With paper, generating new work orders takes a lot of time and effort, forcing you to include the bare minimum. With spreadsheets, you can quickly generate and share data, but once it starts to spread, you have no control over it. 

Paper kills your maintenance data, and spreadsheets turn it into zombies. Either way, you’re trapped in the dark. 

If you’re currently struggling under paper- or spreadsheet-based maintenance management, you know all about the problems. You’re already living inside that scary movie. 

But it’s worth looking at these old monsters one more time to understand why they cause so many headaches. Because once we know why they don’t work, we can more easily pick a modern CMMS software solution that does. 

Paper work orders kill your maintenance data 

It’s not surprising that so many organizations and industries are trying to go paperless. Everyone from your local bank to international airlines made the switch a long time ago because of all the problems trying to run a modern data-intensive operation while relying on paper. 

Many of the issues boil down to how hard it is to generate data and how hard it is not to lose it.  The result? Inefficiencies that cost you time and money.

Hand-made is great for food, and hands-on is the best kind of experience 

But anything “manual” is just awful when it comes to data, including work orders, where you need to reliably: 

  • Generate 
  • Prioritize 
  • Assign 
  • Capture 
  • Leverage

Looking at that list, that’s basically everything you’d ever need to do with your data. 

Copying everything by hand means you can include only the minimum amount of information 

Let’s compare what you’d like to include in work orders against what you usually can. To help techs arrive onsite prepared, work efficiently, and close out early, you’d want them to have: 

  • Comprehensive asset maintenance and repair histories 
  • Step-by-step instructions 
  • Customizable checklists 
  • Associated parts and materials 
  • Related images, schematics, O&M manuals, and warranties 
  • Interactive site maps and floor plans 

How much could you reasonably include with a paper work order? Even if you were willing and able to waste every morning standing in front of the office photocopier, it’s always going to take too much time and too many resources to produce paper work orders with even a fraction of that information. 

And even if you had the time and were running a paper factory so paper was basically free, techs would need wheelbarrows just to lug around a day’s worth of work orders. 

In the end, paper work orders always have just the minimum information, leaving it up to techs to figure out a lot of stuff on their own, troubleshooting when they could be working, wasting everyone’s time reinventing the same wheel.

And when techs waste their time, you’re wasting your money.  

That little bit of data is also likely full of small errors 

Which is the worst kind of error, because nothing is worse than failing “silently.” If you can see an error right away, you can correct it. But when it can get by you easily because it’s small, there’s more chance of a big disaster later on. 

Here’s a quick example. There are two identical freezers in the back, and one of them needs an inspection followed by some quick preventive maintenance tasks. When you copy the information onto the paper work order, you accidentally write down the wrong number, leading the techs to work on the wrong freezer. The one that did need the work gets ignored — right until it breaks down from the lack of attention. 

And those small errors make your maintenance reports not only frustrating and time consuming but also inaccurate 

We spend a lot of time talking about how paper makes it hard to work with data, but it’s worth jumping back a bit and asking, “Why do we even need this data in the first place? Why is it important for us to have good data?” 

Good question. And the answer is because knowledge is power. And knowing is half the battle. And a bunch of other popular sayings and famous quotes highlighting the importance of knowledge. 

When you have the right numbers, you can make the right decisions. 

But when you’re forced to rely on paper, you’re numbers are always likely a bit wrong. First, it’s easy to lose a slip of paper, and that means a lot of your data simply disappears. If you want to know how much you spent on maintenance last month, step one is tracking down all those little slips of paper. How many could you reliably get? And then there are those small errors on the paperwork you could collect, which get compounded when you try to write up reports. 

Back to that example of a freezer’s mistaken identity. There was a small but critical error in the original work order, which lead the team to work on the wrong asset. From there, the mistake gets worse when you add the wrong numbers to the mix for the monthly maintenance report. Now, instead of knowing where your money is going in the budget, you think it’s going somewhere else. 

And when you try to use your reports to better direct your preventive maintenance schedule, you’re spreading that mistake around, pushing it forward where it can make even more trouble for you and the maintenance team. 

Even a quick look at paper work orders, and we can see why nearly everyone was excited about jumping to spreadsheet work orders. But they just introduced new problems. 

Spreadsheet work orders turn your maintenance data into zombies 

Here, you’re struggling with the opposite problem you have with paper. Now, instead of data being scarce and easily lost, you have lots of data, but you can never really trust it. 

To better understand the main problem with spreadsheets, we should start with a quick review of the difference between a copy and a version of a file. 

Think about the standard work order workflow based on spreadsheets. You get a maintenance request and decide to generate a work order. The good news is that you’re sitting at your desk, so you’re able to quickly fire up the desktop computer and access your spreadsheet program. From there, you can type in some information, copy-and-paste some related information from templates or older work orders. 

What you have is the original file of the work order on your desktop. 

Next, you open your email account, attach the file to an email, and send it off to a maintenance tech. But they never get that file. Instead, they get a copy of it. So now there’s the original on your desktop and the copy on the tech’s mobile device. 

As soon as that technician does any work, adds or changes anything on their copy of the work order, that file goes from being a copy to being a version. It’s sort of the same as the original, but just different enough to make your copy out of date. Remember, nothing is connecting those two files. Every time you change one, the other one gets more and more out of date. You’ve doubled the amount of data you have, but only half of it is current. And if the team shares those files around a few times as email attachments, the amount of out-of-date data increases exponentially. 

It’s basically zombie data. 


CMMS software is the safe solution to maintenance work order management (preventive maintenance schedules, too) 

For a straight, apples-to-apples comparison, let’s look one more time at that list of things you need to do with your data: 

  • Generate 
  • Prioritize 
  • Assign 
  • Capture 
  • Leverage 

Going through the list, looking at some of those items more closely, we can see just how much better a modern CMMS solution can make life for everyone.

Central database keeps everything easy, safe, secure, up to date, and accessible 

At the heart of a good CMMS is the database where all your data safely lives. This is the key to getting out from under all the problems from trying to use paper or spreadsheets to run maintenance. Instead of having your data dangerously spread out on a million little pieces of paper where it’s easily lost or randomly multiplying inside endless spreadsheet cells, you have everything in one spot, where the CMMS keeps it all automatically up to date in real time.    

Generate work orders with templates 

With a central database, it’s easy to generate work orders packed with data because everything is already right there for you to add to the work order. A good CMMS even comes with templates, which means you can now add comprehensive step-by-step instructions and customizable checklists in just a few clicks. Need to create a bunch of preventive maintenance work orders? The CMMS makes it easy for you by automatically generating them according to your custom PM schedule. 

Prioritize and assign work orders with dashboards 

Unlike paper and spreadsheets, a good CMMS makes it easy to see all the work orders at once, giving you an easy-to-understand big picture of your operations. With clean, simple dashboards, everything is right there in front of you, making it easy to understand and organize. 

With paper, you’d need so many Post-it notes you’d basically be wallpapering your office. And with spreadsheets, you’d need to rig five screens to your desktop. 


And then, when you have it organized, modern work order management software makes it easy to assign work. Notify them using email or smartphone notifications, and as soon as they access the software, they can see exactly what you’ve assigned them, plus all the extra information you packed into the work order to help them close out efficiently. 

Capture and leverage work order data with reports 

Maintenance techs start off consuming data from the CMMS, but they quickly add to it, too. Every time they close out a work order, upload an image, or add a task or work order comment, they’re adding data. 

Which is exactly what you want. With the help of the central database, that new data keeps everything up to date. Now, instead of assigning a work order and never knowing what’s happening with it, you’re inside the data loop, able to track everything from anywhere. 

As long as you’re logged into the CMMS, you’re plugged into everything.   

And not only can you see that data right now, but you can also use it later, too. Because you know it’s accurate, collected in real time by the CMMS (not scribbled on paper or copied a million times across disconnected spreadsheets), you can confidently use it to build reports to track everything from your labor resources to your inventory. 

Which of your assets cost you the most to keep up and running last month? 

How quickly can you answer this question right now about your maintenance operations? If you’re trying to rely on paper or spreadsheets, finding the right answer involves a lot of flipping through paperwork or clicking back and forth between files. 

With the right CMMS, all that numbercrunching is done for you. You can even quickly create easy-to-read, easy-to-understand graphs and charts using the CMMS reporting module. Finally, the maintenance big picture is right there in front of you, not hiding inside stacks of paper or on email file attachments.     

Next steps 

Tired of endlessly trying to stay ahead of the looming disasters of paper and spreadsheet work orders? It might be less dramatic than that, and you’re just tired of the constant low-grade headaches of old-fashioned work order management. 

Now’s the time to upgrade your workflows and downgrade your hassles. 

Start by reaching out to CMMS providers to learn more about your options. 

About The Author

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan has been covering asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions since joining Hippo CMMS. Prior to that, he wrote for textbooks and video games.
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