MRO Magazine

Workflows and Swim Lanes

July 27, 2018 | By Peter Philips

A structured work order process keeps us going with the current.

Photo: Getty Images.

About 20 years ago, while I was helping a car parts manufacturer north of Ottawa with its maintenance software, I realized they were missing something fundamental in the way its work orders and maintenance personnel were managed.

I had been at this plant six months prior and had helped them clean up the backlog of work orders. Their maintenance software was full of old work orders that no one knew anything about.

They didn’t know the status of most work orders. They had a hard time answering questions about whether a work order was started or completed, or who had them. So we closed nearly 1,000 work orders, reset the preventive maintenance frequencies in the CMMS and basically started with a clean slate.


All the maintenance supervisors and tradespeople were given refresher CMMS training and off they went using the cleaned-up maintenance database.

Back at the plant six months later, I was surprised to find 600 backlogged work orders, and, as before, no one knew much about these work orders. I asked myself: What in the world is wrong with these people? Why are work orders not being processed in the software and why are some partially completed and some not at all? And why doesn’t someone know the status of these work orders? Keep in my mind that a lot of these work orders were physically completed in the field by the technicians but never updated in the maintenance software.

It was only then it dawned on me that no one knew what their roles and responsibilities to the work order system were – they had no workflow. Work orders would be created in the CMMS but would not always find their way through the work order system to the supervisor and on to the technicians. The ones that did make it through were not updated properly and were closed with little information about the work done. The vast majority of them seemed to fall into a giant black hole never to be seen again.

My dilemma was: What do I do about this problem? We decided to get all the work order contributors together to discuss how they process work orders. We had everyone – all the production supervisors, engineers, safety and environmental staff and anyone who wanted work done by the maintenance department.

On a large whiteboard we designed a workflow diagram. The process started the minute someone submitted a work request and flowed all the way through the various steps in the software and the people touching the work order until it was completed successfully and closed in the CMMS. The diagram absolutely surprised me and everyone in the room. We quickly realized how they had gotten into their previous situation with their maintenance system.

The flowchart identified every step of the work order and who was responsible for completing that step and moving the work order closer to completion. While documenting the process we also realized that not all the work orders made it into the software. A lot of work requests came to the maintenance department via email, phone, notes on the supervisor’s desk and through word of mouth to maintenance staff. This added further bottlenecks and confusion of getting important work completed on the equipment.

From the workflow diagram we could also identify who needed training in the software. Starting with the work request submission, all the way to work-order completion, every person was given specific training to know their piece of the puzzle inside and outside of the CMMS. After the workflow design session a great deal more work orders were flowing through the maintenance software.

Technicians were assigned more work, so their productivity increased, and the people who submitted the work could access the CMMS and see how their work request was progressing. A side effect was the maintenance supervisor became much busier assigning, distributing the work orders to the technicians and then closing the work orders when they were returned from the technicians. The supervisor’s job became more administrative, with much less time available to supervise people.

Role of the planner
At this time in maintenance history I wasn’t the only person who recognized the need for workflows. Small to medium manufacturers and processors were starting to use CMMS systems and because of this we saw the birth of a new position called a maintenance planner.

At the time, only large facilities such as refineries and paper mills used maintenance systems. They generally employed a planner because of the complexity of their huge maintenance turnarounds and outages.

The planner’s role is to organize work for the technicians based on what work requests are submitted and created by the maintenance software. The planner role relieves supervisors from the CMMS administrative role and gets them back to supervising maintenance activities. In the workflow routine, the planners process all the work orders in the system and prepare them for the supervisor, who assigns and distributes tasks to tradespeople. The tradespeople execute the work and return the work orders to the planner for further processing and closing in the system.

Today, workflow diagrams are still in full vigour and are now commonly called swim-lane diagrams. Companies continue to struggle with the roles and responsibilities of the workflow process and swim-lane diagrams are designed for every task.

Many companies have switched to more complex ERP systems that demand rigorous compliance to the modules within the software that track our cost of doing business. We create work orders for most everything that requires time, resources and parts from our maintenance department.

We also create workflows for other activities – invoicing, purchasing, receiving, shipping, cycle counts and procedures are all documented in swim-lane diagrams. If there is a bottleneck we know exactly where it is and how to tweak our design to remove the barrier and speed up the workflow.

Workflows are the backbone of any company. They tell us what to do and when to do it. They make our systems run more smoothly and make us more efficient. They provide the basis for the training of new hires and new positions. We can’t do without them.


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