Work Order Management … to the Rescue

Sept. 29, 2005
Learn what works from professionals in the know

The image of a facilities manager buried under a stack of work orders reaching near-avalanche proportions might not ring as true as it did before the age of computerization; but, in theory, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario.

Some might call them a necessary evil, but work orders are the lifeblood of any facilities management program. From routine preventive maintenance jobs to emergency repairs to tenant complaints, the facilities department juggles a delicate balance of work orders each week.

“Responding is the most important thing,” says Marcy Gross, vice president and property manager at Sheldon Gross Realty Inc., West Orange, NJ. “As far as work orders go, how you show results is the most important thing.”

What does it take to keep response times low and occupants - tenants, employees, students, and more - happy? There’s more to work order management than merely plugging information into a computer-based management system, printing out work orders, and handing them off to one of your engineers.

Effective work order management revolves around identifying the work that needs to be done; processing it and incorporating it into the organization’s work control; and keeping detailed records not only about the projects at hand, but the building as a whole. It all comes down to three facets: process, tools, and people.

Prioritizing Requests
“Work orders are driven by a number of factors,” notes Linda Aronson, vice president of property management services at Trammell Crow Co., Florham Park, NJ. “It might be time to do work on equipment. A property management walkthrough might bring issues to notice.”

At Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, the campus planning and plant operations department processes an average of 2,100 work orders each month. The campus has 75 buildings, including residence halls, comprising 4.5 million square feet of space. Custodial services, building repairs, scheduled preventive maintenance, utilities, refuse collection, grounds maintenance, and energy conservation programs and audits are considered basic operational services and fall under the department’s allocated budget. Other requests are considered “reimbursable services” for which the department does not receive funds and must be paid for by the requestor. These include minor renovations or alterations and telephone installation, among others.

Any member of the university community may make a work request to the university’s Work Management Center. All individuals making requests are required to provide a detailed job description so that the center can make a preliminary determination of the nature and scope of the work. Bob Casagrande, director of plant operations and facility maintenance at SMU, says unplanned repairs and service requests are the most common work-order generators.

Urgent calls rate the highest in the scheduling queue. “Continued damage to the building will result if the call is unanswered,” Casagrande explains.

Trouble calls - something is broken and needs to be repaired - and service calls requesting such services as hanging a picture or moving furniture, for example, are ranked after urgent requests.

The department has three priority levels, Casagrande says. The first are calls that need to be addressed within 8 hours or sooner. The second are requests that should be addressed within 2 days. The third are calls that need to be addressed within 10 days.

With a portfolio 20 buildings under management, totaling more than 1 million square feet of industrial and commercial space throughout New Jersey, the facilities department of Sheldon Gross Realty rarely goes a day without receiving some sort of call that generates a work order. Gross says the department generates between three and eight work orders each week from calls among the 20 buildings. Time management is a key factor to keeping work orders under control, she says. It helps you better plan for the unexpected.

“It’s all about finding a happy medium,” explains Gross. “Not a day goes by where you don’t get [work orders] that pop in that you have to deal with right away. I get back to tenants immediately and make sure the problem is taken care of within 24 to 48 hours. If you respond immediately, ultimately your results all around will be better in every aspect.”

Streamlining with Software
Work order management is an area where software can be used to input facilities management and maintenance information from across the organization.

Standalone work order management systems can be used to generate several work orders and then assign them to one project. Most systems allow facilities and property managers to track the status of both individual work orders and entire projects. Work order management programs also can be integrated with a complete suite of facilities management and tracking software, such as computerized maintenance management systems (CMMSs).

Common features of a CMMS include work-order generation, preventive maintenance tracking and planning, inventory and purchasing, equipment tracking, labor tracking, vendor and contractor tracking, and reporting. Today’s systems also may offer such capabilities as Internet access for remote connections; wireless communication with workers in the field; and even interfaces with computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) systems, accounting software, inventory software, human resources management programs, and more. “A CMMS is a tool much like a builder’s square, or a saw to a carpenter,” Casagrande says. “It doesn’t do the work, but it sure makes the carpenter more efficient.”

A computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) program incorporates work order management but also focuses on such issues as computer-aided design (CADs) and geographical information systems (GISs), making them less maintenance-focused. Some do incorporate facets of CMMS capabilities and project management functionality, however.

Another type, an operations and maintenance (O&M) system, allows facilities teams to establish and track work orders for preventive or corrective maintenance in a facility or portfolio. It can include such tasks as chiller repair, maintenance painting, carpet cleaning, and more. O&M systems generate work orders that list all tasks to be completed and the parts required for the job. Preventive maintenance work orders can be scheduled according to staffing and equipment maintenance schedules.

Some systems have an inventory module that can track parts from the store and also generate orders when in-house stock is running low. These systems also integrate with accounting, if needed. Costs for labor, parts, supplies, and even contractors can be used for budgeting or even for chargeback.

“The software program is less important than the people who are using the system and the data you are capturing,” Trammell Crow’s Aronson points out, adding that technology has changed the way Trammell Crow manages the whole work order process. “It has enabled us to be much quicker,” she notes. “It has changed the way we can manage our properties and increase our customer satisfaction. It also has helped us reduce our costs.”

In her region, she oversees seven property managers and 6.1 million square feet of a third-party property management portfolio that includes office, warehouse distribution, industrial, and healthcare buildings. Her group processes between 200 and 250 work orders per week based on that portfolio.

Their paperless, Web-based, real-time work order system links up to a project management system, CAFM system, portfolio management system, lease administration, energy management system, and even health and safety software to name only a few of the 10 systems that are integrated into a single software suite. This suite standardizes across the entire Trammell Crow network in both its third-party property management assignments and its facilities management assignments. “It’s a much more integrated approach,” Aronson says. With this system, Aronson and her team of property managers can access work orders and property information from any Internet connection. The person taking the work request call inputs information directly into the system. If a tenant sends a fax, it is input into the system. Engineers can generate work orders via their PDAs while on walkthroughs. Tenants can even access the system, which generates a message to the staff, alerting them of the filed request.

Aronson again stresses that the success hinges not only on the program’s bells and whistles but also on the people who are using the system and the depth of the data provided. “When you create this work order system, you can put in some very basic data, but it’s more important to set up the system and the information correctly by putting in as much detailed data as you can, including the procedures needed to run your particular property. It needs to become the center point for all requests,” she says.

Reaping the Benefits
An integrated work order management system also allows clients to get involved with trends happening in their buildings. In the Trammell Crow system, clients can access information about their building. Tenants can, too.

“They can measure our performance,” Aronson says. “They can look at how many hot and cold calls we’re getting in a building. They can measure how many calls of any sort that we are getting. They can measure the time it takes for us to close out tickets.”

Clients also can measure callbacks and assess how often the same tenant calls with a repeat complaint. “These are the things measured against us as property managers on how well we are delivering service to the client’s tenants,” Aronson says. “It helps us keep customers focused.”

The most noticeable benefits of a comprehensive work order management program are control, cost reduction, and process improvement, Casagrande notes. “We have attained improved service, more efficient and effective resource usage, and hard and soft cost savings,” he says, noting that the key to a successful program is consistent monitoring of activity to improve processes.

“Communicate activity and results to those managing and performing the work activities,” he adds.

While there is no completely perfect, error-free method of work order management, the process has come a long way from carbon-copy forms filled out in triplicate or central call center help desks. Thanks to an enlightened facilities management profession and the support of modern software technology, work orders don’t have to control your life day in and day out.

“The vision of tons of paper flying across the desk is a thing of the past,” Aronson says of the idea of facilities professionals drowning in a sea of untamed work orders.

“Everybody has a software system of some kind,” she stresses. “We’re integrating more and more software programs every day, company-wide. The most important element, however, always goes back to the people running the building and the data you put into their hands.”

Robin Suttell ([email protected]), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

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