When you’re in charge of maintenance and your job basically boils down to fighting failure, the best defense is a well-oiled work order process. Here’s how to build one that is world class.

To improve your overall maintenance program, you need to start by examining and then rebuilding how your department handles work orders. Along the way, you’re guaranteed a better understanding of your entire operation, empowering you to make improvements across the board.

But remember: it all starts with work orders.

What is a work order? 

A 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? We know from Murphy’s Law that anything that can go wrong will, so the possibilities are endless, but we can break work orders into common categories, including: 

  • Installation 
  • Inspection 
  • Maintenance 
  • Repair 

For example, an AC unit needs to be added to the existing HVAC system, the filters need to be checked, the coolant needs replacing, and the fan that wobbled itself out of alignment should be reset or replaced. 

Finding the problems with the current work order software

Let’s start by defining “problem.” Basically, anything that creates a roadblock to a defined goal is a problem. If it makes things slower, more error prone, or simply impossible, it’s a problem. Quick example: if your organization wants to cut costs, but your current work order process makes it hard to track maintenance parts and materials, leading to increased downtime and costly overtime and rush deliveries, it’s actively pushing that cost-cutting goal out of reach. 

For the maintenance department, it’s often helpful to think specifically in terms of maintenance strategies and see how the current work order process makes them easier or more difficult to implement. You can learn more about different maintenance strategies with How to Pick the Right Preventive Maintenance Strategy.

For example, for preventive maintenance, your work orders need to help you with: 

  • Determining tasks 
  • Scheduling PMs 
  • Tracking results 

Does your current work order software help make preventive maintenance possible? Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Is there an efficient way to look at historical asset data to determine maintenance tasks and cadence? 
  • Even if I know what to do and when to do it, is it easy to generate and assign PMs? How much of this process is manual versus automatic? 
  • Once the program is up and running, how do I know if it’s successful or not? Is there an easy way to take the number of generated and missed PMs to calculate close-out rates? 

When it comes to work orders, the maintenance department is not the only one affected, so you need to talk with other departments, find out their specific goals, and see if the current work order process is getting in their way, too. Remember, the goal is not to collect grievances from different departments, so make sure your questions focus on goals and roadblocks. It’s best to avoid questions about how the process makes them feel and which parts they like or don’t. Instead, ask them what their department wants to accomplish and how the work order process makes it easier or harder for them to make progress. 

Fixing the most common problems with your work order processes 

In most cases, you end up hearing very few unique complaints. It’s important to be on the look out for them and address them as best as you can, but most issues with work orders come down to how your current process handles data, including: 

  • Capturing   
  • Distributing 
  • Leveraging 

Basically, how good is it at collecting good data, how well does it make that data available to the people who need it, and finally, what does it let you do with the data? Now that you have it, how many different ways can you squeeze value out of it? 

Let’s look at some solutions to the most common work order problems. 

Capturing the right data with work orders 

In a perfect world, the maintenance team uses inspections to catch little issues before they develop into large problems. Before anyone else even notices, the maintenance techs have everything discovered, diagnosed, and fixed. But in the real world, a lot of the time it’s people in other departments calling in with issues. It could be anything from an operator noticing their equipment is making a strange noise to someone in accounting discovering water coming in through the ceiling. 

And this is where a lot of work order systems break down, right at the beginning. First, there’s no single, consistent way for people to contact the maintenance department. Some might try sending an email. Others try leaving a voice mail. Still others just give up completely, which makes a lot of sense. Because they’re not sure how to submit a maintenance request, people are inclined to just tell themselves that someone else will take care of it. 

And even when messages do get through, they’re often riddled with data gaps. Maintenance departments get a lot of “there’s a leak in the bathroom” and “the door is not closing properly.” Which bathroom? Which door? The person leaving the message doesn’t think to include that information. 

The solution is to have one portal for all maintenance requests, and for it to clearly show the types of required information, including for example: 

  • Exact location 
  • Specific description 
  • Relative priority 

Setting up an open online portal is ideal. Anyone in the organization can access it, and your department can make sure it’s getting the right data by setting up required fields. Now when someone wants to submit a maintenance request, they have to first tell you what you want to know. 

Distributing the right data with work orders 

As information is coming into the system, you need to start distributing it. You need to make sure each work order, and those include on-demand and PMs, contains the right information. 

Start on the right foot with the basics and the background 

You want to set techs up for success, and the more they know before they arrive on-site, the more efficiently they can work once they get there.   

Start by including the information they need to identify the asset or piece of equipment. In some cases, it’s obvious: the bathroom has three sinks but only one has a burst pipe. Other times, it’s a lot less obvious, especially for PMs. When you send a tech to change the filter on one of three identical AC units that are installed one beside the other in a neat row, the work order needs to make it clear exactly which one they should work on. Consistently including something as simple as the asset’s serial number can save everyone a lot of time. Barcoding also makes it very easy for techs to find the right assets. With a modern CMMS app, they can even use the built-in camera on their mobile device to scan barcodes, pull up asset data, and check for open associated work orders. 

The more background information on the asset you can add to the work order, the better. This includes: 

  • Repair and maintenance histories 
  • Images and schematics   
  • O&M manuals and warranties 
  • Associated parts and materials 

This might seem like a lot to include, but techs often need this additional information when troubleshooting. To learn more about troubleshooting, check out Maintenance Management Software Makes Troubleshooting Less Trouble.

Boost efficiency and consistency with clear instructions 

It’s important for techs to have the information they need when zeroing in on assets and troubleshooting unique failures. But in the majority of cases, especially with PMs, what you want is for techs to follow the same set of steps. When processes are consistent, it’s easier to judge how well they’re working and harder to void assets’ warranties. 

A good work order includes step-by-step instructions, checklists to ensure nothing gets missed, and information on best practices. It can be a bit challenging to write out the instructions at first, and most people make the mistake of not including enough detail. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not writing the list to remind yourself how to complete the task. Instead, think of it as instructions for someone who’s attempting the task for the first time. If you think of it that way, you’re more likely to create good instructions that properly cover all the necessary steps. 

Highlight health and safety notes 

And on the topic of what to include, make sure to include health and safety steps both inside the instructions and as a separate section. You want to ensure techs don’t accidentally skip this information. It could be something as old-fashioned and basic as wearing protective goggles or something as current as properly wearing and removing PPE to avoid the spread of COVID-19.      

Increase tracking with times and dates 

Because so many of your metrics and KPIs are tied directly to time, work orders need to include accurate times and dates. A good work order includes: 

  • Date and time of submission 
  • Estimated time of completion / due date 
  • Date and time of completion 

For more on time and how it helps you track failure metrics, check out MTTR, MTBF, MTTF: A Complete Guide to Failure Metrics. 

Leveraging data with work orders 

The best work order process delivers not only clear instructions on what to do in the present but also a complete picture of the past and a strong indication of what to expect in the future. The key is crunching the captured data into easy-to-understand reports packed with metrics and KPIs. Finally, we can see where the money went, which is the first step to controlling it in the future. We can see how well our PMs are controlling failures, allowing us to fine-tune our maintenance strategies. 

Are traditional paper and spreadsheet methods enough for work orders? 

No, they’re not. It’s basically impossible to properly capture, distribute, and leverage data using these old methods. Let’s quickly review some of the many reasons why. 

Pen-and-paper work orders make it hard to distribute the right data 

When everything is trapped on paper, it’s hard to move the data around. When it’s time to assign a new work order, a tech needs to walk all the way back to the maintenance office to pick up the paperwork. And because you can only jam so much onto a piece of paper, the work orders have very little information. It’s impossible for techs to carry around paper copies of asset maintenance and repair histories, schematics, images, warranties, and detailed instructions.    

Spreadsheet work orders makes it easy to distribute the wrong data 

It’s a lot easier to move data around with spreadsheets. Too easy. Every time you send a file, you’re actually sending a copy. Now two versions of the data exist, and they’re only going to match for a short time. As soon as you update one of the versions, the other one becomes out of date. Eventually, only one person has reliable, up-to-date information. Everyone else on the team is working from stale data. 

Next steps 

A good CMMS software makes world-class work orders possible. Modern CMMS solutions are backed by cloud computing. Everything is kept safe on one central database, and any time data is updated, the newest version is available to everyone in real time. There is only one version, the most up to date and therefore reliable one, and everyone who needs it can access it from any Internet-connected desktop or mobile device. 

If you’re thinking of adopting work order software for the first time, or you have software that’s failing to deliver what you were promised, it’s time to reach out to CMMS providers and get the conversation started. Once they have an idea of your current challenges and what you want to accomplish, they can help you find the solution that’s best for you. 

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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