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10:39 pm
December 14, 2012
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Small-Site Scheduling  

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It’s an area where the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.

 

1212coverfeat2Fig. 1. This whiteboard calendar from a countertop supplier’s shop is representative of one of the most basic approaches to small-site scheduling. (Source: Tops Solid Surface Co.)Have you ever walked into a local business and noticed a big whiteboard mounted on a wall (Fig. 1) indicating what the employees are supposed to do and when? If so, you were looking at a classic example of “small-site scheduling.” This concept could also be referred to as “call-center dispatching” (although that term is typically associated only with urgent or emergency work).

Small-site scheduling includes both routine and urgent work—and involves key operational activities, as well as maintenance work. The goal is to provide a level of coordination into the near future and sometimes a week or more out. Does small-site scheduling software, in fact, exist within the CMMS community? 

Many systems work beautifully for large, multi-craft organizations, but they may not offer an easy-to-use solution for mid- to small-size sites. Consequently, companies that might have spent many dollars on best-of-breed systems may still find themselves struggling to make the scheduling process work at their smaller sites. 

CMMS systems commonly offer two approaches:

  • Direct entry of schedule start dates on the maintenance work order (which is like driving in the dark): Could users be over-scheduling staff and not know it?
  • Manipulation of logic-based bar charts: But does the user really need to create logic ties and see resource histograms to manage work at his/her small site? 


The primary focus of small-site scheduling is what are we doing today, tomorrow and, perhaps, next week. The priorities are, therefore: 1) identify the task; 2) place it on a calendar; and 3) assign a crew. This must be done day-in and day-out without the luxury of job Planners or Schedulers. For those tasked with scheduling at small sites, is there a solution between planning-in-your-head and resource-intensive, computerized maintenance management systems, and, what should this design look like?

Steps in planning/scheduling

Table I below details the steps in a formal work-order process for a full-size—i.e., substantial head-count—Maintenance organization.

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Things can be quite different in a small-site Maintenance department: The Supervisor/Lead does everything. He/she creates the work request, reviews it, approves it, assigns a date/time and picks the worker. He/she needs to make sure that workers aren’t double-booked or that operational schedules aren’t impacted. These steps are all done at roughly the same time. In some cases, work needs to be quickly shuffled around. To the Supervisor/Lead, this is the definition of scheduling. The total elapsed time might be 5-10 minutes per WO. So, the question is, how much time should he/she spend managing O&M staff within the confines of the CMMS? And can the software be configured differently to combine functions?

1212coverfeat5Fig. 2. Incorporated into a CMMS, this simple type of calendar view could be an effective tool for a small-site maintenance operation.Other peculiarities of small-site scheduling… 
Quite often, the maintenance backlogs are small in size. Plus, most of the work is similar in terms of duration. This work may be preventive or corrective in nature, but neither will take more than one to two hours to perform. The only Maintenance craft at a small site typically goes by one name: “Operations/Technician.” With this understanding, the craft estimate could be defaulted. Thus, the Supervisor/Lead (i.e., Planner) can very easily start lining out morning and afternoon jobs for the coming days. This process could be applied to either emergency maintenance or routine work. 

With today’s technology you can do anything
If your small site is one among many that are struggling with a one-size-fits-all CMMS, now is the time to imagine future perfect and ask “why not” of your chosen vendor (or other vendors).

Designing an ideal small site-scheduling tool. . . 
If I were a Supervisor at a small site, I would want a visual display—such as a calendar-type format—similar to MS Outlook, from which I could manage all work. An ideal design would allow for quick insertion of new tasks on the calendar screen. (Note the reference to the word “task,” not “work-order number.” It may be that a work-order number is created later.) It would also be advantageous to include other activities like operational events that impact maintenance work and staff. The design should display worker schedules, as well as planned absences. Where work is assigned to a crew or person, color shading could clearly denote (visually) who does what. In the event more work is identified than is possible to display, an “overflow arrow” would point to the complete list. 

This type of CMMS calendar view would let the organization quickly see what work is scheduled where and which crew is assigned. Moreover, it could provide that information for an entire month or just a week. 

Developing a calendar view. . . 
Given the fact that it is a principal feature of their email systems, a calendar format (like that shown in Fig. 2) is familiar to most employees. Incorporated in a small-site CMMS system, this type of calendar could show upcoming meetings, crew shift changes, training activities, etc.—and could be used by a supervisor to keep track of his entire staff. More important, it could also show maintenance work.

1212coverfeat6Fig. 3. In the Add-Task screen, an input dialog would appear when the user right-clicks on a specific calendar date.Building an ‘add task’ screen. . . 
An example input dialog—which could appear when the user right-clicks on a specific date—is shown in Fig. 3. To keep the system simple, it is important to make the work-order insert from the calendar itself (as opposed to going back to the main WO application). The typical small-site user would probably prefer one application that allows him/her to do everything. Keep in mind the constraints of small-site scheduling: wherein the Supervisor/Lead position must do it all. He/she must be aware of all needed maintenance work as well as staff availability and operational events. 

The Add-Task screen would allow the user to specify the “type of record” and, if desired, enter a description without a work-order number. In addition, when linked to a work-order number, this action would directly update the CMMS (i.e., schedule start date). Based on a setup screen, activities would automatically be color-shaded, or the user could override. Alternatively, he/she could elect to show either a truncated description or the work-order number itself. Operational events would be stored as records outside the work-order table. Moreover, worker schedule changes (as in the case of crew rotations) would only show on the first date of the change. 

Managing planned absences. . . 
It would seem that the best place to manage “planned absences” is from the calendar screen itself. A planned absence is where a worker plans to go on vacation for 1-2 weeks, or, perhaps, requests a day off. This entry should be a simple screen that captures the worker’s name, start date of absence, duration (or end date) and reason for absence. Note that there could be multiple absence reasons within one day. These planned absences would subtract from overall craft availability.

Designing reports. . . 
When the user prints the calendar, additional information pertaining to the work order would appear. Specialized reports could be designed to show worker calendars/availability, resource usage, weekly schedules and daily plans. By making this external to the screen-entry system, unnecessary complexity is removed from the display. Plus, with the power of business analytics, users have more flexibility in terms of entering numerous combinations (variables) and extracting desired results and formats.

Automatic resource leveling
In the 1970s, automated resource leveling features existed within scheduling products (i.e., Project Software & Development, Inc.). To date, no CMMS or ERP system has been created that includes a built-in resource leveling feature to create a weekly maintenance schedule. Although this knowledge/capability exists, it’s never been incorporated in CMMS products. Imagine how empowered small sites would be if it were: A Supervisor/Lead could single-click “Generate Schedule” and out would come the report. Some users might be skeptical and believe that an accurate schedule would never be possible. Looking deeper into the database, though, they might see that the problem is probably due to a poorly prioritized backlog and inaccurate job statuses. When data is bad, no automated program can help. If “bad data” were cleaned up, however, it would be technologically feasible for this advanced feature to be run. Prerequisites for this program to work would include: 

1. Internally stored craft resource availability

2. Properly prioritized/estimated backlog, 

     and 

3. The “Leveling” algorithm.  

This type of overall solution would demonstrate the real power of technology and enable any size organization to increase workforce productivity and effectively manage backlogs. Without this type of tool, small sites will never be able to successfully create an automated weekly schedule.

The need for the right tools
There is a reason why so many smaller-sized organizations are struggling to perform planning/scheduling for day-to-day maintenance: They don’t have the right tools. A nuclear power plant may have 10-15 Planner/Scheduler positions, but with that head-count you could make any software package work. The reality is that the majority of CMMS user sites fall into the small- to mid-size range. Giving them a product that is easy to use and adds real value can help create a positive attitude about the CMMS and positions them for the future—i.e., automated resource leveling. While best-of-breed CMMS products with their outstanding enterprise-wide capabilities and configurability are vitally important, they should also be able to support small-site scheduling. 

These goals are not unrealistic. We just need vendors to fully understand the CMMS-user community and realize that different-size customers have different needs. MT

Acknowledgements
The author wishes to thank Valerie Teters, President and Designer of Tops Solid Surface Co., in Lacy, WA, and Rick Smith, Supervisor Offshore Operations, with Williams Energy, in Bay City, TX, for their assistance with the images used in this article.

John Reeve has spent 25 years supporting CMMS/EAM users across a wide range of industries. Now, as Manager and Senior Consultant for Cohesive Information Solutions, Inc., he serves as Practice Leader for Maintenance & Reliability Solutions. Email: jreeve@cohesivesolutions.com.

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The company that buys a CMMS product may have a large O&M organization—and budget—but many smaller, geographically dispersed sites. Sometimes, upper management will purchase software and assume it isjust what the Maintenance teams at each plant needs. The total head-count at some of those sites, however, could be fewer than six workers. 

Maintenance personnel want to do the right thing (within reason). They understand the importance of planning/scheduling, but are often overwhelmed by high click-count and screen complexity. They’re willing to change processes and learn new technologies, but don’t want to spend extensive time trying to finagle work orders if they are going to reap no real benefit from doing so.

 

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