Maintenance Supervisors are key players in the safe, effective and efficient execution of maintenance, but we see shortfalls in their performance in many organisations. In this article, we would like to explore in depth the role of these individuals as well as some practical tips on how they can fill this role effectively. Our intent is to help you identify and eliminate issues that may be causing high maintenance costs, low production or, worst of all, safety issues in your organisation.
We will approach the topic under the following headings:
- The Role of the Maintenance Supervisor – how the maintenance supervisor can contribute to the success of the maintenance department and overall organisation
- Maintenance Supervisor Activities – what the maintenance supervisor should be doing on a range of timescales to fulfil their role
- A Day in the Life… – how a typical maintenance supervisor’s day could be structured to fit in these activities
The role of the maintenance supervisor
Different industries use different titles, so our first concern must be to establish a common definition of a “maintenance supervisor”. For the purposes of this article, we are referring to those individuals that have direct line management responsibility for a group of tradespeople, artisans, technicians or craftspeople. Maintenance supervisors are almost invariably experienced maintenance tradespeople that have been promoted into a management position.
What is (or rather what should be) the role of these people? Maintenance supervisors are frontline managers for a maintenance function. This means that they contribute to organisational success by ensuring that function is delivered: (in priority order)
- Safely – without harm and with the minimal possible risk to the staff delivering the function (i.e. the maintainers) and people relying on the function (i.e. operators, site visitors and the public). We include in this the need to manage risk to the environment.
- Effectively – in a fashion that achieves the organisation’s objectives. These objectives might include achieving reliability or production targets and will be accomplished by doing the right maintenance at the right time.
- Efficiently – using the least possible resources, including parts, labour, tools, equipment and, not least, access to the assets being maintained.
We can think of these as the “three laws” of maintenance management. The first law is to be safe, the second is to be as effective as possible without breaching the first law and the third is to be as efficient as possible without breaching either of the first two laws. Fortunately, it is often the case that the three laws work together to drive the same behaviour. For example, supplying (and using) high quality maintenance task instructions can simultaneously reduce the risk of maintainer injury (by providing safe processes), increase the effectiveness of the resulting maintenance (by ensuring the task is done the right way) and even reduce the average maintenance time (by eliminating rework and wasted trips to store).
These three laws apply at all levels of the organisation and can be used to drive a holistic approach to maintenance. Within this, the maintenance supervisor needs to contribute as follows:
- Immediate – oversee the execution of maintenance tasks. The maintenance supervisor needs to ensure the quality of the work (for safety and effectiveness), plus assist with troubleshooting any problems (e.g. missing documentation or parts).
- Short term – allocate maintenance resources to tasks. This means ensuring that the tasks themselves are valid, and are assigned for completion based on priority and available resources.
- Medium term – procure maintenance resources. This involves identifying and lobbying for required resources (labour, tools, parts, access to assets, etc) with tenacity, but on a genuine risk basis that acknowledges higher level business requirements.
- Long term – contribute to the development and maintenance of appropriate maintenance practices, processes and culture. A critical part of this will be identification and pursuit of opportunities for continuous improvement. The maintenance supervisor will work with the maintenance superintendent and maintenance manager to achieve this.
We will discuss each of these further in the following section.
Maintenance supervisor activities and skills
The strength of a good maintenance supervisor is their maintenance experience and it is this we wish to leverage in their day to day work. They need to set (and enforce) the standards within the maintenance department. That said, they must also grow beyond the narrow world of maintenance task execution and take a broader view of the organisation and its success. This section looks at how they can do that in each timeframe described above.
A maintenance supervisor’s primary focus must always be on the correct execution of maintenance tasks. To do this, they need to be aware of what is happening in their area of responsibility as well as what is required. They can’t get this from behind their desk – they must spend a significant portion (we suggest an average of 50%) of their day outside the office, either inspecting work, engaging with their staff/stakeholders (e.g. supply and operations) or simply observing behaviour. Some of the issues they need to be on the look-out for are:
- Identifying and removing obstacles to maintenance tasks, such as operator or supply delays, conflicting tasks and similar inefficiencies.
- Access to and use of procedures and other documentation (either electronic or paper-based) to avoid reliance on fallible human memory and reduce the risk of unsafe or inappropriate maintenance practices.
- Checking for appropriate housekeeping and tool control to improve efficiency, ensure safety and reduce the risk of error. This will include good maintenance practices, such as labelling wires, not re-using bolts, lockwiring and torqueing bolts (as appropriate to the industry) as well as general cleanliness of the worksite, appropriate storage of tools and so on.
- Looking for signs of fatigue across their staff, including any fatigue driven by issues external to work.
- Managing the workload of staff (either by deferring low priority tasks or obtaining additional resources) to avoid undue time pressure while still completing the required work.
- Observing individuals for their hand skills, knowledge and experience to understand their capacity for additional, higher responsibility (either promotion or more demanding technical work).
- Acting as a barrier between the maintenance staff and other organisational elements (operations, health and safety, human resources, etc) that may make unreasonable requests or demands that create time pressure or simply interrupt work, reducing efficiency and creating a risk of error. For example, operators might directly demand the job gets done quickly or apply insidious pressure by requesting constant updates on the completion time. Human resources or health and safety might demand attendance at a meeting or event on short notice, not respecting the maintenance schedule. The maintenance supervisor should have the strength of character to resist unreasonable demands.
- Gauging the culture in the workplace, with a particular focus on personal beliefs present in individuals and the influence of these beliefs on safety and effectiveness factors.
We would note that this is serious business. The words highlighted in the above list represent about half of the key drivers of maintenance error identified by Reason and Hobbs.  Failure of maintenance supervisors to control these factors puts lives at risk, so we have continued to highlight them in the following sections. For more on this see Sandy Dunn’s excellent article Managing Human Error in Maintenance.
One thing the maintenance supervisor must NOT do is to view themselves as the expert tradesperson. This view encourages them to take on the most complex tasks personally, which has a range of negative consequences:
- They lose awareness of other high risk activities that they should be attending to
- They rob learning and experience from the leading hands and tradespeople that should be the experts
- They often have a relatively high risk of personal error because of factors such as out of date knowledge, hand skills that have atrophied with disuse or frequent interruptions from their other responsibilities
Short term tasks
Once the maintenance supervisor has seen to the conduct of the current set of maintenance tasks, they can move on to preparing for the next set of tasks. As you might expect, their responsibilities in this regard form part of the overall organisational maintenance work management/planning and scheduling system. For more information on maintenance and scheduling improvements see ‘5 tips for more effective Maintenance Planning and Scheduling’. The maintenance supervisor’s tasks should include management of the next work period (e.g. next day/next shift), as well as looking forward to the upcoming scheduling periods (e.g. next week/two weeks). Tasks for the next work period include the following and should be undertaken on a daily basis:
- Screening new notifications/work requests (or whatever the organisation calls them) to ensure the work requested is adequately described, valid and being done in the most appropriate fashion (e.g. deciding between replacing a failed component and replacing the entire assembly based on the age and condition of the assembly).
- Establishing the resources (staff, tools and equipment, spare parts, equipment access, etc) available in the next work period and engaging other departments (supply, operations, other maintenance work groups) to resolve any shortfalls as far as possible.
- Adjusting the schedule for the next work period to deliver the required maintenance, focusing on work priority while managing fatigue and time pressure by allocating work according to the resources available.
- Implementing the schedule by allocating tasks to staff, ensuring coordination and communication to manage interdependencies between work groups (e.g. controlling safety when work groups are working on the same equipment, ensuring high priority tasks get first use of scarce tools and equipment and ensuring effective communication when tasks must be done by different groups but in a particular sequence).
The maintenance supervisor’s tasks for the upcoming scheduling periods should be undertaken at least once per week and include:
- Monitoring the future maintenance demand by regularly reviewing the backlog and known upcoming work (e.g. scheduled change outs and inspections), plus making a reasonable allowance for unknown corrective maintenance.
- Administration for staff (leave, promotions, training, new qualifications) to ensure the maintenance supervisor understands the future capacity of the workforce and shapes it to meet the maintenance demand.
- Administration for other resources – e.g. signing routine demands for spares and tools and equipment, attending scheduling meetings to negotiate equipment access with operators and so on.
- Reviewing any new maintenance job plans or other documentation intended to support specific tasks.
Intermediate term tasks
The maintenance supervisor’s intermediate term tasking is focussed on ensuring the overall health of their work area. The complexity here is that they must begin to balance the needs of their area with the overall needs of the organisation on a risk basis. This is something that more junior tradespeople are not generally asked to do and therefore requires a whole new skill set. The tasks they might undertake include:
- Regularly monitoring performance measures for evidence of maintenance quantity or quality issues (e.g. tasks not getting completed or requiring rework) and then investigating to establish the root causes (e.g. lack of resources or inappropriate resources).
- Assessing the risk to the organisation arising from maintenance issues.
- Developing a business case to address the maintenance issues, including consideration of all reasonable means of achieving the requirement (e.g. the use of contractor labour to supplement in-house staff, leasing or hiring tools/equipment, working different shifts to operators to improve equipment access and so on).
- Presenting the business case to senior staff (maintenance managers, general managers) with tenacity to ensure that high priority issues are addressed.
Long term tasks
Longer term tasking on the maintenance supervisor should be squarely focussed on improvement activities. As such, there will likely be a high degree of variability in these activities between organisations and over time. Further, many improvement activities will be for the good of the maintenance department as a whole rather than a single section, so allocation will be based on the background and skills of the individual maintenance supervisor. Some examples of tasks they might receive include:
- Contributing to the development of maintenance strategies by participating in Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) or similar studies
- Overseeing or contributing to efforts to improve spare parts identification and management – i.e. refining Bills of Materials (BOMs) and Associated/Application Parts Lists (APLs) or optimising spares holdings through spares optimisation projects
- Developing or refining shift handover documentation for both tradespeople and supervisors
- Developing or refining work pack structures and contents
- Implementing initiatives to change maintenance culture (e.g. to improve documentation compliance, recording maintenance history, etc)
- Developing competency matrices and workforce sizing to ensure the maintenance workforce is adequate
- Making insourcing and outsourcing decisions for specific maintenance tasks, particularly where specialist skills/tools are required (e.g. non-destructive testing)
- Developing maintenance performance measures
On top of this, the maintenance supervisor must take the lead in monitoring and reporting the long-term performance of their work area, focussing on maintenance quality. Finally, they must lead investigations into poor results (and other maintenance issues) to understand the root causes and target the improvement work appropriately.
A day in the life…
Our discussion above describes a wide range of activities that a maintenance supervisor should be conducting. We might arrange these into the following “Day in the Life” for a maintenance supervisor on a 12 hour shift in a 24/7 plant. If you’re lucky enough to work on an 8 hour day with no night shift, adjust accordingly!
- 5:30am – Coffee!
- 5:45am – Shift handover meeting (from night shift to day shift)
- 6:15am – Job allocation meeting
- 7:00am – Screen and prioritise new work requests/notifications
- 7:30am – Visit high priority work sites (focus on understanding tasks, obtaining tools and spares, negotiating access with operators, etc.)
- 9:00am – Administration (procedure reviews, leave applications, rosters, etc.)
- 10:00am – Smoko
- 10:30am – Visit high priority work sites (focus on progress and any subsequent task re-allocations)
- 12:00pm – Lunch
- 12:30pm – Meeting preparation
- 1:00pm – Meeting (e.g. weekly planning meeting, monthly performance review, supply liaison meeting, etc.)
- 2:45pm – Smoko
- 3:00pm – Visit high priority work sites (focus on completion and clean up)
- 4:00pm – Administration (procedure reviews, leave applications, rosters, etc.)
- 5:00pm – Job completion paperwork and reviews (technical confirmation)
- 5:30pm – Daily scheduling/rescheduling for next shift (review completions and new notifications reprioritise accordingly, engage operations for equipment access, prepare shift schedule)
- 6:00pm – Shift handover meeting (from day shift to night shift)
Our focus in preparing this has been to show an appropriate balance between risk-based walk arounds, short term planning/scheduling and long term management activities. The schedule is certainly demanding, but it doesn’t seem unachievable. Unfortunately, our experience all too commonly reveals that maintenance supervisors do not manage to balance their responsibilities like this. They tend to get dragged into just one aspect of their role (usually the aspect that they are comfortable and familiar with, or that is the focus of their maintenance superintendent/manager) at the expense of the other aspects, which is a high risk strategy. How do your maintenance supervisors’ daily programs compare?
The maintenance supervisor’s role is pivotal in delivering safe, effective, efficient maintenance and therefore critical to the overall success of any organisation that depends on high quality maintenance. To execute this role properly, the maintenance supervisor must find a balance between being present at maintenance jobs (to understand and influence how maintenance is being conducted) and administering and improving the overall performance of their section and the overall maintenance department. They must also lift their view from that of being the expert tradesperson to that of a manager, who is involved in identifying, assessing and managing risks. Many maintenance supervisors struggle with one or both of these things, resulting in shortcomings in supervision or management. If allowed to persist, these behaviours lead ultimately to inefficient, ineffective or – worst – unsafe maintenance.
We can provide you with experienced maintenance consultants with shop-floor and frontline supervisory experience that can coach and mentor your supervisors to help them to be more productive and effective in line with the guidance in this article. If you would like to take up this opportunity, contact us.