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Good work orders are the foundation of successful maintenance management. They're how the maintenance department both schedules what gets done and tracks their progress. That's why it's so important to write work orders that include the right types of information. 

Before looking at how to write a good one, let's start with a basic definition of a work order. 


What is a work order? 

Work order is a document that provides all the information a technician needs to understand a problem and its solution. On the most basic level, a work order answers two questions: What's the problem, and what's the solution?


On-demand work orders are for problems that currently exist. For example, there's a leaky pipe in the shop floor bathroom. Or, the widget press has seized. Another: the fans over the wielding stations won't turn on. Preventive maintenance work orders are more about potential problems. Here, the maintenance department schedules and completes tasks to avoid small issues developing into big problems. Examples of PMs include: 

  • Adding lubricants to pumps 
  • Adjusting fan belts on engines 
  • Visually inspecting casings for cracks 


But the information on both types of work orders is basically the same. There's a description of the problem and an explanation of the solution. Here's what's wrong. Here's how you deal with it. 


How can you tell if a work order is good or not? 

Remember, work orders answer two questions: What's the problem, and what's the solution? So, you can judge a work order based on how well it answers them. Does it fully describe the problem? How well does it lay out the solution? You can always look at the results. Does the work order support the technicians so they get the job done properly and safely with the least amount of running around? Does the work order lead to the best outcome in the least time and with the smallest amount of energy? 


Now that we know what one is and the characteristics of a good one, let's dive into what to include on work orders. 


Make sure you have the right names on your work order 

Think of the work order workflow, and include the names of all the people who pop up. So, the requester, the person who approved it, the technician or technicians assigned to it, and the person who's going to be in charge of closing it out. In many cases, that's the technicians, but in others, where the work requires inspection and approval before close-out, it might be a more senior member of the team or the maintenance lead. If someone is going to be a part of the process, add their name. And if the work order involves a third-party vendor, make sure to add those names, too. 


Adding names to work orders assigns responsibility and encourages accountability. When the work was done well, you know who to thank. If the work was performed incorrectly, it's much easier to track down why. 


Include all the related times and dates on your work order 

Make sure you have the date the request was submitted, the date you created the work order, the estimated date of completion, and then later when it's closed out, the date of completion. 


Having the right dates makes it easier to both plan schedules and track performance. In fact, many KPIs involve dates, so the only way to accurately track your program is by including dates on your work orders. 


To learn more about time and its role in tracking failure metrics, check out MTTR, MTBF, MTTF: A Complete Guide to Failure Metrics.


Cover the basics on your work order 

Make sure you indicate the asset that needs the work and the work to be done. 


For on-demand work orders, you might not know until the technician has had a chance to inspect the asset, and in those cases, you want to include a full description of the failure. What was the asset doing just before it died? Was there a strange smell? Smoke or a loud bang? If you don't know, track down the person who reported the failure and dig deeper for more information. The more the technician knows about the failure, the easier it is for them to troubleshoot the cause. 


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Explain the tasks in detail on your work order 

When it comes to explaining tasks, it's helpful to think about the two types of grocery lists: the ones you write for yourself and the ones you write for other people. In the first case, all you need is a straight list of the items you need from the store. That's it. But when you're writing a list for someone else, you need to include a lot more information. 


Take apples, for example. On a list for yourself, you put "apples." But when you're sending someone else to the store, you need to include: 

  • Color/type 
  • Brand 
  • Number 
  • Bagged or individual 


You want to include a description of where to find the apples as well as advice on how to choose a good apple. The list you write for yourself is a reminder of what you need to buy. The process for finding and selecting each item is already in your head, so you don't need to write it out. But when the list is for someone else, you're not reminding them to get apples, you're explaining to them how to do it. This can be more challenging than it sounds. It's often difficult to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, to have a sense of what they know or don't know. If you're describing the steps to a task you know well, try to think of what you wish you had known the first time you did it. 


work order steps


Make sure your work order spells out exactly what needs to be done and how to do it, including step-by-step instructions and explanations of best practices. Checklists are also an excellent way to make sure technicians are covering every step. You should also include a site map that shows the exact location of the asset or assets the technician needs to maintain or repair. 


Highlight all heath and safety notes on your work order 

All of the information on your work order is important, but some of it is critical for technicians' health and safety. To ensure they don't accidentally skip over this information, include a separate section specifically related to job hazards. 


work order safety steps


For example, you can include any required personal protective equipment (PPE) or precautions for handing related materials, which might mean a warning to mix cleaning solutions in well-ventilated areas. If the safety instructions are inside the step-by-step instructions, technicians might not see them until it's too late, arriving at the job site unprepared. 


To learn more about work orders and COVID-19 safety, check out Streamline and Strengthen Work Orders Against COVID-19. 


Related to the idea of technicians arriving prepared, make sure to include any required parts or materials. 


work order associated parts


Without this information, techs arrive at the asset only to have to run back to the supply room to grab what they need before they can start. 


Make related documents available on your work order 

Best-case scenario, a technician arrives at the asset with the right parts and materials, follows the step-by-step instructions and safety notes, and closes out the work order quickly and perfectly. But there are always going to be times when the technician struggles to find the root cause of the failure, when they're unsure of what to do next. 


To troubleshoot the problem efficiently, they need access to additional information about the asset, including: 

  • O&M manuals 
  • digital schematics 
  • warranties 
  • complete maintenance and repair histories 


To learn more about how this information helps technicians troubleshoot problems, check out Maintenance Management Software Makes Troubleshooting Less Trouble


Paper- and spreadsheet-based work order management is a mess 

Looking at all the information you need to include for good work orders, it's clear that traditional methods just don't work. 


With paper work orders, it's impossible to include all the information technicians need. How much can you cram onto a sheet of paper? At most, there's some basic information about the asset and a brief description of the problem. Technicians are on their own when it comes to figuring out how to solve it. It's impossible to make asset information easily available. Technicians are not going to carry around ten pounds of paper manuals and maps with them all shift long. 


With spreadsheets, in some ways, you're dealing with the opposite problem. Instead of there not being enough information, there's lots of it, but it's mostly out of date. Remember, when you email someone a work order spreadsheet, you're not actually sending it to them; you're sending a copy. And as soon as you make any changes to your copy, or they make any changes to theirs, you now have two different versions of the file. Those two versions steadily get further and further apart, which means someone is moving further and further out of the loop. Even if there were a way to keep spreadsheets accurate, they don't allow technicians access to the comprehensive maintenance and repair histories they need to troubleshoot asset failures. For good work orders, you need CMMS software. 


CMMS delivers complete work order management 

Modern work order software makes including all this information and keeping it up to date in real-time a breeze. Backed by cloud computing, the CMMS keeps all the work orders in a central database, which technicians can access from any Internet-connected desktop or mobile device. 


If you don't have a CMMS, or you have one but it's not delivering what you were promised, now's the time to take control of your maintenance program, starting with data-packed work orders. 

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About The Author

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan Davis started out writing for textbooks before branching out to video games and marketing collateral. He has a master’s degree in journalism and a certificate in technical writing.

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