Challenges in Managing Routine Maintenance Work

Picture: courtesy of Anand Subramaniam

Our Challenges

To manage routine maintenance work, my plant has an ERP – enterprise resource planning – system, that has all of our plant’s maintainable equipment defined.  We have had this system for many years.  Our corporate technology team implemented this system and we were determined to use it as much as possible to improve our work.   This post is an overview of some of the hurdles that the system presents us and I’ll also review some of the ways that we try to get around these challenges.  Where needed, I’ve added a wish list item following each analysis.

In an ideal world, we would be able to run our maintenance process mostly in a single, integrated solution.  This is in stark contrast to the multitudinous systems and spreadsheets that maintenance and other plant teams currently employ to work on the same set of maintenance work orders.

To illustrate our process, I’ll focus on the path that a work scope goes through – i.e. the work cycle. Initiation is followed by a top-level or strategic analysis, then a detailed or tactical analysis, then a logistical process, the execution phase and finally the commissioning and startup of the equipment.  These themes are repeated for each work order and I’ll return to them repeatedly in this post as well.

The process described may seem long and confusing, and that is exactly what it is in the field.  Add the fact that you have 1000s of work orders active and you have an idea of the scale of confusion that can arise.  This is why these issues need to be effectively managed in a single integrated solution that provides a ‘no-place-to-hide’ single point of truth (SPOT) solution.  Read on for details about how we handle work in each of the 5 phases.

Work Scope Initiation

When an equipment asset is in need of repair or maintenance, our site’s Operations, Inspection, Engineering, HSE, and Maintenance people use the ERP system to initiate a work request.  My maintenance team is alerted that work is needed on that equipment asset.

This Work Request our first indicator that an issue needs resolution. The challenges that we encounter, while resolving the issue, arise in each of the key work phases: Strategic, Tactical, Logistical, Execution and Commissioning.

I’ll highlight some of our wish list items that we either live without, or use external tools and third-party add-on systems to accomplish.  As we progress in the work scope management cycle, ‘little’ things that are  neglected, due to poor process flow management, earlier in the cycle may cause a  waste of time and costs, and may affect safety and quality as well.  When we discover them, we plug such holes in our process.  Due to the high cost of changes to the ERP, these changes are not built in to our system’s flow.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: We need a system-based process flow that would ensure that we follow our processes with 100% compliance. 

Strategic considerations – Go – No Go

Risk Analysis

The speed with which we resolve the issues identified in the work request, and the scope of the resolution, depends on the results of a careful risk assessment of the impacts associated with the equipment asset’s normal functions.  The risk assessment process should include the dates and results of previous risk assessments on this equipment asset.  However, the system does not provide this detailed information about previous analyses and work on the equipment asset.  So we effectively do a new risk analysis on this same equipment asset every time.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: History-based risk analysis and communications tracking for each equipment asset’s work requests.

Safety / QA Checklist

We require a safety and quality checklist to be completed to ensure that the planning team has the required information to formulate a reasonable and effective plan.  As the equipment is static, its checklist could be reused.  However, the ability to define such a list is not available for the equipment – let alone seeing and reusing the previous one as a starting point. Operations and Maintenance staff have to repeatedly enter the same checklist data, thus wasting more time.  Worse, this step is often missed, causing more time wastage by planning in the next stage.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list Item: History-based safety and quality checklist for each equipment asset.

Management Sign-Off

Following the risk assessment and checklist processes, the work request is escalated to a Work Order.  This triggers a significant additional cost in indirect labor and the effort to get the work planned and ready for procurement.  For this reason, we would like to have this escalation be signed-off by the Area Operations Manager. This is not supported by our system.  Having this ability would ensure transparency as the work scope moves from the request phase to the work order phase.  Also, we would not have to spend valuable meeting time rehashing the list of work orders awaiting sign-off.  

Routine Maintenance Work wish List Item: Enable management sign-off for each work request following review of risk assessment, checklist and rough-order of magnitude (ROM) estimate.

Tactical considerations – we need details – of scope, plan, estimate

The Work Order phase is a green-light to our maintenance planners to proceed with detailed estimating and planning of the manpower, equipment, materials, supplies, tools and services required to get the work done safely.


Our planners have tried to use the planning screens in the ERP, but these are not complete enough to support the detailed planning and estimating.  For one, they need to reference master rates to accurately and consistently estimate costs.  These do not exist in a consistent location.  So, a spreadsheet is used.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Integrated, rates management and rate buildup process support in an integrated solution.


Planners need to manage logical ties between work steps, including parallel logic paths, not just the single, sequential path support by the ERP.  Also, each work step often requires more than just one resource (i.e. craft, skill, rental field equipment, tools and/or services) to ensure completion of the work item according to company standards.  This is not possible with the system, and so is often done in stand-alone spreadsheets or schedules.  

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Integrated, total planning of the work order, including ability to plan multiple work orders in a single package.

HSE / Inspection Review and Sign-off

Once the Planner is done, they notify the HSE and Inspection (Quality) people to get their review and sign-off that that the plan conforms with our company standard requirements.  The ERP does not adequately alert or remind the right people to attend to these needs in a timely way.  Consequently, work orders may wait for days or weeks to be reviewed and signed-off.  They are repeatedly mentioned in meetings, and repeated commitments to address them are also made in the same meetings, but often they simply slip ‘off-the-radar’ for many days.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Route work orders to the right people for review and sign-off based on workflow definition.

Allocation to a Turnaround or Program

Now that the real scope, cost and schedule impact of the planned work is known, area and department managers get another shot at reviewing the cost and schedule impacts.

They should now be able to ‘shunt’ or move this planned scope to an appropriate turnaround, shutdown, outage or program.  The programs we have include: 4 Year Plant Turnaround, Annual Unit Shutdown, Minor System Outage, VOC Mitigation Program and Daily Maintenance Program.  Our ERP does not help us to be flexible in this ‘shunting’ process.  We tend to place work in a turnaround or program before we have had a chance to perform a risk analysis and understand the scope of work and its impact.  Even after a work order is assigned to a program, we should be able to move it, with little effort, to another program such as an Emergency Outage, should such an opportunity, to do this work, present itself.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Integrate scope collection and management for all maintenance projects, turnarounds and programs in a single ‘marshalling yard’ that allows work order to be easily ‘shunted’ between projects, like turnarounds, and programs, based on evolving ‘facts on the ground’.

Management Approval and Sign-off

Tracking the Sign-offs of management should be done automatically, and be available for audit.  The work order scope should then be passed to the Logistical (Procurement) team to ensure the availability of the resources (from contractors or subcontractors) and  materials (from vendors) prior to the work order being tagged as ‘Ready to Execute’.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support management sign-offs to move work to logistical (procurement, etc.) phase.

Logistical considerations – who, what, where, when, How much?

As the procurement cycle moves along in our ERP, it requires time-consuming, manual updates to keep the plan informed about the expected, committed and delivered dates of the committed labor, equipment materials, supplies and services.  This is critical information that, when readily available, can provide management with the crucial leeway they need to make the right decisions, based on potential delays to delivery or mobilization, etc.  Things happen in the supply chain.  We need a direct link to be informed – without depending on being in a specific meeting to hear the latest update about how the hurricane is impacting our pumps being shipped from the Gulf Coast.  Our un-integrated procurement teams are contributing confusion as we get closer to the execution phase.  Committed and delivered dates are not automatically available in the planning/scheduling system.

Procurement Cycle

A more efficient approach would be to keep the ERP system up to date with the ‘real’ procurement cycle (i.e. Requisition, Request for Quote, Purchase Order, Mobilize Contractor Labor, Deliver/Receive Materials, Supplies, Equipment Rentals, Tools and Services) as each step is done and the process moves forward.  This cycle is, again, often done in supplemental spreadsheets.  And the Procurement team has the added burden of manually updating the ERP with their spreadsheet data.  More time is wasted.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support the entire Procurement cycle in the integrated solution, alongside Planning, and keep the ERP updated silently.  

Work Package Kitting

As materials, supplies, tools and equipment is received, work order or job ‘kits’ should be assembled in our site’s shop or warehouse.  The shop/warehouse team should be able to stage kits easily and with minimal re-handling of components.  A ‘Kit is ready’ flag should be required before the work order is ready to execute.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support the creation of kits when materials, supplies and tools are received.

Contractor Safety Orientation

When our contractors mobilize to the plant, HSE ensures that each person attends a Safety Orientation, where they learn how to operate safely and respond to emergencies in the plant.  Only when they are done with this orientation are they ready to work on the planned scope.  The system should flag each contractor employee that has been so oriented, so that they can be included in the resource pool responsible for the execution of the work.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support the Green-lighting people as they complete orientation.

Resource Availability

Another logistical concern is ensuring that the right resources (i.e. craft and skill level) are available to get the work done.  This should be done by our scheduler.  They should use the assigned contractors and their resources to produce weekly and daily work lists.  These work lists would be the basis of schedule compliance reporting.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: The integrated solution needs to enable the scheduler to obtain a resource-limited schedule based on the actual people, crafts and skills available in the project/program resource pool.

Work Lists with Safe Work Permits

Crews showing up to work at the start of the day would have their work lists, complete with Operations’ Safe Work Permits, ready for them to start work – once they pick up their tools and materials and supplies that are ready for them in kits in the site’s shop.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Operations should be able to see the Daily scheduled work, and be able to issue Safe Work Permits, preferably within an integrated solution.

Execution – work the plan, measure progress and track incurred costs

Progress Reporting

During Execution of the work, crews need to provide the latest progress updates, so that Operations can issue timely safe work permits, so that work crews are not delayed in getting to their job site and safely completing their work.  As the ERP’s limited planning tools prevent this sort of timely progress entry, we use spreadsheets – which contribute to more delays, as this takes more time to enter, and then communicate.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support the use, by front-line foremen, of mobile devices for time progress entry. 

HSE / Inspection Alerts

Work steps requiring the input of Safety or Inspection departments before completion, need to alert them to be available, so as not to delay the work.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support Alerting of HSE and Inspection in advance of their being needed to OK completion of a work item.


Prior to handing the repaired equipment back to Operations, the required pre-commissioning tests, including hydrotest, NDE, etc. are required.  The ERP does not support the efficient definition or the tracking of these steps.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support checklists for each test and the notification of the testing organization s well as observers, if needed.

Ingress/Egress and TimeKeeping

Use gate/turnstile ingress/egress tracking to validate time entry against work items.  Default time entry where possible to minimize the need for direct entry.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Integrate the entry of time with the daily work list and the available manpower, thus reducing the need for time-consuming manual time entry and management.

Equipment Rental Tracking

Ensure that rental equipment and facilities that are no longer needed are not kept on site, and are shipped to the service providers promptly.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Integrate tracking of rental equipment requirements as well as delivery and returns.

Scope Change Management

Every execution stage in our real-world has the potential of uncovering unexpected conditions when maintenance work starts.  These ‘discoveries’ lead to the need to manage scope changes, or ‘Extras’, in a formal change management process.   This includes the need to travel, again, through the entire work cycle – just as we did with the initial work order.  With an integrated solution, managing changes would be as easy as the rest of the process, and not need new and special procedures.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Integrate Scope change management in the Execution phase so as to comply with our standard procedures for each of the work phases.


Management and the field need timely reporting of progress, headcounts, costs, etc.  This information should be available on demand and be constantly updated.  Currently, we wait for almost a day for data entry to be completed, and in a turnaround, that is a long time before finding out that a critical bottleneck is emerging.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Turnaround and Program dashboards to show overall data, with drill-downs to drill into root cause of issues.  Also, hard copy (PDF) reports should be available on demand.

Complete the work, Return to Service, Commission

Operations Commissioning steps

Upon receiving the repaired equipment from Maintenance, Operations conducts a commissioning checklist to get it back on line.  This is done using a standalone spreadsheet and could benefit from being in the integrated system, so that lessons learned are collected and provide an opportunity to improve their process.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support equipment asset’s Operations’ commissioning checklist.

Lessons Learned Processing

The Lessons Learned process is an opportunity to review and improve process flow, while the experience is still fresh in our minds.  We have no way to change the workflow – other than in a flow diagram and a document.  It would be nice to change it in a system (with appropriate approvals of course) and know that the next time work is done on the equipment, the team will be following the new process.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support review of process, and modification of process to enable lessons learned to be useful.

Benchmark Indexes

Review and tag the planned and actual hours, costs and other benchmark indexes that we need to save to assist future estimates and analyses.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Build Benchmark Indexes and enable team to default values for these for each completed work scope.

Other Work Orders

Work Orders, like the ones discussed thus far, are not the only work on the Maintenance teams’ docket.  Preventive maintenance work, emergency work, leak prevention, etc., all add to the volume of work to be done with the limited workforce.  The ERP does not provide a single point of truth (SPOT) where the cumulative work being done by the maintenance teams can be collected and then assigned, based on the availability of individuals and skills in the team.

Routine Maintenance Work wish list item: Support creation and maintenance of PM work orders as well as other work orders from condition monitoring (CM) systems (ex. vibration, leaks).

Solutions to Deal with Challenges

Instead of using the ERP, scheduling systems, and innumerable spreadsheets, it is clear that a single point of truth (SPOT) solution is a logical way to go.  Wait, you say, that’s what the ERP is!  However, our ERP is a legacy system.  It was built and deployed, at great cost, a while ago, and its technology is aging.  Switching to a new, or updated, ERP is costly and there is no guarantee that we would get a better, more complete solution – and would still have the cost to contend with.

Some larger companies have spent a lot to build their own internal systems – and these are fraught with issues, due to hard-coding and teams not being tuned to the need for flexibility – even in the definition of scope of the requirements.

Add-ons to ERPs abound – and seem to serve narrow needs well, but also introduce yet another island, or silo of expertise.  This is not a sustainable model.

A single system that addresses all of my wish list items would be the only ERP add-on we would need.

Benefits to my team

As this SPOT solution enables, and tracks, conversations between each member of the maintenance and other plant teams, this helps us to stay in the communication loop.  Transparency helps to foster an engagement in the process.  This is opposite of what we have now.  People have a ‘hands-off’ attitude that reflects a ‘that’s not my concern’ attitude that is almost passive-aggressive in their approach to their work and to people in other departments.

Benefits to my company

My plant is one of many that my company owns and runs. If they used a SPOT solution like the one proposed here, the benefits would compound quickly.  Company dashboards would enable them to compare, say, Exchanger costs at the west coast plant to those in the Midwest.  As all plants are following the same process, these comparisons would have merit and would enable better procurement and more cost-saving opportunities.

Final Thoughts

While an integrated, single point of truth, system would be really useful immediately, actually implementing it all at one time could be un-necessarily time-consuming plus cause upheavals in the work flow.  Adverse initial experiences, with a new way of doing business, will equip naysayers with arguments against the entire premise.

So, I suggest that we start down the road to ‘digitalizing’ our work management processes, by activating one stage at a time. This would help our teams to transition to the new concepts. It’s like many systems available today as apps: Additional functionality is presented incrementally – almost organically, based on the requirements of our organization. So, take small steps, while knowing the the solution you choose has the maturity of design and the ‘DNA’, or building blocks, to grow the way that your team wants to grow, and to go at the pace that you wish to get there.  No more reasons or excuses to not have a single point of truth!

Note: This post is written in first person to illustrate the immediacy of issues as I experienced them while I was on site on the maintenance shop floor for the better part of 15 years.