Work orders are the foundation of successful maintenance management. They’re how the maintenance department schedules what gets done and tracks its progress. Because they’re at the heart of your maintenance operations, it’s important to get them right.


Let’s look a what they are, how they work, and how best to get them working for you.


But first, a basic definition of work orders. 


What is a maintenance work order? 

A work order is a document that provides 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?


So, you can judge a work order based on how well it answers these two questions. 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 amount of time and with the smallest amount of time and energy? 


What are the types of maintenance work orders?

Because there’s more than one type of work for the maintenance department, there are many types of work orders. Generally, you can categorize work orders according to the type of work the techs are going to perform. Let’s look at the two most common, on-demand and preventive.

On-demand work orders

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 and the fans over the wielding stations won’t turn on. These work orders are a direct result of a current problem. You only generate them after the problem has already started, which in turn can create a lot of problems for the department.


what is a work order


Let’s look at that widget press example a bit more closely. Once the press stops working, the entire production line might be down. That means you now have a lot of idle operators, which costs the organization not only wasted wages but also lost productivity. To make up for it, they might have to run an extra shift to catch up. That’s a lot of expensive overtime pay. And it costs the maintenance department a lot to make the repairs. First, the techs with the right expertise might not be on shift, which means calling them in and paying them overtime, too. Also, you have less of a chance of having the right parts and materials on hand. Remember, no one knew the press was going to break when it did, so there’s more of a chance of getting caught empty handed for inventory. Rush deliveries are expensive. The one part you need might be sitting in a vendor’s warehouse two states over. 


Those are the immediate costs, but there are others you end up having to deal with down the line. If you think about work stress, it’s only partially related to having a lot of work that needs to get done. In fact, nothing is more stressful than not knowing if you’re going to have a lot of work to do or not. If you’re techs come into work every day unsure about their schedules, it leads to burnout. Over time, your department has trouble holding on to employees.  


And because of all these reasons, you can easily see why on-demand work orders have a bit of a bad reputation. In fact, most maintenance departments should aim to keep on-demand work orders to about 20% of the total. 


Why not zero, though? If they’re expensive and stressful, why not try to eliminate them altogether? The reason is that different asset types require different maintenance strategies. In some cases, your best bet is run-to-failure, where instead of checking and maintaining an asset, you just run it until it breaks. Light bulbs are the classic example. And so even if it was possible to run a maintenance department with zero on-demand work orders, it’s better not to do it.  


Preventive maintenance work orders

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 

The goal is to avoid all the problems posed by on-demand work orders. Now, instead of having to work on assets and equipment surrounded by idle, impatient operators, you can schedule maintenance for when it works best for you, in between shifts or when you know things are already scheduled to be offline. It’s also easy to make sure your resource schedule lines up perfectly with the work. Also, because you know ahead of time which MRO inventory you’re going to need, you have lots of lead time to order it. No more rushed overnight deliveries.

what is a work order

All of these make you life a lot easier. The maintenance department is spending less money and you’re dealing with a lot less stress. But preventive maintenance work orders are also better for the assets and equipment. It’s just like that old saying about health, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” You can extend asset life cycles by avoiding major breakdowns. Assets become more reliable for a longer time.

Work order tips | How do you write a good work order?

Now that we know what they are, 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. 

what is a work order software


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. 


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. 


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. 


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. 


Related to the idea of technicians arriving prepared, make sure to include any required parts or materials. 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 
  • Maintenance and repair histories

what is a work order software

What is the work order life cycle?

There are two answers here, one for older systems and one for modern solutions. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Paper- and spreadsheet-based work order management 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.


What does this work order workflow look like?


For on-demand work orders, it starts with the  open request portal, where anyone can submit a maintenance request. Instead of hoping people can find your phone number or email, the request portal ensures a simple, consistent, direct line of communication with the department. And because the form fields are customizable, you can make sure you get the information you need to review each ticket.


Once you’ve decided to generate a work order, you can easily use pre-built templates to add all the information techs need to work efficiently. Next, check the dashboard to see what’s already on the schedule, prioritize the work, and assign it.


what is a work order software


If techs have the maintenance app, they receive a push notification right away. Tracking progress is easy because every time a tech updates the work order, those changes are reflected in the database in real time.   


For preventive maintenance, you schedule PMs according to time or use. So, you check the HVAC every time the season changes, but you only inspect a pump after X number of cycles. Once the schedule is inside the CMMS, the software automatically generates new PMs as needed.  


What are the benefits of work order software?

It’s a long list, but they tend to come down to ways work order software saves you money.


The organization gets sets of smoother maintenance workflows that help you get more work done for less money. Because techs can move between tasks without having to endlessly double-back to the maintenance office to grab more paperwork, you can boost time on wrench. And because they arrive onsite better prepared with not only the right know-how but also the right inventory, techs work not only faster but better. Switching to preventive maintenance also helps you avoid costly unscheduled downtime, rush deliveries, and overtime hours.


Long term, because the system makes it easy to capture data, you now know you can trust it. With the report module, you can use the CMMS to leverage all that data into real insights into your operations, giving you new opportunities to discover more efficiencies. Simple example: once you know which asset is costing you the most to maintain, you can finally make the right decisions on when to repair or replace each asset. 


Next steps 

The fastest, most reliable way to get the most out of all the different types of work orders is by implementing modern work order management software. And the easiest way to do that is to find the right CMMS provider. 

Hippo has many ways to help. We can answer your questions, help you book a live software demo, or even set you up with a free trial

Quick, concise summary of this post

Maintenance work order are how maintenance departments document and control the work they do and when they do it. On a basic level, each work order answers two questions: what’s the problem and what’s the solution. Because the department does many different types of work, there are also different types of work orders. Two common ones are on-demand and preventive maintenance. The first are generated as problems arise. The second are scheduled in advance to avoid problems before they happen. Generally, the more information you can add to the work order, the better. Modern CMMS software makes it easy to include names and dates, maintenance and repair histories, related documents, and safety information.  Taking control of your work order management is an important first step to efficient maintenance management.



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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