Subject Matter Experts for Maintenance Technicians, Managers and Engineers

I have run projects of all types and sizes in more than 32 years in the computer software and hardware business. While planning as a discipline gets a lot more respect than it did 30 years ago, a lot of politics, false assumptions, and misunderstandings still block an even wider adoption of planning processes. I am sure this is just as true in the manufacturing sector as it is in the software sector or in any other well-defined industrial environment.

False Assumptions about Project Planning

Let’s face it, in an engineering-driven company full of people who make things for a living, planning sometimes seems like an excess layer of overhead. The planning process strikes many employees and managers as (pick one or more): boring, excess baggage, busywork, CYA, useless, guesswork, grunt work.

Do big piles of paper indicates that planning is unnecessary?“I could get this project done in the time it’ll take me to write a requirements and planning document.” I’m sure you’ve heard or even uttered some variation of this comment in your career. I know I have!

The implicit error in this sentiment is that just getting a project done isn’t necessarily what is important about formally planning a project. We need to trace steps in procedures, document processes, measure and communicate results. We may need to repeat the process at some point, so doing all of this planning work will actually save time down the road. In regulated environments, we must be able to show that we did what we said we were going to do, in order to gain and maintain certifications. When you or I just “get ‘er done” we aren’t able to do any of those things accurately, if at all.

Planning is Not an End in Itself

Individuals and even entire management teams sometimes believe that planning is an unnecessary expense. This can be typical in startups, but it’s an attitude that occurs in any organization. Some planning exercises turn into “planning for the sake of planning” which only helps the project manager check that item off his or her checklist. Those are frustrating and costly experiences for everybody.Project planning is not an end in itself

The best planning exercises help the project team identify critical tasks, weaknesses, and potential conflicts or resource contentions. In regulated industries where companies need to meet certain verifiable standards, project planning and management play a critical business role to ensure certifications and compliance that may determine whether or not a company can actually do business in a country or region.

Still, within every functional area, there may be sub-domains where employees value planning less than than they value just jumping right in, feet first. In my experience, these areas tend to be high-stress, hands-on areas like IT, maintenance, or other Operations functions. Every hour a system is down in those environments can be directly tied to a loss of productivity and can be quantified with a financial loss or opportunity cost. So, it’s easy to understand the sense of urgency. But there are also a lot of implicit and sometimes explicit politics. Employees can get hooked on the adrenaline rush of the old “dive and catch”–saving the day, being the star. Some managers reward and sometimes even revere this type of behavior. That can get in the way of creating repeatable processes that can level out the emergency response drills.

There will always be ad hoc emergencies whose fixes can’t be planned in a traditional sense. But, does that make planning in this environment a complete waste of time?

A Different Angle on Planning

Maintenance departments in manufacturing plants run big projects from equipment upgrades, to validation, to maintenance shutdowns. These types of projects can be large enough and so costly that they require a formal plan whose tasks span multiple departments or divisions. For those types of large projects, it’s imperative that you learn how formal planning works, if you do not already have a project manager on staff.

Simple flowchart for contingency planningHowever, we can take a different angle on how to plan for “projects” or “emergencies” in those service areas mentioned earlier. At the very least, you can engage in some form of contingency planning for just those ad hoc situations that quickly turn into emergencies. For example, at a high level, you can plan and implement process for dealing with emergencies or machine failures. For example, your process can be as simple as this:

When something fails:

  1. Identify point of failure
  2. Perform simple root-cause analysis
  3. Identify available resources
  4. Estimate time to fix
  5. Communicate issue to stakeholders
  6. Assign fix
  7. Fix
  8. Test
  9. Communicate fix

A printed flowchart poster of this process can be a simple, effective reminder in highly-transactional environments. While this may not be a plan for a specific “project” it is planning and can be very useful in maintaining a consistent problem-solving approach among different staff members and shifts.

Adapt the Plan to the Project, Not the Other Way Around

Solving ant infestations doesn't require complex toolsA plan is a tool. Like any tool, choose the right one for the job. You don’t need a gas chromatograph to identify an infestation of ants in a manufacturing plant. Plans and planning tools are the same.

I’ve planned a lot of projects in the areas of documentation and e-learning design and development. If I’m planning a 10-minute compliance training module, I don’t need to create a massive MS Project plan. I need a simple work breakdown structure aligned with a calendar, and a way to identify dependencies. I can do that in Excel or even in a Word table, if it’s a really simple project.

Likewise, you’ll need to determine the type of plan that works for you and for each of your projects. In a manufacturing environment, there are many types of projects, from planned maintenance on a specific machine or system to annual shutdowns involving the entire plant (even multiple buildings) and many other departments. Each project will dictate the level of planning detail, which then indicates what kind of planning tool you might need to use.

Learn More about Project Planning for Manufacturing Environments

If your department, your team members, or your company aren’t experienced planners, a project management consultant can be very helpful. But, there are also many resources, including simplified approaches described in books and online.

A very basic but comprehensive approach to traditional project plans (not Agile) that I have found useful is Joseph Heagney’s “Fundamentals of Project Management.” I also like Kimberly Wiefling’s “Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces,” for its humor and pragmatic approach. Of course, there are dozens of superb project management books and courses out there, including those provided by the Project Management Institute (PMI), if you are interested in pursuing the path as a professional project manager. And here, at, you can find advice and tools aimed specifically at the maintenance manager, supervisor, or lead.

Just don’t let formal, professional project planning and management approaches intimidate you or stop you from implementing a planning process. Planning is not a substitute for common sense and thinking clearly about what you want to accomplish, how you might do that, and how long it will take.