Your backlog of work is a key performance indicator that reveals if you have the right resourcing levels, how well you're avoiding unscheduled work, and when it does show up, how well you're dealing with it.
So, how can you get started with maintenance backlog management?
Let's start with a good definition.
What is a maintenance backlog?
Depends on who you ask. When it comes to a maintenance backlog definition, there are more than a few floating around, but only one of them is going to help you get better control over your maintenance operations.
A maintenance backlog is not a growing list of all your overdue on-demand and preventive maintenance work orders, but it's easy to see why many people think that it is: overdue work does end up on the backlog, and as soon as you close one out, you remove it from the list. The problem with this definition is that your backlog also includes all the work that's not yet overdue. And if you finish work ahead of schedule, you still remove it from the backlog.
As a side note, it's possible to argue against the very idea of anything ever being "overdue." One way to think about maintenance is in terms of dates. PMs are generated, assigned, and due on specific dates. The maintenance manager can then judge success and failure based on how much work the team completes on time.
But, the argument goes, that's not how maintenance works in the real world. Because in the real world, a critical on-demand work order always takes priority over a scheduled inspection or maintenance task. It also takes priority over less-critical on-demand work. And because that's how we shuffle work orders, according to priority, not time, nothing is ever actually late. Instead, the department just shuffled it further down the list.
So, what's a better maintenance backlog definition? A backlog is a list of the work the maintenance department has approved and scheduled. It includes all the preventive maintenance inspections and tasks as well as any on-demand work orders. But it doesn't include work by third-party vendors. So, you might have a big retrofit project lined up for your fire suppression system, but because it's being done through a third party, it's not on the maintenance team's backlog.
Is having a maintenance backlog always bad?
Depends on your definition. If you say a backlog is all the work that's gone past the date you said it was needed by, then any backlog is bad. But if your backlog is just a list of approved work, then you need to look more closely before you can decide.
Let's look at the two extremes, a small backlog and a big one.
When you don't have a lot of backlog, you likely do have another problem: overstaffing. When your team can too easily keep up with PMs and on-demand work orders, the team is over-resourced.
too few work orders on the schedule point to issues with resourcing
At the other end of the spectrum, if the backlog only keeps growing, you know your maintenance department is under-resourced. You don't have enough techs, and work that needs to get done is getting pushed back until you start running headfirst into costly unscheduled breakdowns.
But when it comes to backlogs, there's more to it than just size. More important are the rate and direction of change. Worse than a big backlog is one that's growing bigger faster. You want a backlog that's stable and predictable.
It also makes sense to differentiate between department-level and asset-level backlogs. So, there's one for the whole team that includes all the work on all the assets. But there's also a backlog for each asset which includes the work the team needs to do on that specific asset. At this level, you need to look at the asset's criticality to decide if the backlog is too big or small. For less critical assets, you can let the backlog grow a bit, but for mission-critical assets, you want a smaller backlog.
How can your maintenance department tackle backlog management?
The first step is deciding on your maintenance backlog calculation. Although it's possible to express it in trade-hours, it makes more sense to use work weeks, which is the number of weeks it would take for your team to clear the backlog completely.
Next, you need to add up all the scheduled work, not including any work you've scheduled with third parties. Then calculate your weekly work capacity. Because it naturally shifts from week to week, you need to find an average. Generally, in any given week, how much work can the team accomplish? You can look at a couple weeks' worth of on-demand and preventive maintenance work orders to get a rough idea.
Here's the math:
Your maintenance backlog in weeks = available work on the backlog in hours / weekly work capacity in hours
How does maintenance backlog software help you fix your backlog?
Remember, having a backlog of work is not something you want to fix so much as manage and leverage. The goal is to Goldilocks it:
- Get it to the size you want
- Keep it there
- Use it as a KPI for insights into your maintenance program
The good news is that the right maintenance backlog software makes every step easier.
Turn maintenance requests into work orders efficiently
Maintenance backlog management starts with making sure you have the most accurate numbers possible. As soon as a maintenance request comes in, you need to either approve or dismiss it, keeping your backlog up to date and properly prioritized in real time.
Modern software solutions make this a simple process. With older paper- and spreadsheet-based methods, it's tough for people to reach out and connect with the maintenance team. First, they have to track down the right office, phone number, or email address, and even when they do, there's no guarantee they can properly explain the problem they want you to fix.
You might get an email about a leak in the bathroom sink. But before you can generate and assign a work order, you first have to figure out which bathroom has the leak. Also: is the tap dripping, or is the entire second floor about to flood?
Modern maintenance backlog software comes with an open request portal that anyone can easily access to connect with the maintenance team. Because the online form comes with defined fields, people know exactly which information to include in their request. And because the form captures the requester's contact information, maintenance can quickly reach out if they have any questions.
Set and reset priority level for every work order
This one is related to the idea that nothing is ever late. Instead, work moves up or down the backlog list according to priority. You need a fast, easy way to prioritize and adjust work orders.
With older paper- and spreadsheet-based methods, it's hard to keep on top of priority.
First, it's hard even to get a sense of the work you've approved and scheduled for the maintenance team. You'd need to wallpaper your office with paperwork orders or fill your desktop screen with open spreadsheet files. With a clean, well designed calendar view, maintenance backlog software paints a clear picture of the work ahead.
Second, even when you can make changes, communicating them to the rest of the team is a slow, error-prone process. Once a tech has left the maintenance office with a paperwork order, the only way to reassign them is to run out to where they are in the facility and hand them some new paperwork. If you're dealing with spreadsheets, every time you change the schedule to reflect new priorities, you have to make sure to change every version of that file that's already out there. Otherwise, a bunch of the team is working from stale data.
Modern maintenance backlog software keeps everything in a database in the cloud that's accessible from any Internet-connected device, from anywhere. Now that everyone is looking at the same data, it's easy to keep everyone in the loop.
The software also streamlines the process of working with priority levels. On individual work orders, all you need to do is click into the drop-down menu and choose a higher or lower priority. The software then automatically adjusts the work order's due date.
backlog management software automatically adjust due dates according to customizable priority settings
But you can also filter all the work orders by priority, giving you a better understanding of your backlog at a glance.
Get your maintenance backlog working for you
Your backlog of work tells you a lot about your department, what's working and what needs improvement.
If your backlog is too big, it can be because your department does not have the resources it needs, and you should invest in more staffing, training, or both. Because the work you assign to third parties is not part of the backlog calculation, you might also find that you can shrink the backlog by bringing in help with certain projects.
But a large backlog can be a sign that you are not doing enough preventive maintenance. It's always faster, cheaper, easier to find and fix small issues before they have a chance to grow into large problems.
For example, a warehouse forklift. If you have a schedule set up to inspect and maintain it periodically, you always roughly know what work the maintenance team needs to do and the materials they need to do it. You can make sure you have the people and parts lined up. But when the engine seizes from lack of maintenance, you're faced with an expensive, time-consuming, schedule-busting problem.
If you're ready to take control of your backlog of work, now's the time to reach out to backlog maintenance software providers. Once they have a sense of your current challenges, they can explain your options and help you find the solution that works best for you .