Setting the Standard for Maintenance Programs

Very often facility maintenance operations become a whirlwind of chaos and reactivity struggling to keep up with the never-ending flow of urgent situations. Day-to-day firefighting takes so much time there is no effort directed at developing a solid maintenance program as a solution to the seemingly endless cycle.

Facility managers must understand and accept the importance of establishing a clearly outlined program in order to shape their operation into an efficient service provider delivering quality services in a timely manner. Developing and implementing a maintenance program must be a process that tailors the elements of the program to the environment in which it will be implemented. On the surface, it may appear that facility maintenance is facility maintenance regardless if it is being performed in a large state university or a small liberal-arts college. However, each of these settings creates very different parameters in which a maintenance program will be developed and implemented. For example, large state universities often are comprised of multiple campuses across an entire state.

Developing a realistic maintenance program universal to all locations may be extremely difficult given the complex nature of such an institution. Conversely, the individual liberal-arts college would have a better opportunity to develop and implement a program impacting only a single campus. While these two settings may have very different operational parameters, the process for developing and implementing a functional maintenance program is very similar, beginning with development of clear goals and objectives.

Acquiring a Target

Imagine getting into your car and setting out for a destination. Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? The destination may be familiar and the trip short and easy. Perhaps the destination is unfamiliar and a set of directions or a map will be necessary. Either way, you have a means and method to reach your intended destination. Now consider the same trip without having the destination name, directions, or a map. That simple trip from point A to point B becomes much more complicated, perhaps even impossible. While you may stumble across the intended destination at some point, you will have undoubtedly wasted vast amounts of valuable time and resources. In the realm of facilities operation it is just as important to have a defined destination and a clear set of directions in order to prevent wasted time and resources. Developing and implementing a maintenance plan or program is the means and method to determining the desired destination and the directions to get there.

In any facility operation, the destination must be aimed at supporting the overall mission of the college or university. After all, every division, department, unit, and shop are building blocks of a greater whole. At the organizational level a driving vision, mission, and set of goals will have been established. Contained within those three elements are the guiding principals each building block must use to develop appropriate programs aimed at supporting the level above it. At the organizational level the vision, mission, and goals will be broad and general. As supporting goals are developed down through the divisions, departments, units, and shops they will become more and more specific to the functional area in which they will be implemented. For example, organizational level goals will contain broad sweeping statements without defining measurable outcomes. As programs are developed at lower levels of the organization they will define time parameters, action steps, and measurable outcomes that will support the organizational mission yet are appropriate to each level. In more specific terms, at the organizational level you would not set a goal for standardizing cleaning chemical usage, yet such a goal would be appropriate at the departmental level (such as physical plant or custodial services).

Getting Your Bearings

Once the destination has been determined it is critical to have a clear understanding of your current position. Imagine the earlier scenario, only in reverse. You are given a destination and a map but then blindfolded and taken to an unknown location and dropped off without any idea of where you are. Once again, you may happen across the intended destination at some point, if you wander long enough, but you will have again wasted time and resources. By knowing and understanding your current position, the path from point A to point B can be charted and followed to the desired outcomes.

Determining the current overall status of your operation is a daunting yet vital task. Evaluation and analysis methods vary and the effectiveness of each method is always open to interpretation. However, one common method generally considered reliable and effective is the SWOT analysis. Sometimes referred to as an internal/external assessment, the SWOT analysis examines the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the operation.

Strengths are those elements of an operation that build a solid platform of core competencies. Employee technical expertise, the availability of cutting-edge technology, and employee involvement and commitment are just a few examples of strengths that may be identified in the analysis. Determining the operation’s strengths will narrow the range of elements that will need to be developed and will prevent resources from being wasted. For example, through the SWOT analysis it is determined that one strength of the HVAC shop is all mechanics hold their EPA Universal Refrigerant Technician certification. Clearly, specific training would not be necessary and the time and dollars could be used to provide training in other areas. Determining the operation’s strengths is simply identifying which parts of the operation are already developed to their highest levels and are appropriate to the environment in which they are utilized.

Identifying any potential weaknesses is vital to the forward progress of the operation. Like the self-awareness an individual must develop in order to move toward self-improvement, any operation must be able to accept that there is always room for improvement and work to identify those areas needing development. Departmental weakness generally appears out of lingering remnants of an archaic organizational structure or a reluctance to adapt to changes in operational parameters. Attempting to operate under antiquated methods and policies will create friction and uncertainty and act as a barrier to development. Two common weakness generally shared in facilities operations are a lack of standardized operating procedures and an organizational culture that is deeply rooted in“the way it has always been done.” A lack of standard operating procedures will ultimately lead to inconsistent work practices and a broad variation in the level of services being delivered. Operating on the basis of“that’s how it has always been” is simply resistance to change and will ultimately lead to inefficiency and outdated practices and policies.

Opportunities in facility operations are often very similar in general terms regardless of the operating environment. While it is vital to identify the specific details relevant to any a particular operation, appropriate training programs, appropriate structuring, growth, and technology are those opportunities that may be identified as an avenue to forward progress. Opportunities are directly related to efforts aimed at overcoming — or at least minimizing — the barriers created by those weaknesses identified earlier in the SWOT analysis.

Threats to an organization are generally of an external nature. However, some internal situations, such as funding limits, may also be identified as threats. Two examples of such external threats are outsourcing and regulatory requirements. Outsourcing is a common threat to facility operations, especially in custodial operations. While many institutions believe internal employees generally provide superior service the cost is much greater, which could influence the decision to outsource. Regulatory compliance is another realm in which threats to a facility operation may be encountered. Regulatory compliance has a profound impact on policy and procedure development. It is therefore paramount to the development of a maintenance program to know and understand the implications of local, state, and federal regulations on any operation.

Charting the Course

Armed with a clear focus on the destination coupled with a firm understanding of the current position of the operation, a direct path between the two can be charted. Much of the information derived from the SWOT analysis will be used to determine the path that leads to a solid maintenance program. Strengths can be capitalized on to render immediate results and an understanding of specific weaknesses in the operation will reveal training needs, funding requirements, and appropriate structure changes that would streamline the operation. Time parameters are generally a driving force behind steady progress. Setting specific deadlines for elements of the plan will allow tracking of the progress being made. It will be important to set reasonable time parameters. Unrealistic expectations are a recipe for trouble. If milestones are not regularly met it will be difficult to maintain commitment to the plan. Likewise, if timelines are too wide, the program will seem diluted and ineffective. Creating a balance between all the elements of the program will facilitate reasonable deadlines, attainable milestones, and continued support of those actually putting the plan into motion.

Staying the Course

The prevailing winds of facility maintenance can change minute by minute and the threat of being blown off course always looms on the horizon. In order to remain on course and hold steady to the plan, facility managers should look back to a fundamental function of management. In terms of accepted management theory, controlling is the fourth and final of the four basic functions of management. The key to effective controlling is to “compare actual progress with planned progress on a regular basis and taking corrective actions as necessary.” This definition highlights a very important part of any plan or program; that is, the importance of flexibility when implementing the program. Ask a hundred facilities maintenance professionals to use one word to describe their work environment and, rest assured, not one will use the term static. Variables are numerous, and having the flexibility to recognize the need for change and making the necessary adjustments are integral parts of a program’s success. These variables may come in the form of new technology, policy changes, or new regulations.

Whatever the case may be, maintenance programs must be designed in such a way as will allow for minor adjustments to operating parameters. This is not meant to imply that when the going gets tough the program should be altered only for the purpose of preventing difficulty and conflict. However, some changes, such as regulatory requirements or policy change, may make it necessary to adjust the program appropriately.

By working to form a clear and focused understanding of the organizational vision, mission, and goals, facility managers can build a solid foundation on which to develop a realistic maintenance program. Only through such a focused understanding can a program be developed that will support the broader goals of the organization. Managers must then work to gain an honest and objective understanding of the current status of their respective operations. Lastly, managers must continually monitor and compare actual progress to projected progress. It is not a simple matter of putting a plan or program together and letting it rip. The program will have a life of its own and will need to be nurtured and guided. Through commitment, dedication, and belief in the worthiness of the program, victory in the quest to deliver exceptional facility maintenance will be yours.

Casey Wick is assistant director for Custodial Services for Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. He can be reached at 315/859-4189 or [email protected]