costs, increased downtime and crushing backlog. Let’s look at the pros and cons of a few work order management systems and how they measure up.

Pen and paper

Pro

Work orders have been managed with pen and paper since the day they were invented. Written work orders are cost-effective and familiar. Paper is a tool everyone is comfortable using. It takes next to no training, the upfront costs are fairly low, and there’s a paper trail for when you need to check past work.

Con

However, this system has some serious flaws. Paper files are easily misfiled, lost or damaged. They are cumbersome and take time to find, retrieve, and sort. Inaccurate information is more likely to make its way onto a work order as details are often recorded after an incident. Response time to work requests is also slower. These factors, combined, make work less efficient and could cost you a lot of money down the line.

Some jobs are more time-sensitive than others. A burnt-out light bulb doesn’t need to be fixed immediately, but a broken conveyor belt might. That’s why you need to prioritize every work order that hits your desk.

Whiteboards

Pro

Whiteboards are another old standby for maintenance departments. The cost of materials doesn’t stretch the budget too far and it’s certainly easy to have all work orders available to view and update in one, central place.

Con

Like pen and paper, whiteboards have some severe limitations. Keeping records is a huge headache and it’s extremely difficult to extract information from any records you actually manage to get. This makes it almost impossible to create asset histories, prepare for audits, and build work order reports. The work order management process also gets bogged down as operators and technicians need to go to a central location to submit or view work requests.

Excel spreadsheets

Pro

Excel spreadsheets are a step up from pen and paper and whiteboards. It makes records digital, so files are less likely to be damaged or lost. It’s also easier to search for information and create reports using this information.

Con

But while spreadsheets raise the bar slightly, there are some factors that make it a shaky foundation for managing maintenance work orders. Some spreadsheets are locked into single computers, which makes it difficult to see up-to-date information on a work order. Even if they are cloud-based, spreadsheets don’t have the ability to automatically trigger work orders, which makes preventive maintenance extremely difficult to achieve. Inputting data and creating reports require long periods at a computer and know-how. There’s also a limited ability to track the progress of work orders, which leaves you a step behind.

CMMS software

Pro

One of the biggest advantages of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) is their use of mobile and cloud technology. This kind of maintenance work order software allows everyone in maintenance to create, track, complete, and analyze tasks in real-time, from anywhere—whether that’s at the scene of a breakdown or a beach in Hawaii. Technicians can bring work orders, asset histories, documents, and images wherever they go. They are also notified of new work orders as soon as they are submitted or triggered. Reports mine the data in maintenance work orders for cost, efficiency, and other metrics.

Con

While CMMS software is the way of the future, it comes with costlier upfront prices, requires exceptional training and culture to make the system successful, and often necessitates more advanced maintenance techniques. While CMMS software comes with its flaws, the long-term benefits of the system more than make up for any initial shortcomings.

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The bottom line

Work orders are a pillar of great maintenance. When managed properly, they give your team the stability and structure it needs to be efficient. A well-built maintenance work order and work order process makes it easier to establish a preventive maintenance program and react to unplanned maintenance. Roles are defined, workflows are smoother, tasks are tracked, and information is well-documented. Choosing the right tools and systems to manage work orders is the crucial final piece of the puzzle. When it all comes together, your operation can master the fundamentals of maintenance and look for new ways to grow and succeed.

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