MRO Magazine

The role of reactive maintenance in your overall maintenance strategy

May 25, 2018 | By Bryan Christiansen

When it comes to choosing a maintenance strategy for your assets, it would be somewhat myopic to assume a rigid one-size-fits-all approach. Historically, businesses have relied more on reactive maintenance (also called run-to-failure or breakdown maintenance).

However, to keep up with the market and the competition, more and more organizations are turning to proactive maintenance strategies for help.

On the other hand, implementing proactive maintenance strategy doesn’t mean that you can completely forget on reactive maintenance.

Sounds confusing? Let’s discuss this into more details.


“Unplanned” vs “planned” reactive maintenance

First, we need to distinguish planned from unplanned reactive maintenance.

Planned reactive maintenance refers to a strategy where you have a preventive maintenance plan in place but intentionally decide to exempt some equipment from the plan – usually to save cost or time (for example, you have an old piece of equipment that you plan to replace when the next breakdown occurs). In these cases, you are basically expecting a breakdown and are ready to deal with it as soon as it happens.

That’s a completely different scenario from unplanned reactive maintenance that happens because there is no proactive strategy in the first place.

Pros and cons of reactive maintenance

In its most basic form reactive maintenance simply says “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Here are a few highlights of the pros and cons of this strategy.


  • Reactive maintenance requires no initial cost and less planning when compared to preventive maintenance. You simply let the asset run until it breaks down.
  • It requires less standby manpower. There is no need for frequent inspections and staff to carry out these inspections. You could even choose to completely outsource reactive maintenance and thereby not need to include that skill set on your payroll.
  • It can prove more cost effective for equipment that are not critical for overall service delivery and have minimal impact on your operations.


  • It’s hard to create an accurate budget for reactive maintenance.
  • Relying on reactive maintenance often results in unplanned downtime which can completely jeopardize production schedules. The spillover effect of this includes disruption of the supply chain and possibly reduced profits.
  • Poor time management. Production can lose a lot of time unnecessarily when a critical asset breaks down because it was not placed on a servicing schedule. The time spent trying to diagnose and fix the problem could have been better used on other tasks.
  • Labour and spare parts may not be available in the first place causing even more delays, downtime, and losses.
  • It poses a safety risk when maintenance personnel are under pressure to fix the problem as fast as possible.
  • Continuous reactive maintenance will keep your team distracted and disorganized and can lead to a pileup of unfinished work. For example, it could affect their availability to focus on other planned activities.

Can reactive maintenance play a role in your overall maintenance strategy?

Owing to the many downsides of reactive maintenance, many organizations will choose to move from reactive maintenance and implement preventive maintenance. But that does not mean your business can completely eliminate all instances of reactive maintenance. On the contrary, situations will arise that demand some reactive maintenance.

For one thing, in spite of thorough planning and best efforts, the potential for mechanical and electrical items to break down or malfunction still exists. The probability increases when you have a considerable asset base of complex and sensitive equipment or older assets. Sometimes, a machine can shut down just hours or a few days after routine maintenance was carried out on it. In such cases, making provision for the processes and resources for quick reactive intervention can save the day.

Again, your operations are not immune to external forces beyond your control. Especially unplanned factors like extreme weather. Severe flooding, heavy winds, excessive snow or heat are just a few elements that can cause asset damage that will require reactive maintenance to fix. In such cases, a prior decision to completely disregard reactive maintenance would mean that your business lacks the ability to recover fast in an emergency.

Other cases where a reactive approach is useful includes where you intend replacing an equipment soon (due to age), where the asset is not part of a critical system, or where the cost of routine servicing may not be worth the effort and man-hours in the long term.

In essence, you can’t predict to 100% certainty how your daily operations will go, neither can you tell exactly when equipment failure will occur. Therefore, reactive maintenance will occur periodically but ideally, you will have set procedures in place to deal with it efficiently.

A better approach to maintenance

We have already established that reactive maintenance can play an important role in a maintenance strategy. You will need to factor in reactive maintenance for emergencies and situations beyond your control but it should not be the focus of your entire operations and maintenance plan. Doing that is shortsighted and may not be sustainable considering modern day best practices. Therefore, it should be “reserved” for certain circumstances such as the ones described in the previous section.

For assets that are critical to production, quality, safety, and service delivery a proactive approach is better so it’s advisable you opt for a planned maintenance strategy. Such a strategy can include elements of routine maintenance, preventive maintenance, predictive maintenance, and RCM, depending on how complex your operations are. Planned maintenance will maximize your assets’ lifecycle and minimize cost in the long term.

Bryan Christiansen is founder and CEO at Limble CMMS. Limble is a mobile first, modern, and easy to use CMMS software. We help take the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate and streamline their maintenance operations.


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