Beyond gadgetry: Changing the game in maintenance

Digital work management can transform the maintenance function’s productivity, flexibility, and predictability

In many sectors of heavy industry, organizations continue to struggle with maintenance productivity. Digital tools, such as increasingly advanced computerized maintenance-management systems (CMMSs), promised to streamline maintenance and reliability activities. They often had the opposite effect, adding complexity and reducing accountability. Our observations indicate that most companies’ frontline workers spend less than 50 percent of their time with “hands on tools.” At many, the figure is significantly lower, with levels below 30 percent not uncommon.

This low productivity is almost never a result of low effort from the front line. The root cause typically springs from the complexities of bringing together the right skill sets, materials, tools, personal protective equipment (PPE), equipment access, job packages, permits, and supervision to enable effective execution.

In this challenging environment, many companies are exploring the use of additional digital tools to help them with maintenance planning, tracking, and execution. And while digital work management (DWM) systems have been available for decades, the latest solutions are significantly less expensive and easier to implement than their predecessors. A DWM implementation used to be a five- or six- month project requiring large doses of specialist support. Thanks to progress in usability, accessibility, and ease of integration with other systems, today’s DWM tools can be up and running in three to four weeks.

Above all, the value of DWM is now well-proven. The technology has helped some companies to boost maintenance-labor productivity by 15 to 30 percent. At others, using DWM systems to optimize the planning and implementation of shutdowns and turnaround projects has reduced outage duration by up to one-third.

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Not every DWM implementation is so successful, however. Making the approach work means understanding the specific areas of the maintenance lifecycle where these technologies can add value (see sidebar, “Finding the value in smarter maintenance processes”). And, as with any advanced digital tool, lasting impact is usually possible only when organizations think beyond the core technology and make changes to processes, mind-sets, and wider management systems.

The most successful DWM implementations generally get three things right. First, they redesign their processes to eliminate areas of value loss and take advantage of the system’s capabilities. Second, they take a broad view of value, focusing on benefits for both the overall business and the end users within the maintenance function. Third, they integrate their new systems with the organization’s wider digital infrastructure.

Optimize processes first

Once an organization understands where digital work management can add value, the first task is to ensure processes are set up to capture that value. This process-optimization step is essential to prevent non-value-adding activities becoming embedded into the new system, and to ensure that maintenance planners and supervisors are able to make full use of its capabilities.

One mining company, for example, planned to introduce a DWM system to manage a major maintenance turnaround. Initially, the company set up an agile team to design a new way of working for preparation, execution, and analysis of the shutdown. The team then worked with the technology provider to ensure the DWM system could help it meet four critical objectives.

  • The system collected input from contractors on all the tasks defined during the planning phase of the turnaround.
  • The team used that data to test a series of scenarios, helping them understand how different approaches would affect the project timeline and resource requirements.
  • During project execution, the team monitored progress in real time using data collected in the field and used those insights to intervene quickly as delays arose.
  • At the end of the project, the team analyzed areas where reality deviated significantly from the plan, identified the root causes of the deviations, and launched a series of initiatives to address those issues.

Over several turnarounds, this work helped the company to improve schedule compliance to 95 percent, from a baseline of 70 percent, reducing the overall duration of the shutdown by 25 percent. “This new, tech-enabled way of working has been a definite game-changer for us,” said the maintenance area supervisor in charge of the project. “We are more effective, more efficient, and people are more engaged. I wish I’d come across this years ago.”

Take a holistic view of value creation

As they redesign their maintenance processes for DWM, companies can take a holistic perspective on the value they want to derive from the system. That means taking both a business-centric and a user-centric approach: the former to ensure the DWM investment pays off, the latter to encourage user acceptance and maximize the value generated. In practice, this holistic approach to value is achieved by including a full range of business stakeholders during the design and implementation of the new system. By understanding the different pain points experienced by frontline personnel, maintenance planners, and plant managers, implementation teams can better design the new, digitally enabled processes to address longstanding problems.

At one chemicals company, for example, the sponsor of the DWM project was himself an end-user of the system. During the initial data-gathering phase of the project, he sought inputs from a large number of maintenance technicians, planners, and supervisors. That effort revealed one overriding concern across the function: the large backlog of tasks that reduced the reliability of the plant.

With this information, the team in charge of the DWM system was able to focus its initial implementation on backlog-management issues. In a handful of months, the new system helped cut the maintenance backlog from 32 weeks to around eight, resulting in a one-quarter decrease in unplanned downtime. “If this had been imposed by the corporate center, I don’t think it would have worked,” said the project sponsor. “I knew what the people were going through and so could relay their concerns to our technology partner. Now that it’s been two years, I can’t even imagine going back to the way we used to work.”

Build an integrated digital ecosystem

The final consideration for a successful DWM implementation is effective integration with the wider IT ecosystem for operations and maintenance. Data on maintenance tasks captured in the DWM system, for example, can be linked to the organization’s enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) or computerized maintenance-management system (CMMS). A comprehensive record of asset performance and maintenance history is then available to support reliability and performance improvement initiatives. Likewise, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) tracking or condition-monitoring systems can be set to trigger a work order automatically in the DWM when specific downtime codes are entered or conditions are detected.


DWM can generate significant value for asset-intensive industries, but this value can only be captured if the implementation is targeted (focusing on critical junctures of the process) holistic (focusing simultaneously on underlying processes, end users, and value-creation levers), and integrated (adding value to and deriving value from existing solutions and systems). The next article in this series will look at the other major use case for advanced digital technologies in maintenance—predictive maintenance—and show how successful implementation calls for a similar logic.

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