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Just because we’re all guilty of it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be worried about it. But what exactly is pencil whipping, and how can you stop it?

What is pencil whipping? 

You might not recognize the phrase, but you likely have direct experience with the problem. In fact, like everyone else, you're probably guilty of pencil whipping yourself. 

Every time you skip to the bottom of a form and sign it without reading. All those times you click "I agree" without even looking at the terms and conditions. And every time you sign for a delivery before checking the package. 

Pencil whipping is when you sign off on something without really understanding it or checking to make sure it's accurate. The idea is that instead of carefully reading through the document or slowly making your way down the checklist, you quickly sign your name or check every box, literally whipping your pencil around as you go. 

In a lot of cases, it's harmless and saves you time. Even if you did take the time to read the small print in an agreement, would you even understand it? And if you found something you didn't like, would it be a big enough issue to keep you from signing anyway? For the sake of time and convenience, you're willing to run what's likely a small risk. 

But in maintenance management, and this includes maintenance across industries--everything from manufacturing to municipalities, health care to hotels--pencil whipping can be a serious problem. 

To understand the dangers of pencil whipping, we first need to see where it tends to happen with maintenance departments. 

What are some examples of pencil whipping?

Every time someone needs to sign off on something, especially when there's a checklist involved, you run the risk of pencil whipping. 

Preventive maintenance inspections 

Your preventive maintenance schedule is packed with inspections and tasks, and when those checklists start to get long, techs are tempted to whip through them quickly. In the end, you have assets and equipment that no one has inspected for a long time, even though "on paper," the team is inspecting them regularly.   

Safety inspections 

You might be sending maintenance techs out to perform safety checks to keep everyone safe and avoid OSHA fines, but instead of carefully going through the items on the checklist, the maintenance team is using the "no harm, no foul" method, where they're assuming everything is fine as long as no one has reported any injuries. Is that guardrail safe and secure? Instead of checking, the tech thinks to themselves, "No one has fallen here so far, so that means it's fine." Because nothing has been reported yet, they whip their way through the checklist. 

What are the dangers of pencil whipping? 

In some cases, it's harmless. But in others, the consequences can be serious. 

When people are pencil whipping, they're missing the early signs of future disasters. Small little snowballs quickly roll themselves into an avalanche. 

If an asset or piece of equipment fails, you're now dealing with unscheduled downtime, which can lead to costly repairs, missed production deadlines, late delivers, and angry customers. Bad inspections can also lead to partial or silent failures, where everything appears to be running smoothly, but you're producing poor-quality products, which can lead to reputational damage and lost future sales. 

When you have problems with assets and equipment, they damage more than your bottom line. Loose guardrails fail to protect operators. Faulty cutoff switches endanger maintenance techs. Poorly maintained boilers explode like bombs and fly like rockets. 

How can I avoid pencil whipping? 

If you suspect pencil whipping, you're first step is to confirm it's happening. Just because a skilled, experienced tech can quickly run through a checklist doesn't mean their whipping through it. Often, part of being good at your job is being able to perform it efficiently, and with efficiency comes speed. 

But there are things you can do to find the pencil whippers. You just have to be careful that you've got the right approach. The last thing you want to do is come across as spying on the maintenance department or setting traps trying to catch people. There's no "gotcha!" when you're making legitimate efforts to find issues and work toward improvements. 

Maintenance software helps you avoid pencil whipping?

In your maintenance software, check the Activity Log, which is a time-stamped record of everything done in both on-demand and scheduled work orders. If all the inspections were done within seconds of one another, there's a chance the tech whipped through the checklist. 


Remember, this isn't a smoking gun. But it is a strong suggestion the tech's not taking the time to work carefully. 

Another thing you can do is add some random tasks to your checklists to see if anyone is really reading them. If no one notices the additions, you can assume they're doing some whipping. 

Because all your PM checklists are already inside the CMMS in templates, you can make a few changes in one place and have them carried over into all the new work orders. Later, you can just as easily change everything back.   

Here again, you need to be careful to ensure the department doesn't misinterpret your intensions. There are some famous stories of companies adding messages to their terms and conditions, and the reason they have happy endings is because of how carefully they chose the message and how generously they rewarded people for finding them. For example, one woman won $10,000 for finding a message in the fine print from an insurance company agreement. 

How can I prevent pencil whipping? 

Once you find pencil whipping, you can try to tackle it. 

Explain the importance of preventive maintenance inspections 

First, sit down with the maintenance techs and reiterate the importance of the checklists and inspections. Remind them that finding small issues before they grow into major problems makes their lives easier. But the system only works when techs do the inspections properly, carefully. 

Review all your inspection checklists 

You need the maintenance team to be invested in the inspections and to understand their importance. A great way to do that is to ask for their input. Instead of saying, "Here is the checklist," you can say, "Here is the checklist, and I need your help to make it better." Not only do you get the best possible list, but you also get a team of techs who want the list to succeed. 

Again, because all your checklists are already inside the CMMS as templates, you can quickly update in one spot and have every new PM generate with the new, improved lists. 

Stop incentivizing pencil whipping 

One of the reasons people pencil whip is because it saves so much time in the short term, which is all someone can think about when they have a big backlog of checklists to work through. When you tell someone that they have to perform X number of inspections in Y number of days, you're basically encouraging them to whip. 

Instead change your key performance indicators to ones that encourage techs to slow down and take the time they need to check carefully. Once you shift your focus to KPIs like unscheduled downtime, injuries and accidents, and the on-demand to PM ratio, techs feel less pressure to whip. In fact, you're actively encouraging them to slow down and work more thoughtfully, less robotically. 

When you run your reports using the data in the CMMS, you can easily see the relevant maintenance metrics and generate the associated KPIs. 

Quick, concise summary 

We're all guilty of pencil whipping, pretending to skim over documents before signing and checking all the boxes on lists just to get through them. Most of the time, we save time without suffering any real consequences. But in maintenance, pencil whipping can lead to serious problems, including production delays and injuries. If you suspect pencil whipping, you can use your CMMS to check the Activity Log or carefully add messages to lists to see if anyone notices. To prevent whipping, review the importance of inspections with your team and then ask them to help you improve them. You can also change how you rate performance. Instead of looking at how many inspections the team completes, focus on how effective they are at preventing unscheduled downtime.   

Next steps 

Ready to prevent pencil whipping? A good CMMS makes it much easier, and Hippo's here to help you get the solution that works best for you, including answering your questions about maintenance strategies (and everything else related to maintenance), help you booking a live software demo, or even setting you up with a free trial

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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