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Using Legendary Business Theories to Streamline Maintenance Planning and Scheduling

by Mariah Patterson on September 22, 2016

Many people in the business world hate the concept of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. For people in the planning and scheduling world, this law is all the more abhorred. But, says Richard “Doc” Palmer, when Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head, it’s time to embrace it and change plans.

“You need to start out with a plan but it’s okay to break that plan, break the schedule,” he explained.

With more than three decades of industrial experience, the now-management consultant is very familiar with schedules and the need to be flexible enough to change those plans.

DocPalmer.jpgAfter earning a master’s degree in business as well as a degree in engineering, Doc began working in maintenance during his 25-year tenure at Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA). “We finished building a big coal plant at JEA in Florida, we had all these extra engineers and some ended up in maintenance.”

While assigned to a maintenance management improvement project, Doc got involved with planning and scheduling… “and I fell in love with it,” he said. “It’s a real business organizational challenge.”

Introducing Deming’s legendary principles to scheduling

DEM-1066-1988-WED-Mt.-Fuji-and-car-small.jpgDr. W. Edwards Deming in 1988 with Mt. Fuji in the background. Photo courtesy of The W. Edwards Deming Institute®.

Embracing different theories as he started to examine current perspectives on planning and scheduling, he began to champion the work and principles of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who told U.S. companies in the 1950s that if they would admit they weren’t perfect, they could improve.

After Dr. Deming’s initial work was essentially laughed at in the U.S., he went to Japan to design the very successful and now acclaimed management system at Toyota. Since then, his teachings have been adopted worldwide in institutions, businesses and other agencies.

“Deming surprised everybody in the U.S. with his thought of ‘Start off. See how you did. See how you can get better.’ And so we’re trying to do that with individual job plans and individual weekly schedules,” he explained.

Deming's PDCA Cycle - Diagram by Karn G. Bulsuk (http://www.bulsuk.com)Deming's 'PDCA cycle'. Diagram by Karn G. Bulsuk (http://www.bulsuk.com)

By utilizing these principles, Doc Palmer has also helped streamline planning and scheduling in countless companies. “What we want to do is run a Deming Cycle in maintenance,” he said.

“The planners give the mechanic a head start and then the planner collects the feedback and makes job plans better so that the next time, they have a better head start.”

There is no ‘perfect plan’ in maintenance

One of the most significant problems with current planning methods, he said, is that managers tend to oversell it. “They tell the mechanics that now that they have maintenance planners, they won’t have to search for parts anymore. And then the carnage starts. They can’t deliver.”

Exacerbating the situation is the mechanics’ perspectives that the planner is going to give them the ‘perfect plan’. Chances are, while the plan might be well constructed, it is susceptible to other, uncontrollable variables: sick time, broken machinery, or a job taking longer than expected. Because maintenance is so dynamic, he explained a 5-hour job is not going to take 5 hours. It might take 2 hours or 10 hours.

“The first time a mechanic gets a job plan and it’s not perfect, they go fuss at the planner. And then the planners apologize and abandon planning and go help jobs in progress. They don’t get much of the work planned so they help more jobs in progress because they weren’t able to give the mechanic a plan.”

It isn’t hard to imagine how quickly a flawed ‘perfect’ plan can break down the process. As the planners jump in to help other departments, the overall output is reduced, despite the fact that everybody is busy and filling their days with work. 

Instituting Parkinson’s Law in scheduling

If planning is susceptible to Murphy’s Law, Doc said, scheduling is about Parkinson’s Law, which states that If you don’t assign enough work, you won’t get more work done.

Parkinson’s Law, credited to Cyril Northcote Parkinson, suggested in a 1955 article in The Economist that the amount of work assigned expands to fill the amount of time available.

Instead of assigning work according to what planners know can be completed, assign work to fill a schedule, and shift the focus to what can be finished versus focusing on schedule compliance. “You’ve got to be really careful with schedule compliance,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most dangerous KPIs we have.”

How does he suggest filling the schedule? “If you have a crew of ten people on – with no scheduled time off – you give them 400 hours of planned work for a week.” He explained that while they will get more work done, they’ll likely only hit 60 or 70 percent schedule compliance. “But we’ve achieved our objective because we’ve completed more work.”

The importance of loading a schedule

To illustrate how effective this shift in perspective can be, he recalled a plant that he went to in one country in Europe to help streamline their planning and scheduling. At this plant, “they got a bonus based on schedule compliance so they would only schedule the jobs they knew they were going to do anyway and they always got a bonus.”

By loading their schedule, they were able to accomplish more jobs than what they had traditionally planned for because the culture changed from simply completing the jobs they knew they could handle to taking on a fuller, more challenging work week. Despite the fact that their schedule compliance rate was lower, a loaded schedule assured more jobs were addressed and completed.

Should schedule compliance be a school grade or a bowling score?

“Management often gets so focused on ‘school grades’ where 90-100 percent is an A. They force people to have 95% schedule compliance and the only way to do that is to not schedule enough work. And if you don’t schedule enough work, you don’t get more work done. You’re defeated by Parkinson’s Law.”

He noted that of all the plants he goes to that have about 90-95% schedule compliance: “They’re normal, good maintenance forces, but they’re not getting as much done as they could be. When you start crews off with a full batch of work but tell them it’s okay to break the schedule, we just get more work done.”

Many times, when he advocates for a full work schedule, he said the conversation sounds like this:

Manager: ‘I’m going to start giving you a batch of work that matches your available labor hours. You’ve got 10 persons; here’s 400 hours’ worth of work.’

And the supervisors’ eyes get really big and they say, ‘Well, you know we won’t get it all done because something’s going to happen.’

Manager: ‘That’s okay; it’ll help you get more done.’

Supervisors: ‘Well, why don’t you give me the amount of work we usually do?’

Manager: ‘I don’t want you to do the amount of work you usually do. I want you to do more than you usually do.’

Supervisors: ‘Yeah, but we won’t get it all done.’

Manager: ‘That’s okay. You don’t have to get it all done.’

So, if Doc is teaching planners and schedulers that it is okay to have a lower schedule compliance, how does he assure that people don’t take advantage of this and become lazy?

“We’re looking for a bowling score. If you could consistently bowl 200 out of 300, you’d be a pretty good bowler. We’re looking for about 67% schedule compliance."

“I’m personally looking for between 40% and 90%,” he continued.

“If you’re under 40% schedule compliance, you’re not trying. And if you’re over 90%, you’re lying.”

When the expectations are increased and the schedules are maximized, the results can be amazing.

There was a planned maintenance manager from Barcelona that went to a one-day workshop Doc instructed in the United States. “He went back and in one month, just by starting crews with fully-loaded schedules, he went from completing 238 work orders a month to completing 339 work orders a month. They picked up 101 ‘free’ work orders per month.”

How much work can be done with 400 labor hours scheduled?

One question management asks him is: “‘How much work can I get done next week with 400 hours’ worth of labor?’ The answer is, ‘400 hours’ worth of work,’” he said.

If only half of the work is completed, Doc suggests instituting Deming’s Process Analysis:

  • What were their biggest challenges?
  • How can they address these, make adjustments and succeed with more hours completed the next week?

By asking these questions, he said it shifts the perspective to a more practical analytical one instead of: “‘We’re keeping everyone busy. We’re doing the best we can.’”

In an extreme example of the time saved by creating a full schedule, Doc mentioned working with a particular city’s municipal sewer district which won Reliability Web’s Uptime Program of the Year a couple years ago.

At the sewer district, they had a scheduler that took 20 hours to put together a complex schedule for the next week. With the other 20 hours a week, he revised the schedule. “We cut his time down to two hours on a Friday morning and came up with a better, more effective schedule and completed more work.”

Keep up the planning, but expect to make changes

While people in charge of planning and scheduling can streamline the process by creating full work schedules, this can have wider implications on the work culture too. “One reason to plan the work is to make estimates,” Doc said. While there is no perfect job plan, “when you give the crew the batch of work that matches their available hours, it changes the culture of the mission from just taking care of operations and keeping everyone busy to let’s get a certain amount of work done.”

It also helps to have computer programs that can adjust to the extenuating circumstances that can impact schedule compliance.

A software that adapts to real-life schedule challenges

Too often, he said CMMS programs “want you to create five detailed daily schedules a week ahead of time; who’s going to do what and when; Fred and George are going to start this job at 10 o’clock on Thursday morning. You can’t say that a week ahead of time. You can say it for a few soccer meetings but you can’t plan 400 hours’ worth of work that way.

“The best thing about Solufy is they understand planning and scheduling from a maintenance perspective rather than an IT perspective. All too often, IT people think that if you plan a job for five hours, it should take five hours. IT-centric geared CMMS software is designed around perfect job plans and perfect schedules that are just not real life.”


And Doc certainly practices these methods by filling his own schedule.  After retiring from JEA in 2007, Doc began assisting other companies full time to achieve planning and scheduling success. 

Doc Palmer’s wisdom can be found in many different published papers on maximizing planning and scheduling efforts. In fact, he embraced this avenue and began writing papers on this approach. This led to a request from McGraw-Hill to write a guidebook on maintenance planning and scheduling, the Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook, now in its third edition. 

Header image from year 1951 – W. Edwards Deming with businessmen, geishas and Managing Director of JUSE, Mr. Kenichi Koyanagi - Photo courtesy of The W. Edwards Deming Institute®  

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Mariah Patterson

Mariah Patterson began writing as a child as a way to fill her time when her family moved to an isolated region in Maine. With no close friendships, developing cabin fever from intense snowstorms and only one fuzzy Canadian channel on TV, she created her own world through writing.

She began her

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