MRO Magazine

Planning and scheduling solves staffing

Staffing is a huge problem for all of us.

April 24, 2023 | By Doc Palmer

Photo: Quality Stock Arts / Adobe Stock

Photo: Quality Stock Arts / Adobe Stock

Not only do we need to hire more maintenance craftspersons, but we also need them trained and ready to go. However, available craftspersons that are ready to apply their expert skills are not thick on the ground. Fortunately, proper maintenance planning and scheduling provides a dramatic help. But beware, the unusual concepts that enable proper planning and scheduling require active management leadership. Successful planning and scheduling are not grassroots-led efforts. The results are well worth the effort.

Over the years, everyone has “sized” their maintenance staff in the same way. The more frequently and louder that operators scream to fix breakdowns, the easier it is to decide to hire more mechanics, electricians, and instrument techs. Yet often, when we lose a crafts person to retirement or another company, we find ourselves not automatically replacing them. We reason that “we had 10 electricians and one left. Let’s see if we can get by with nine. You never know until you try.” However, as additional craftspersons leave and operator calls go up, we eventually scramble to add more staff. By going up and down over time, we have “sized” our staffing merely to take care of urgent calls after they hinder profitable plant production.

Three problems arise in our ongoing staffing efforts. First, craftspersons that have left our companies are typically either the most experienced going into retirement, or the most capable that can more easily find another job elsewhere. Second, our tight labour markets have made it difficult to find skilled craftspersons. Third, any apprentice program takes time to develop less skilled and less experienced persons into the craftspersons we need.

Let’s go beyond thinking about replacing staff that tackles urgent work. The very definition of “maintenance” is “to keep assets functioning.” By letting assets lose function and triggering operator calls, we have become a “repair” staff instead of a “maintenance” staff. Therefore, maintenance professionals separate work into “re-active work” and “pro-active work.” Re-active work is work to fix a breakdown or otherwise remedy an urgent situation that cannot wait. Proactive work is work such as preventive maintenance (PM), predictive maintenance (PdM), and project work to keep things from losing function in the first place.


PM involves both routine servicing (such as filter changes to preclude problems from developing) and general inspections. PdM involves inspections using technology such as infra-red, ultrasound, or vibration analysis. Both PM and PdM inspections find little problems that can be remedied before operators suffer any loss of function. Project work involves analyzing and replacing inherently unreliable equipment.

The 1:10 industry rule-of-thumb is every one dollar spent on proactive maintenance saves 10 dollars on the bottom line. We grease a bearing at a convenient time due to a PdM warning instead of replacing the bearing, losing the pump shaft, and losing production. Enlightened management wants to go beyond operating as a merely “good” plant making a profit while continually fixing breakdowns. Proper management desires to become a “great” plant with an industry-leading profit by preventing breakdowns in the first place. However, the management staffing problem is, “how can we do extra proactive maintenance when we have our hands full of re-active work?”

Surprisingly, we have the extra staff available now, within ourselves. Industry studies show that the average productivity of maintenance forces at good plants is only about 35 per cent in terms of “wrench time.” Studies show that about 65 per cent of the day for available craftspersons is spent receiving assignments, gathering parts and tools, travelling to job sites, and breaks. Without taking away breaks, proper planning and scheduling together can boost the overall wrench time of a workforce to 55 per cent.

Fifty-five divided by thirty-five per cent wrench time equals 1.57, meaning the new productivity is 57 per cent. That translates to a workforce suddenly completing 50 per cent more work than normal. That bump translates to a 50 person workforce doing the work of 75. The workforce gains 25 people, for free. Twenty-five people that do purely proactive work, and allow room for attrition.

However, before we start celebrating, we must answer the question, “If it is that easy, why isn’t everyone doing it already?” Three reasons: first, it’s hard to believe that normal wrench time is only 35 per cent. Second, we errantly strive for plan perfection. Third, we misunderstand the real purpose of scheduling, and make scheduling too complicated. These reasons mandate that proper programs be management driven. Planning and scheduling will never be grassroots demanded effort.

It is honestly hard to believe that wrench time could be only 35 per cent in a good maintenance force. Structured work sampling studies confirm nearly every maintenance group is at 35 per cent. It is also interesting that the 35 per cent rate exists across industries and national cultures. This similarity is because we all have “sized” our maintenance forces over the years “to keep people busy.” Humans normally feel “busy” at about 35 per cent actual wrench time.

For planning itself, most companies miss the mark. They implement planning to identify “all the steps necessary for the proper completion of the work.” But no one is perfect and craftspersons also resent planners telling them what to do. Most programs collapse in frustration.

Instead, we must implement planning as a cycle of improvement. Planners expressly give “head starts” and expect craftspersons to exercise their skills, experience, and judgment. After job completion, we expect craftspersons to suggest improvements for the next time we do the work. The planner becomes a craft historian to improve plans over the years, not a “perfect plan provider.”

Unfortunately, having better plans over the years does not improve wrench time. We must also schedule enough work each week because of Parkinson’s Law (the amount of work assigned expands to fill the time available). Proper weekly scheduling is simply giving each crew enough work to fill its available hours. For example, we would give 400 hours of planned work to a crew with 400 hours of labour capacity for next week. Here again, we commonly miss the mark.

Most companies think by insisting on good schedule compliance, they do proper scheduling. These companies commonly under-load the schedule to achieve high schedule compliance. Then they do not defeat Parkinson’s Law, they remain at 35 per cent wrench time, and they do not get the 50 per cent pop in work order completion rate. It is far better to fully load the schedule and see schedule compliance below 90 per cent.

In addition, most companies make daily schedules a week ahead of time, which they must revise daily. It is more effective to make a simple list of work for the week. Leave crew supervisors alone to create their own daily schedule as the week unfolds.

We can see why proper planning and scheduling requires decisive management leadership. We must accept that simply fixing things after they break is wrong. We must accept that our productivity is only a surprising 35 per cent. We must run planning with imperfect plans that get “better” over the years.

We must fully load schedules that we know will have low scores for schedule compliance. However, the gains are fantastic. We can really achieve a 50 per cent increase in our workforce, for free. This added workforce completes proactive work that grossly reduces breakdowns and we become a great plant with superior profits. We already have this competitive edge potential within ourselves. Increase your workforce without hiring. Be a great plant.
Doc Palmer, PE, MBA, CMRP is the author of McGraw-Hill’s Maintenance Planning and Scheduling Handbook and helps companies worldwide with planning and scheduling success. For more information about online help and currently scheduled public workshops including Alberta and Ontario visit or e-mail Doc at


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