The National Parks Service has a serious problem with backlog. And it’s costing everyone.
The cost of maintenance backlog at over 400 national parks across the United States was recently billed at $12 billion. That’s 500% more than the operating budget for the department. And although $6.5 billion has been set aside to address the backlog, it barely covers half of what’s needed.
The parks bear the scars of deferred maintenance. Safety hazards. Unusable equipment. Expensive infrastructure needs upgrading years too early.
It’s not pretty. Not many maintenance backlogs are. That’s why this article explores tips for avoiding work order backlog and how to reduce maintenance backlog if you already have it.
What is maintenance backlog?
Maintenance backlog is all maintenance work that’s been planned, approved, and scheduled, but not completed. It is not work that is simply past its due date.
Think about it like your household to-do list. You were planning to clean the garage last Saturday, but never got to it. You’re also planning to organize your closet next weekend. Both chores are in your backlog.
How is maintenance backlog measured?
Maintenance backlog is often measured in the number of hours or weeks it would take to complete the work with the resources available. And backlog doesn’t discriminate between emergency and planned work orders. Every scrap of maintenance is included in the calculation.
How much maintenance backlog is too much?
Having zero maintenance backlog is not healthy. If a backlog is too small, it will be difficult to keep tradespeople and technicians on priority work, according to this article in Reliable Plant. This usually leads to an increase in unplanned and corrective work.
That same article recommends having a total backlog of about four weeks. This includes a planning backlog of two to three weeks (work that’s planned, but not ready to start) and a scheduled backlog of one to two weeks (work that can be started at any time).
Six steps for reducing maintenance backlog
A long list of backlogged work orders is scary, but the consequences of keeping it that way are scarier. These are six tried and true strategies for chipping away at that mountain of backlog:
#1: Get buy-in
The idea to put maintenance ahead of some other things (like production) might not be too popular. But getting access to equipment and resources is essential for working through backlog. That’s why changing everyone’s mind is the first thing you should do.
Getting people to buy into your plan starts with telling them how it’ll help them and backing it up with numbers. For example, your plan might cut into the production team’s goals and quotas in the short-term. Show them that this work will help them hit their targets long-term through better asset performance (less scrap and rework) or cleaner startups for the next few months.
First, prioritize based on asset criticality. Outstanding work on critical assets should move to the top of the list.
Filter work on critical assets by how late they are. If a PM was missed four times, it’s probably more urgent than a PM missed once.
Determine the length and difficulty of remaining work orders. Work that can be done quickly or with less downtime should be your number-one priority.
#3: Assess your resources
The next step is to assess what resources are available for you and your team to get the work done:
How many people are on your team? What training, skills, and certifications do they have? The capabilities of your technicians will change what you do, the order you do it in, and how long it’ll take.
Do you have all the parts, supplies, and safety equipment for your work orders? If not, how long will it take to get them? This might push back your timeline.
How big are your maintenance windows?
Do they have all the information needed so technicians can do the job safely and properly in the time given?
#4: Plan for risks
There are three kinds of high-risk jobs usually found in a work order backlog:
Time-consuming and complex projects
Work your team hasn’t done in a while or at all.
Make note of these work orders. Analyze the risks associated with each and find ways to mitigate them. Reduce risk by giving technicians extra training, putting more technicians and labor hours towards the work, and making sure the right PPE is available.
#5 Build work orders for efficiency and safety ?
Creating great work orders helps technicians to knock backlogged maintenance off the list safely, efficiently, and properly so you can make the most of your time, staff, and budget. There are some key areas of a work order that make this possible:
Clear and detailed task lists: Clear, detailed, and concise task lists eliminate confusion and wasted time
A list of required parts and PPE: Including a bill of materials, along with where to find those parts, will speed up most jobs
Manuals, diagrams, and pictures: Giving these items to technicians upfront cuts a lot of time spent searching for them or troubleshooting without them
An in-depth description of the problem and completion notes: Any additional information that gives a technician context for the job will help them avoid mistakes, risks, and wasted time
#6: Keep track of everything
It’s important to measure your progress once your plan is in motion. This allows you to adjust your strategy as new challenges come up and work is completed. It also gives you more data for building buy-in across the organization.
Keeping track of everything means staying up to date with your team and helping them tackle the tasks you’ve assigned. Schedule frequent touchpoints with them to ask:
If they’re comfortable with the work
If they have all the resources and equipment they need
What processes are helping the most and which ones need tweaking
What causes maintenance backlog and how to prevent it
Whittling your backlog down to a manageable size is an accomplishment. But it’s just the beginning. Keeping your team from reaching code-red status again is next. Here are a few ideas for your next fight against backlog:
Eliminate duplicate work orders and fine-tune your PMs: Get rid of duplicate work orders so they don’t inflate your backlog. Review your PM schedules regularly and adjust the frequency of scheduled maintenance based on how often they’re finding faults. No faults means they could probably be done less frequently
Standardize work orders for requesters and technicians: Build one template for all work orders. Be very specific about the information required when creating or completing work orders. It’ll make requesting and reviewing work faster. It also helps you track trends in work orders so you can catch problems sooner and adjust schedules easier.
Align your goals and processes: Get everyone on the same page about the expectations for maintenance. For example, define priority work orders and what ‘high priority’ means? Fewer important work orders will be missed when everyone is talking the same language.
Track your parts and staff skills closely: Keep a dashboard of commonly used parts so they never go out of stock. Find skills gaps in your maintenance team and bolster training in those areas.
Everything you just read in three sentences
The best way to change a culture of reactive maintenance at your organization is to frame backlog as an obstacle to everyone, align on a solution, and make everyone part of the process.
More time planning means less time doing so make sure to prioritize your tasks, figure out the risks, and build strong work orders to maximize efficiency.
Optimize your PMs, track trends in your work orders, and push for standardization across your processes to prevent backlog from emerging or reemerging at your organization
The average maintenance department handles 45 work orders every week. That’s over 2,200 work orders every year. Or a new request every four hours. In other words, the maintenance team impacts your business almost constantly. And that impact is huge.
For example, the average cost of an unplanned downtime incident is $17,000. If only 5% of scheduled maintenance work orders prevent downtime, it could mean saving millions of dollars.
There’s just one problem: Work orders rarely get the attention needed to make this potential a reality. Take common work order metrics, like planned maintenance percentage, for example. They can be useful for maintenance teams, but they don’t tell you much about the impact work orders have on business. And businesses are suffering because of it.
Companies can’t tell if they’re hiring the right people, making the right decisions about capital expenditures, or promising their customers the right things without knowing if work is being done the right way.
That’s why it’s time to stop looking at work orders as just a task on a to-do list. When you put thousands of them together, they tell a much bigger story about human behavior, asset performance, processes, and more. It’s time we read that story.
Why bad work orders are bad for business
Broken work order processes are one of the quickest ways for minor maintenance problems to get out of hand. For example, at Liberty Oilfield Services, poor work orders led to massive amounts of missing inventory and unnecessary costs.
The team at Liberty was getting “just a fraction of what really happened. There was no failure analysis, no context, no insurance for our mechanics,” in the words of Jack Featheringill, Liberty’s US Maintenance Manager.
For Rambler Metals and Mining, bad work orders processes were wasting everyone’s time.
“Whoever was finishing up their 12-hour shift would have to write pages of notes,” says Scott Britton, GM of Operations at Rambler. “Writing those notes could take up to an hour, and the next person would have to spend the first part of their shift going over the notes.”
The issues that poor work order processes cause often spill off the shop floor and into other parts of the business. You just have to look at the problems Liberty and Rambler had to see the potential ripple effects.
How inaccurate records and missing inventory affect a business
When finance, purchasing, and maintenance aren’t working with the same information (or any information), it could cause:
Lower throughput and higher operating costs: Missing the spare parts you need is the cause of 50% of all unscheduled downtime, and keeping parts you don’t need in the storeroom adds an extra 12-20% on average to a company’s operating costs.
Undershooting on your CapEx planning. It’s easy to miss the warning signs of asset failure if you don’t have context around inventory purchases. That leads to some nasty surprises when looking at the final numbers.
Allocating resources to the wrong places: If you’re missing the whole story around parts, failure, and performance, you’ll never know what sites need more people, money, training or tools.
How handwritten notes and wasted time affect a business
When maintenance processes are broken, it usually causes inefficiencies to pop up across your organization, like:
A massive backlog bill. Spending almost 10% of your shift creating work orders (like Rambler did) means less time on the actual work. The result is deferred maintenance, and every $1 in deferred maintenance costs $4 in future capital renewal needs.
Unexpected delays at the worst times. Spotting bad habits (like the same part wearing out) is almost impossible without standardized work orders. Adjusting maintenance plans becomes difficult and the results are inevitable—a breakdown during production.
Missed follow-ups and failed audits: Mistakes and burnout are inevitable when work orders are complicated and time-consuming. Failed PMs without follow-ups are sure to follow, as are break downs, compliance issues, safety risks and increased costs.
Enough with the doom and gloom. Good work orders can also have a huge positive impact.
Dredging company Callan Marine reduced downtime (which can cost over $1,200 an hour) just 90 days after starting to track maintenance costs and activities in work orders.
Optimizing work orders led to a 50% average increase in asset performance, according to data collected from Fiix customers.
Next steps: Getting really good at work order fundamentals
Now that we know how big of a deal work orders are, it’s time to get really good at them. That starts with a good foundation. The next part of the work order academy will take a look at how to build your work orders so that they become the superstar of your maintenance team and the ace up the sleeve for your company.
Maintenance teams do a lot of great things. There’s no debate about that. But what happens when no one hears about it? The answer: Nothing good.
When maintenance teams don’t measure their success and promote their wins, it leads to everything from low morale to layoffs as the budget gets sliced and diced.
How do you stop this from happening? Show the impact of maintenance. But how do you do that? And what if no one cares? We talked to three Fiixers to answer these questions. You can watch the full conversation below, download and listen to the audio version, or skip down a bit to read a summary of the discussion (with time stamps next to each question in case you want to fast forward and hear the full response).
Five big tips for telling your maintenance team success story
Why is it important to talk about the things your maintenance team does well (1:18)?
It’s all about building a great culture, says Jason Afara, a solutions engineer at Fiix. Celebrating these successes creates a culture of collaboration. Because the entire team is recognized, it promotes team success over individual success and improves conversations about troubleshooting and brainstorming to solve problems. Jason talks more about how he created this sort of culture as a maintenance manager in this article.
What should you do when other departments aren’t aware of the impact of maintenance (2:38)?
The key is breaking out of the “What have you done for me lately” relationship between maintenance and the rest of the organization, says Jason. Metrics like work order completions or health and safety data highlight where maintenance is spending their time and the impact this has.
What can go wrong if you don’t talk about your maintenance team’s success (4:11)?
When the maintenance team isn’t vocal about its wins, it can come back and bite the department at budget time, says Scott Deckers, Fiix’s customer success manager. When maintenance doesn’t share its successes on a regular basis, business leaders can’t see the return on investment. Maintenance is then one of the first things on the chopping block when budgets are cut.
How should maintenance teams be defining success (7:02)?
Stuart Fergusson, Fiix’s lead solutions engineer, suggests starting with metrics that connect maintenance to operational success. Some of the numbers to track include clean startups and failed inspections. Both of those measurements showcase how the maintenance team prevents loss and increases production capacity.
How do you create a culture where maintenance successes are shared and celebrated by everyone in an organization (10:31)?
Every conversation you have with someone outside of maintenance, whether it’s in the lunchroom or boardroom, is a chance to create that culture, says Scott. Spread the word about maintenance and its importance to the company every chance you get. Look for opportunities to tie maintenance to the goals of other departments or the goals of the company.
What are some strategies for sharing maintenance wins with business leaders (12:11)?
It all starts with cold, hard facts, says Jason. You always have to be prepared with numbers to back up the story of your maintenance team’s success. Show why spending time and money on maintenance is worth it. One example is being able to connect the actions of maintenance to increased throughput.
What happens if no one cares about your maintenance team’s success story or if it doesn’t get a positive response (14:09)?
If you’re not getting the reaction you’re expecting, you’re not presenting the information the right way, says Stuart. To ace the delivery, you have to know your audience. Find out how they’re being evaluated and what long-term and short-term success means to them. Then, tell that person how maintenance helps them achieve their goals.
How do you tell your maintenance success stories to those outside your company (19:19)?
Scott points to three avenues for promoting your maintenance team’s wins outside your organization: Professional associations (like PEMAC or SMRP), industry podcasts (who are always looking for both listeners and guests), and networking opportunities offered by vendors.
How can maintenance professionals tell their own success stories (21:03)?
If you want to talk about what you’ve done well, talk about what your team has done well, says Jason. Some examples of that include:
Explaining how you set up your team to be successful after you’ve moved on
Identifying the steps you took to improve communication between departments
How do you tell the story about a loss (24:38)?
No team wins all the time. But embracing those failures is a sign of maturity for maintenance teams, says Stuart. It allows you to properly analyze and prevent them from happening again. Then, you can tell the story of a solution, not a problem. When building this story, ask yourself, how can I use what I learned to systematically eliminate the cause of failure?
Bonus footage: Fiix customer Tom Dufton talked about how he was able to hire an extra team member by identifying gaps in his maintenance program. You can check out the clip here (skip to 20:26 for the details).
When the maintenance team wins, everyone wins
Scoring wins is important for the maintenance team. But becoming an all-star operation means going the extra step and talking about those successes across your organization. And don’t stop there. Create a culture of winning by celebrating every team’s accomplishments. When production has the perfect shift, celebrate. When you ace an audit, celebrate. And when the inevitable losses put a stumbling block in your way, celebrate it as an opportunity. You can always learn something from the things that go wrong and turn that into a win down the line.