Maintenance work is an integral part of day-to-day life at a large industrial installation. But which activities take precedence? Are there enough personnel available? And when exactly does a worklist turn into an expensive backlog? All of these answers and more can be found by looking at the maintenance backlog.
Do you know what your backlog is? Every time jerry Wanichko, Vice President Consulting at T.A. Cook, asks this question he is greeted by a sea of puzzled faces: “Many companies don’t even measure this KPI—or they don’t do it right—and so have no idea about their resource utilization or how their worklist is looking.” So Wanichko first has to act as a kind of interpreter: “backlog” in this context refers only to “orders on hand” or “worklist”, but is often misunderstood as meaning “work outstanding”. Work is only outstanding if some of the orders on hand become due after prioritization—the technical term for which is “overdue”.
Though it might sound like a squabble over semantics among business economists, in practice this definition is highly relevant. Interpreted correctly, the backlog offers valuable insight to managers in maintenance and in HR. Being able to measure and correctly interpret the backlog requires a fully functional work order management system. In other words: “Orders have to be created and prioritized. Then we have to estimate the time needed to complete each order for the sections involved,” says Wanichko.
It is also vital to assign different statuses to each order throughout the entire maintenance process to help track its progress, for example, to see whether it is still in the planning phase or already being executed. Companies that use key indicators to calculate their backlog usually demonstrate a higher level of maturity in their maintenance processes. “Which goes to show that implementing this KPI has positive side effects,” says Wanichko. “This makes it even more surprising that it is not yet used everywhere. Combined with other KPIs it can help realize significant productivity gains and potentially reduce the volume of overdue work.”
The maintenance backlog indicator measures the current volume of all planned work orders for maintenance, usually in hours. In the short term it can also include the number of orders. Wanichko insists that this is a better indication than none at all. However, “in the end, merely counting orders is far too imprecise in the long term.”
Measured by means of current statuses in all stages of the maintenance process, the backlog KPI provides a comprehensive overview of the work buffer, lead time and work scope. Given that it can be recorded in various ways, this KPI helps identify and recognize to-dos for key process steps, see whether active intervention is required as a result of under- or overutilization, and thus sensibly manage maintenance.
For example, it can be incredibly useful to compare the backlog in hours against actual employee hours available. This can give managers answers to important questions. How many hours will we need to get through the orders on hand? Do we have enough personnel? Will we need more or fewer external personnel? Nonetheless, there is some potential for errors if the KPI is interpreted incorrectly. Not every work order that is not completed in the space of a few weeks will lead straight to a blackout. The same cannot be said for orders flagged as top priority that have not been touched for months, which should absolutely be a cause for concern. “If this work has not been completed yet and there have been no consequences, then questions need to be asked about how orders are prioritized,” advises Jerry Wanichko. And yet a company with no jobs on its to-do list also has a problem. “Someone who always finishes everything straightaway has no time to prepare so that the work can be handled efficiently. Plus, this practice often creates a surplus of personnel.”
Finally, the backlog can be used as an indicator of progress or regression in improvement projects. “If the scope of maintenance work remains the same, then when productivity rises, more work can be completed. The backlog decreases,” says Wanichko. But it is also possible for the backlog to increase, for example if employee productivity drops or the volume of reactive maintenance work increases. In any case, knowing and being in control of your backlog is worth pure gold.