Before you can master maintenance management, you need to take control of your workflows. And the first step is understanding the foundational building block of any good maintenance program, the work order. So, what is a work order? 

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. Let’s start with the basics and build up from there. 

What is a work order? 

Stripping it down to the absolute basics, it’s a document authorizing tasks: repairs, maintenance, or inspections. To be effective, though, a work order needs more, including the answers to these questions: 

  • What specifically is the required work? 
  • What’s the best way to do it? 
  • Who is responsible for the work? 
  • Who gets to decide that the work’s complete? 
  • When is the work is due? 

The goal is to efficiently organize the associated parts and materials and schedule the required resources to complete the assigned tasks. 

But they’re not only about planning for the future. Work orders also help the maintenance department track past activity, providing key insights that can be leveraged into data-backed decision-making. 

What are the main types of work orders? 

There are four of them, and we can break them down according to who generates them and who completes them. 

Unscheduled, on-demand work order 

If you don’t have CMMS software, this is likely the one you know best. It’s for when something breaks or fails without warning. Someone notices a problem, calls it in, and the maintenance team creates a work order to get organized and tackle the problem. Because of how they’re generated, on-demand work orders tend to be for repairs. Something breaks and the work order is part of the process of fixing it.

There are many disadvantages to unscheduled work orders, and the reason is right there in the name. Because they’re unscheduled, the maintenance department always starts on the wrong foot, forced to scramble to find the right people and parts to make the repairs. Breakdowns tend to happen at the worst times, too, right in the middle of an important production run or on the weekend, when the department has to call techs in for expensive overtime.

But on-demand work orders are always a part of maintenance, and not always for the wrong reasons. 

Advantages of an on-demand work order 

On-demand work orders work perfectly for assets and equipment that you want to run to failure. As a maintenance strategy, run-to-failure makes a lot of sense for a specific class of assets and equipment. It’s best to let something fail if it has low criticality and is cheap and easy to: 

  • Buy 
  • Carry in inventory 
  • Replace 

And also if it’s expensive or impossible to maintain 

The classic example is light bulbs. They’re cheap and easy to carry. You don’t need to worry about keeping them at a special temperature, and they don’t degrade or go stale. Even if you wanted to maintain them, it’s hard to imagine how you could. The best thing to do is let them run to failure, generate an on-demand work order, and then replace them. 

That said, your goal should be a 20/80 split, with on-demand only 20% of your total number of work orders. The vast majority, the remaining 80%, should be preventive maintenance work orders, PMs. 

Scheduled, preventive maintenance work order 

Here, you’re scheduling the work in advance, putting into direct action that old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure, catching small issues before they have a chance to grow into big problems.

PMs generally involve inspections and maintenance tasks. Inspections include things like checking belts for alignment and wear and ensuring equipment has enough lubricant. Many departments schedule walkthrough inspections, where technicians walk through the facility, looking for anything suspicious, like a puddle under an asset or unusual noises coming from the equipment. 

Scheduling a PM work order 

There are two ways to schedule PMs, by calendar and by meter. Your car is a good example. You switch to winter tires according to the season. When winter arrives, you change to winter tires regardless of how much driving you did in fall. That’s a calendar-based PM. But how often do you buy new tires? That depends on how much you drive. They’re good for a certain total distance, and you don’t change them until you hit that number. That’s a meter-based PM.

In a factory, you might schedule calendar-based PMs on your HVAC for every fall, when you switch from cooling to heating. You might have meter-based PMs on a set of conveyor belts. After a certain number of production runs, you check them for signs of wear and misalignment. 

Advantages of a PM work order 

It’s a long list, but they all come down to saving the organization money and saving you frustration. 

In terms of money, PM work orders help you find small issues before they ever have a chance of growing into big expensive problems. Changing a fan belt or adding lubricant is a lot cheaper than replacing a seized engine. PMs also save you money because all the work is scheduled in advance. You can make sure you have the right parts, materials, and people all lined up beforehand. With on-demand work orders, you often have to pay for rush deliveries for parts and extensive overtime for technicians. 

And in terms of frustration, the big advantage is that you can schedule PMs for times when you know it’s not going to be busy. For example, in between production runs or during the third shift. It’s a lot easier to work on an asset without a group of idle operators looking over your shoulder or the CEO on the line asking why the production line is down while there are empty trucks waiting in the loading docks. 

For both on-demand and PM work orders, you can set them up to be done either internally or by a third party. 

Internal and external, third-party work orders 

For most maintenance departments, the majority of work orders are internal. It doesn’t mean that the work order request comes from someone on the team. Instead, it means that someone on the team does the work.

Third-party work orders are less common, but they’re just as important. Often, there’s work that needs to be done that’s outside the technical abilities of the maintenance team. For example, you might have technicians who can pull out and rewire a light switch, but they can’t replace an old fuse box with newer electrical breakers. One, they can’t do the work safely, and two, they lack the proper certifications. Another example is your fire suppression system. There are annual or semi-annual checks on your smoke detectors and alarms, but only a specialized third party can do the work.

For all four types of work orders, on-demand, preventive, internal, and third-party, there are two ways to do them: manually or with a modern CMMS solution. Before going any further, it’s worth looking at the differences. 

Manual-entry work orders create problems 

Traditionally, manual-entry work order methods rely on paper or spreadsheets. With paper, you’re always struggling with too little data. When you first write out the work order, it’s hard to get enough information onto the page. There’s only so much you can scribble on a piece of paper. And there’s only one copy of the work order, making it easy to misplace. 

Spreadsheets are just as frustrating but for the exact opposite reason. Instead of worrying about losing data, with spreadsheets, you have to worry about generating too much of it. Every time you share a spreadsheet, you’re creating another copy. But it’s only a copy for a short time. As soon as someone makes any changes, you now have two versions, and no one is sure which is the most current. With paper, it’s hard for people to see the data. With spreadsheets, everyone can easily look at data, but all the data is different. 

CMMS software work orders solve problems 

Modern CMMS software makes it easy to capture, safeguard, and access your data. Instead of piles of paper or endless spreadsheet files, everything is kept in one central cloud-based database. Whenever someone opens or closes out a work order, the software updates everything in real time, which means everyone is working from the same data. And because the database lives in the cloud, the maintenance team can access and update the data from any Internet-connected mobile device. 

What is the work order process, from maintenance request to close out? 

Now that we know what they are and the different types, let’s look at the life of the average on-demand and preventive maintenance work order, from start to finish. Here, we’re looking specifically at work orders in a CMMS software solution. Some of these steps don’t exist for paper and spreadsheet methods. And in some cases, manual-entry methods require extra steps that a good CMMS helps you automatically skip.

Here is the basic workflow for an on-demand work order. 

On-demand work order workflow 

on-demand work order Hippo

Looking at the steps a bit more closely, we can get a better idea of what they involve. 


On-demand work orders start when someone notices a problem. The advantage is that it could be anyone. Sometimes it’s a maintenance tech. Other times, it’s an operator. Because operators spend the most time with their assets, they’re often the first to realize something’s wrong with an asset or piece of equipment. 

Regardless of who submits the maintenance ticket, the online request portal makes it a simple process. No one has to try to track down the maintenance lead, the department’s email, or its phone number. And because there are required fields on the maintenance request form template, the maintenance department gets the information it needs to review and prioritize work. 

Approve and generate 

Once you’ve reviewed the request, you can quickly generate a new work order. All the information you want to include in the work order is already inside the software, making it a lot easier to provide everything techs need to work efficiently. 

Not every request gets approved. It could be the case that the work isn’t the maintenance department’s responsibility. For example, someone sends in a request asking for more paper towels in the bathroom. Or a request asking for snow removal in the employee parking lot. In other cases, a tech took care of the problem before the maintenance department had a chance to see the request. 

Assign and notify 

Because you can quickly see what everyone is doing, it’s easy to find the right tech to assign the work order. In some cases, work orders can only be done by technicians who have already completed specific training. Using the CMMS, you can quickly find a tech with the right qualifications and assign them the work order. 

With older methods, you’re stuck waiting for them to swing by the maintenance office to pick up their next assignment or check their email. With a modern CMMS mobile app, you can send them an instant push notification on their smartphone or mobile device.   

Complete and close out 

In some cases, the tech completes the tasks and closes out the work order. But it’s also possible to set the work order so that only the person who assigned it can close it out. That means the tech completes the tasks and then requests an inspection of their work. Using the mobile app, they can take a picture of the asset or equipment and directly upload it to the work order. Once the maintenance lead has reviewed the digital image, they can close out the work order. 

Once the work order is closed, the CMMS automatically updates overall inventory data using the associated parts and materials listed on the work order.

Let’s look more closely at preventive maintenance work orders next. 

Preventive maintenance work order workflow

preventive maintenance work order Hippo


Here’s one of the many places CMMS software shines. Because you have easy access to your historical work order data, you can start to see patterns that help you decide which inspections and tasks to include. For example, if you had to work on the forklift brakes about once every three months over the last year, you can set up a series of related inspections and tasks. 


You can also use historical data to schedule PMs. For the forklift example, you can have a PM generate every two and a half months. You can also set them according to meter readings. In either case, you can assign the PM to a tech beforehand or each time it generates.

Complete and close out 

If the technician finds anything during the inspections, they can create a new work order to ensure it gets fixed. Here again, once the work order is closed out, the software automatically updated the overall inventory using the associated parts and materials.


For both on-demand and PM work orders, the last step is tracking. Because the software captures and safeguards all your data, you can quickly generate KPI-rich reports that help you track your programs and improve them. For example, you might find that some techs are struggling to close out all their assigned work orders. By moving around the schedule, you can improve the overall close-out rate. 

What information is in a work order? 

The simple answer is, the more you can include, the better. With a modern CMMS solution with good UX design, you don’t have to worry about throwing too much information at technicians. With data presented in easy-to-find and easy-to-understand screens, technicians never feel overwhelmed. 

work order information

Once again, we can start from the basics and build from there.

A good work order includes the basics, especially dates 

The basics include the work order name, type, location, and due date. Technicians need dates to prioritize their own time, but the department needs dates on work orders to track how many work orders they’re completing on time. An important performance indicator for a preventive maintenance program, for example, is the percentage of PMs completed on time. Dates are also crucial in heavily regulated industries such as healthcare and food production. To prove compliance, maintenance departments need to show the work they did and when they did it.

A good work order template boosts efficiency 

Work orders should have all the information technicians need to maximize time on wrench, including: 

  • Comprehensive asset or equipment data 
  • Step-by-step instructions 
  • Customizable checklists 
  • Digital images, schematics, O&M manuals, warranties 
  • Associated parts and materials 
  • Interactive site maps and floor plans 

The last thing you want is for technicians to have to run back to the maintenance office to grab a manual, pick up a replacement part they didn’t realize they needed, or ask for help. 

A modern CMMS makes adding all this information easy. First, you can set up a work order template for each of your most common on-demand and preventive maintenance work orders. Jumping back to our forklift example, there are a specific set of steps technicians need to follow to lock out the forklift before working on it safely. You enter the steps into the CMMS and then save them as a template. The next time you need to generate a forklift work order, you can add all the steps in a few clicks.

A good work order template also helps maintenance departments preserve tribal knowledge, transferring maintenance knowledge from senior to junior techs. Once the department has developed templates packed with standard operating procedures and best practices, everyone on the team can easy access and benefit from the seasoned staff’s hard-won know-how. Without a CMMS, every time a senior member of the team retires, all their knowledge walks right out the door with them. 

Next steps 

Taking control of maintenance management starts with a solid understanding of work orders. But after that, you need a CMMS solution to put all those best practices into action.

If you’re looking to make the jump from manual-entry methods to a CMMS or you already have a CMMS but it’s not delivering what you were promised, now’s the time to reach out to providers and get the conversation started. 


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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