Research & Best Practices

How to Manage Maintenance Backlogs


Timely maintenance of production equipment is critical in manufacturing facilities. Indeed, falling too far behind is akin to falling down. If corrective and preventive maintenance are not performed in a timely manner, it can lead to equipment failure, which in turn can result in unplanned downtime, late product delivery, a dent in your reputation and even a hit to your bottom line.

Nevertheless, backlogs happen. In many circumstances, manageable backlogs are normal and actually can be a sign of efficient use of manpower. But if issues such as demanding production deadlines or staffing shortages are pushing important maintenance to the back burner, it’s time for a strategic intervention. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that manufacturers can take to better manage their backlogs.

What is a maintenance backlog?

A maintenance backlog is the total amount of outstanding work that the maintenance department has on its plate, whether in progress, planned or scheduled. However, the term is also used to refer to a measurement of the time that will be needed to complete that existing workload. The backlog is often measured in weeks.  

The maintenance backlog calculation

To calculate the backlog in maintenance, add up the estimated man-hours that it is projected to take to complete all planned, scheduled and pending tasks. Divide that number by the department’s weekly capacity for maintenance work (e.g., the number of man-hours available) and you’ll get a backlog number than can be used for comparisons and planning and to help determine departmental efficiency.

For example, if planned, scheduled and in-progress tasks are projected to take 240 man-hours and you have three technicians performing 40 hours of maintenance on those tasks each week (for a total of 120 hours each week), your backlog is two weeks. Under the same scenario with five technicians working 40 hours each (and thus able to complete 200 hours of work each week), your backlog is 1.2 weeks.

Notably, a backlog is not inherently bad. If there were no work planned, scheduled or needed — and thus no backlog — technicians would be sitting idle, an inefficient use of your labor capital.

Steps for reducing your backlog

If your backlog has grown to an unmanageable size or maintenance department inefficiencies need to be addressed, a more proactive approach is needed. Follow these steps to put a better maintenance backlog management strategy in place:

  • Prioritize your backlog: Failing to manage maintenance efficiently is simply unsustainable. Equipment must be cleaned, checked, repaired or replaced both as needed and on a regular basis, even if that means temporarily slowing production or planning a shutdown. Reducing throughput to address a burgeoning backlog is never ideal but is certainly preferable to the unplanned downtime that comes when machinery otherwise inevitably fails.
  • Determine critical work and order of completion: Understanding that backlog management is important is easy. The actual management of it takes hard work — and on an ongoing basis. Start by ranking tasks that need to be completed, with critical work at the top of the list because low-risk assets can be backlogged for a longer period of time. It’s worth noting that if you are taking advantage of valuable sensor technology, the data it produces can alert you as to which machinery is on the verge of failure and which is experiencing no issues whatsoever. This type of information enables you to target a preferred order of completion. Know, too, that backlogs are ever-changing. New issues may arise that change the completion order, depending on their importance in relation to maintenance tasks that are already part of the backlog.
  • Assess your resources: Performing maintenance tasks means utilizing manpower, specific skills, new or spare parts, technology or some combination of those. With your worklist prioritized, you must assess which resources are needed over what timeline, what your maintenance team already has available in terms of resources and how to close the gap if there is one. For example, if your in-house team is skilled but overloaded, is paying overtime an option? You also can consider short-term support from a third-party company that has manufacturing maintenance expertise. Resources also include automation or technology that might contribute to reducing the backlog. In addition, is your parts storeroom stocked? Is your repairable parts management system efficient and reliable?
  • Strategize and plan for risks/challenges: Since the best-laid plans can go awry, determining alternative solutions is necessary, as well. Needed parts may be on back order, forcing a change in the order of tasks on your list. Similarly, an urgent production request from a key client might prompt a decision to further delay maintenance on a specific machine, prompting a reset of priorities. Breakdowns that require immediate attention, bringing scheduled work to a halt, can throw the entire existing work order into chaos. A good strategy is to expect the unexpected and develop a Plan B and even a Plan C.
  • Ensure worker safety: This is perhaps stating the obvious, but under no circumstances should worker safety be compromised due to pressure to reduce the backlog.
  • Track work orders: Directing your resources efficiently and prioritizing work on a given day requires real-time information on the status of work orders, which makes tracking orders essential. A computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) can help automate the work order process and also help with preventive maintenance scheduling and record keeping. With a CMMS, information about equipment is literally at your fingertips. This can include how much a machine is utilized, typical failure rates, the date of and details about the most recent repair, and more.

The consequences of poor backlog management

Managing a backlog of maintenance tasks is a balancing act. Tasks that need immediate attention can tax your resources, but a preventive maintenance backlog cannot be ignored for too long without resulting in equipment failure. A large backlog that stretches resources conceivably could also lead to a loss of confidence in the maintenance department, prompting equipment operators to submit “emergency” work orders when there’s no true emergency — just to get a priority spot on the worklist. On the other hand, if a backlog is too small, it might be an indication that you are paying too many technicians (because they are easily keeping up).

Successfully managing a backlog of maintenance tasks can prevent shutdowns and optimize a manufacturer’s use of resources. ATS has a wide range of solutions to address your industrial maintenance needs.  Contact us to learn more.

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