Part 1: Service Industry Oriented Work Management Perspective

Over the holidays, it’s always enjoyable to catch up with family members and friends that you don’t get to see as often as you’d like. In this fast paced world and with hectic work schedules this timeframe provides an opportunity to catch up on each other’s lives. During this time I had the good fortune to visit with a great friend that has recently taken on some responsibilities at a large property management company. Recently his role expanded into handling maintenance service calls. Upon hearing this it intrigued me to better understand the challenges he and his organization are dealing with each day.

To provide perspective, his role as a quasi-property manager involves:
- Intake of service requests at a property with over 800 units and nearly 1,300 residents,
- Entry into their ‘log book’,
- Pass on requests to the Property Manager
- Provide customers with status of their work requests, and
- Address complaints.

As the conversation continued, it became painfully obvious that the methods and practices of effective work management were lacking in such a critical service-centric industry. The organization has a vast and robust enterprise database system for tracking rent collections, expiring contracts, identification of sales programs and other information. However, they are managing their maintenance/service requests with triplicate forms and an online spreadsheet with no structured data entry. Up to four individuals have the ability to enter data into the system with no business rules for consistent input. What makes matters worse was this example at a single complex is the manner in which the entire organization manages all of its properties (at the time of this writing they have 12 complexes).

Well I didn’t write all of the above to feel sorry for my friend. The aim here is to understand some very important aspects of effective maintenance order backlog management, especially if you are in a service-centric business. This topic could branch into a full ‘how-to’ book that covers everything under the sun. However, what should be first understood are some of the basics that our discussion was able to provide in fruitful output of actionable improvements.

1. Know Your Customer – When you collect funds from your customers, make no mistake that this is a two-way street. As a service provider, your terms may be written in contract form, but theirs are tangibly measured in overall satisfaction and exercising their option to move to a different provider. You should be very clear about what your customers desire in communication and response times to address their service and work requests. Set a policy via Service Level Agreements (SLA) in documenting how you will provide responses, when you will provide them, and what information will be included.

2. Be Transparent – Provide your customers with the ability to see the status of their work requests in your work management database or online repository. By providing this level of clarity, it increases their understanding of when their problem will be effectively addressed. In addition, provide documented feedback on actions taken that resolved their issue.

3. Create a Priority System – If you don’t have a means of quantifying risk or priority of jobs, start one immediately. With limited staff and budgets it is unlikely you will be able to correct all work in your backlog in a single maintenance shift. Setting priorities also clarifies to the maintenance and operations staff the level of urgency that is appropriate for the service request.

4. Structure Your Data – This organization had an entry system that allowed for free-form text to be input into their online repository (yours could be a database but the example still fits). When looking at the data there was no rhyme or reason to how the entries were input. This led to hidden duplicates requests, extremely long response times due to the manner in which dates were entered at time of request, and no grouping of problem types. You should make structuring your data into a logical and channeled response mechanism one of the first tasks to tackle. Create a form or electronic interface for entry that has defined drop-down lists for selection, checkboxes for ease of grouping, and automatic time stamping to track entry and resolution times. Taking this step will allow you to significantly leverage data points into useful information for effective backlog work management.

5. The Power of the ‘Group’
- Group Like Problems. Collect and consolidate work orders for scheduling and execution into problem categories (i.e. electrical, mechanical, instrumentation). This will provide the ability to tackle work by a single technician in a ‘route’ fashion of correcting similar problems on multiple requests.

- Group by Area. It is far more efficient to tackle multiple service requests in the same area than to disperse personnel in a non-logical geographical layout. By providing work orders to technicians in a focused area, more work can be accomplished. In addition a reduction in setup and clean up time can be realized.

- Group by Due Date. If you followed our advice above and set Service Level Agreements, then this grouping reinforces your organization putting words into action. It is advantageous to utilize this type when you have emergency work or requests that must be accomplished within a date constraint. Your customers will greatly appreciate this effort.

6. Know What You are Doing – Everyone in your organization must know what work is going on and when it will be done. This includes personnel that have direct contact with your customers, managers, and technicians. You must also ensure the right people are put on the right jobs to accomplish the work. Initially this may require the use of external contractors to accomplish work that must be completed in a short timeframe. However, you should place an emphasis on developing your internal resources. They are the first to respond by being on site and when equipped with the proper knowledge, skills and abilities your backlog has the potential to significantly decrease.

7. Know What was Done – With high turnover rates in technician and service organizations it is vitally important to capture work resolution history. Make it a requirement (both by practice and in your company’s database/online system) to enter this data by those that performed the work. Leverage the structuring data advice previously mentioned to capture items such as:

- Part that was damaged,
- Cause for failure,
- Resolution taken,
- Materials used,
- Follow-up work and recommendations needed
- Time spent on the work.

Structuring this data and implementing business rules to ensure their capture can be utilized for several purposes. This information can lead to effective root cause analysis, identification of tasks for preventive maintenance, warranty claims to recoup funds or free replacement of faulty items, and reduced time in troubleshooting similar issues in the future.

8. Know How You are Doing – You cannot improve in a quantifiable manner if you don’t measure your performance. There are a multitude of indicators that can be established and your specific industry may have some readily available to leverage. The emphasis here is to focus on the ones that are key to your service operations and to your customers that give both overall and tactical perspectives on performance. Some of these measures include:
- Mean Time to Repair – in short, measures your time from response entry to order close out

- Backlog ‘burn’ Rate – looks at the level of decrease (or increase) in work orders and/or estimated work hours in your queue

- Maintenance Productivity – measures how much time in your maintenance resource’s day is spent on preventive and service repair maintenance

- Proactive vs. Reactive Ratio – comparative analysis showing how much of your work is spent on responding to problems versus inspecting and performing routine preventive maintenance

- Work Order Lifecycle – measures the time the service ticket spends at each stage of the work management lifecycle. This includes: work request entry, prioritization and approval, planning, scheduling, dispatching, execution, documentation, and closeout.

- Mean Time Between Repairs – this helps to identify the amount of rework present in your organization. High levels contribute to a substantial increase of the backlog and low customer confidence

By the end of our discussion, my friend began to grasp the nature of the challenges and what is required for improvement. You may be facing the same or similar issues within your organization. If so that is a problem worth fixing. The next important question to answer is: Will you take the action needed to improve?