One of the most effective management tools in tracking maintenance costs, measuring shop efficiency, scheduling equipment repairs, and performing a multitude of other vital managerial functions isn't a complicated formula devised by some Harvard MBA. Rather, says Preston Ingalls, president of TBK Strategies, it is the simple work order.
"And if you are running a maintenance facility without work orders," Ingalls says, "you are more likely to stay in an emergency state — what we call RTF, or run to failure. Without work orders, you can't get a handle on your work and you can't control or manage it."
Ben Tucker, CEM, equipment manager for Barriere Construction in New Orleans, agrees. It's Tucker's responsibility to manage a fleet of 150 off-highway vehicles and 25 on-road units used for asphalt work, highway construction and industrial projects.
"Before we implemented a work-order system, I knew 30 percent of the time what my people were doing," Tucker says. "After we started using work orders, I knew what my people were doing 99 percent of the time, and knowing what's going on is critical. Scheduling your work orders daily and knowing where your labor is going each day are essential to good management."
Although a work order is a fundamental control document in a work-management program, it serves a multitude of purposes, Ingalls says. Among them:
- To request work. Anyone — an operator, foreman, supervisor or mechanic — can request work, so a work order is the document that instigates the work cycle.
- To identify work. Work orders specify the work that is to be performed, such as preventive maintenance, brake job, or bulb replacement. "In many cases, you not only have to request work, you have to identify the nature of the work," Ingalls says.
- To prioritize work. All work is not of equal value, so priorities must be assigned. Priority one, for example, might be for work that needs to be completed within 24 hours, priority two for work that needs to be finished within 72 hours, and so forth.
- To approve work. Some work should not be done. It may be frivolous, redundant or not cost-effective. "I've literally seen people put in a work order to replace an entire piece of equipment," Ingalls says. "That's a solution, all right, but not necessarily one that will be approved." Work orders provide a means of establishing an approval cycle.
- To plan work. One of the fundamental steps of any work-order system is to determine what is going to be done and how it will be done. "If I have a work order in front of me, I can start thinking about how I'll actually implement it," Ingalls says. "Planning is a fundamental step in the whole thing."
- To schedule work. Once you plan the job, you must schedule it. "You might think of planning as the 'what' and the 'how' and scheduling as the 'who' and the 'when,'" Ingalls says. "Scheduling basically determines who will be assigned to do the job and when he or she can perform it."
As important as these six functions are, the most important role of a work-order system is to help the fleet manager collect costs on labor, materials and services, Ingalls says. "Once you have a work order in place, you can look at how much maintenance costs in labor and how much it costs in materials, but without a work order you don't always know how your costs are being applied."
Such a system also enables the manager to analyze problem areas. "If you have a piece of equipment that continuously requires work, your question ought to be, 'Why? What's wrong here?'" Ingalls says. "By tracking your costs, you can tell if there's a problem with parts usage, for instance. Suppose you notice that a piece of equipment keeps blowing a circuit board and has to be replaced often. Without a history, without the information a work order provides, it's really difficult to pinpoint the specific problem."
Consider this: A fleet manager should be able to point to an excavator, dozer, scraper or rock truck and, in short time, be able to say how much the unit cost to maintain last year or for the past five years. Without a work-order system, you usually don't know that, Ingalls says. "Mechanics and fleet managers often act on a sense of intuition without any facts or dates to back them up."
The need for immediate information confronted Deborah S. Clark, CEM and equipment maintenance coordinator for the Alabama Department of Transportation, when a new governor was elected. One of the first questions from the new administration was why half-ton pickups used in the fleet of 2,500 on-highway vehicles and 1,500 off-road units were turned over at 55,000 miles. Why weren't they kept longer, she was asked.
Thanks to the work-order system that was in place, "I was able to show them where and how we were saving money," Clark says. "I went back 10 years and pulled data in five-year increments. I showed him what it cost us to operate and why we did things the way we did. Since taxpayers want to know where their money goes, we made that information public. Without that kind of data, that history, from a work order, you can't provide that information. If you can put it on paper, then you have something to back you up."
Tracking and compiling key data is the biggest reason why any fleet of any size, public or private, needs a work-order system, Clark says.
"It gives you a way to track the cost of operating your fleet and for tracking such things as PM schedules," she says. The system allows a manager to evaluate the efficiency of the shop; the productivity of individual mechanics; and the parts mechanics use, which in turn, aids in tracking inventory. In addition, outsourced repairs are tracked.
Such a system also helps the manager decide when to replace equipment and what brand to buy. "If I have 10 [motor graders] in my fleet and one needs replacing, I can look at all 10," Clark says. "Suppose I notice that one is costing me more money to operate than the one I'm about to replace. I might take the one that's costing me more money and get rid of it first and save the one that is less costly. A work order lets me track every bit of data on that piece of equipment."
By focusing on costs, fleet managers also can make improvements on labor and material applications. "If I notice that a particular mechanic takes twice as long as others to do a job, I need to find out if it's a skill issue or something else," Ingalls says. "Maybe the mechanic doesn't have the necessary troubleshooting skills.
"On the materials side, work-order data shows where I'm really using my parts," he says."For example, if I'm utilizing multiple parts on a repair job, maybe the mechanic doesn't know exactly what's causing the failure, so he's putting parts in and out to find the problem. Work orders tell me when the work was requested, when the work was completed, and shows the amount of time it took to perform the work. And it can isolate problems."
Tucker puts it this way. "Work orders monitor your equipment to tell you how it's running. Usually you'll find you're doing the same thing over and over again. When you see that, you can get to the root of the problem. For example, you might find out you have a certain component that keeps breaking down or wearing out. With a work-order system, you can identify that component and find out why it's wearing out all the time."
Once all the data from the work orders is collected, a fleet manager can pull up queries on a variety of things: He can look at equipment by specific type, equipment failures by specific type, number of failures by equipment or shop productivity by person.
"The big advantage is that now you can tell where your problems are," Ingalls says. "It pinpoints exactly where you need to make adjustments. Once you have that data, you can shake it every which way: put it into a spreadsheet, create standard reports, or request specific information."
Data show how much has been spent on a machine historically, shows how often it has failed, and provides a method of accurately determining its lifecycle costs, Ingalls says. This data enables the manager to make a sound decision on replacement.
A not-so-obvious advantage of work orders is that they help organize work that has been identified but not yet performed. "It's normal to have three to five weeks of work backlog," Ingalls says. "Having a backlog helps you plan and schedule. Parts can be ordered in advance, for instance. If you don't have a backlog, people will start duplicating requests."
At Barriere, every piece of equipment has a profit-and-loss statement, Tucker says, and the work-order system enables him to manage those costs.
"We have it broken down into 22 components," he says. "Components for an excavator, for instance, include lower and upper engine-block [components]; the air system; lube system, clutch, pump drive, and differential. Work orders tell me about each of those components, and they can break out what I've spent — parts and labor — on all my excavators or on one single unit."
Work-order data can be captured with software such as J. D. Edwards, CGC, Explorer, and Cheetah, which usually have a maintenance module with a work-order component. Stand-alone maintenance programs such as Maximo and MP 2 are designed specifically for maintenance work, Ingalls says, and provide a lot more information than maintenance modules.
Clark captures fleet data with an internally designed system. "We have the computer technology that works on a web base from a mainframe here at our central office," she says. "We have 24 shops throughout the state, and every one of them feeds back data that allows me to manage all that equipment across the state. I can pull up a group of vehicles or a single piece of equipment."
Barriere uses Explorer. "We told them what we needed to capture, and they came up with the software to do it," Tucker says.
All types of data can be captured: fuel cost, miles-per-gallon per vehicle, how long an operator is on a piece of equipment, even what brand of tire wears longest. No matter how the data is captured, Clark says, the most critical part of any work-order system is the accuracy of the information that goes into it.
"Information is only as good as what is keyed in," she says. "One of the hardest things I've found is to make sure odometer readings and hour readings are keyed in properly."
She cross checks to ensure that accuracy: One check is the work order when it's keyed in; the second is monthly mileage reports. "Those odometer and hour readings trigger when we're going to do our PMs," Clark says. "They are critical."
Ingalls, Tucker and Clark all agree on one point — you can't manage your maintenance operation without a work-order system.
"Work orders will give you less gray hair," Tucker says. "If you still have hair."