Make Your ‘Highly Productive’ Work Force Truly Productive

by Doug Dale, UMS Group Inc.

Most managers would estimate that in an eight-hour workday, employees are productive six to six and a half hours—about 75 percent. UMS Groups Inc.’s benchmarking of generating stations, however, found that many times only two to three hours a day are productive—about 30 percent—and it could be less than one hour, depending on how the calculation is performed.

The difference between the two figures is mainly the result of misunderstanding productive time, waste and to which category “getting ready to do the work,” “waiting for approvals or materials,” etc., are assigned. With insight, a plant manager or department leader can achieve significant productivity gains and lower costs with minimal up-front investment.

Plant leaders overestimate productivity, commonly called “wrench time,” because of their overly broad definitions. Crew activity is not crew productivity.

Daily job preparation such as retrieving parts and materials is crew activity, but it doesn’t produce actual work results and is not productive time. It’s necessary, but would you eliminate or assign it to a lower-cost resource in an off-peak period if you could? Crew time involved in verifying equipment-safety tagging or lockout, acquiring tools or waiting for support from another group is not productive time, either. These are important, but they’re not productive.

If a three- or four-person crew is assigned to a job that requires only two people, productivity—the ratio of actual work done to the resource level consumed—suffers. We assess productivity by measuring the value-added steps involved with completing a task, the speed with which crews complete these value-added activities, and the percentage of work that satisfies the planned scope and doesn’t require rework. In extreme cases, real value-added work can be less than one hour per worker each day.

Working vs. Adding Value

Figure 1 describes the value-added lens through which to view work. In an eight-hour day, sometimes workers are:

  • Unavailable for work;
  • Available for work but have not been assigned work;
  • Available but not adding value in the work assigned; or
  • Working and adding value.

UMS Group studies show leading companies get some 30 percent of work into the top right quadrant, 10 to 15 percent in the bottom left quadrant, and the remaining time is split between the other two. So 55 to 60 percent of time is spent not working or working and not adding value.

A primary cause of the discrepancy between actual and perceived productivity is the inclusion in most wrench time calculations of delays, such as looking for parts or tools. Delays typically aren’t documented, so the resulting productive time is overstated. (If a worker actively works to solve a delay, he or she is considered productive.) In addition, people often confuse preparation and wrench time. Plant leaders can measure productivity better by tightening their definitions of wrench time to exclude time outside actual work or execution.

Changing the definition of “work” lets an organization focus on areas that drive productivity improvement, such as task planning. A poorly defined and planned task can lead to low productivity even if a crew is highly efficient and diligent. The following real example illustrates the impact of task planning in preventative maintenance on a coupling between a motor and a pump:

  • Crew A. A four-man crew travels to a job site to inspect the needed work. They need a few different tools and extra grease. After getting the supplies, they remove the coupling cover, clean the dirt and rust from the surface and visually inspect the coupling. They determine no physical damage exists, so they pack grease into the coupling, reinstall the cover, clean the area and finish in less than four hours.
  • Crew B. A two-man crew is dispatched to execute the same task on the same coupling. They arrive with all required equipment and a fully planned work instruction. Like crew A, they remove the coupling cover. This crew, following the described planning document, pulls apart the coupling, thoroughly cleans the coupling faces and inspects it for wear and tear. They clean the teeth of the coupling, repack it with new grease, reassemble and perform a full laser alignment, then clean the surrounding area and observe it returned to service to ensure quality. Crew B takes eight hours.

From a job-completion and wrench time perspective, these jobs look the same in a work-management system record (16 crew hours). Most managers would prefer Crew B’s work quality, but from a historical work view, both crews would get top grades for completing a job on time and budget. Using the definition of value-added tasks, however, Crew A receives credit for 40 minutes of work—and that is being generous—or 10 minutes per person. Crew B receives credit for 300 minutes of work or 150 minutes per person. Both crews could improve, but Crew B’s effort and approach is more productive.

Redefining How Value is Measured

Discrepancy in wrench time occurs at countless sites. Job site crews determine job scopes and leave managers guessing what work was performed. Because the task steps aren’t uniform or recorded, there is no way to measure productivity. Similar issues can be seen with work rules that can exacerbate costs and downtime, but they don’t impact wrench time obviously as most utilities measure it. Should maintenance personnel work in teams of at least two? Must safety requirements ensure more people on job sites than only those completing maintenance? What is the impact of spending 30 minutes looking for tools, traveling to a job site or even getting halfway into a maintenance repair to find that the job scope is beyond original plans? Without defining true delays and measuring the impacts, management cannot remedy daily process inefficiencies.

To improve productivity, plant managers must understand what happens on job sites. Most important, plant managers must change their perspectives of crew productivity and redefine how they measure value. A value-added step produces an output toward the desired result. For example, verifying a tag on a piece of equipment is not a value-added step, but dismantling a pump is. This recognizes a necessary activity that it isn’t a direct part of the value add of the task, therefore others at the plant should perform the task and coordinate to minimize maintenance delays.

Similarly, searching through an engineering drawing is not value-added time, but repacking a valve is. This stricter definition of productive time clarifies that productivity is often much lower than perceived. Using these standards, many utilities would find some crews hard-pressed to achieve even the two hours of productive labor in a day that we estimate is typical at utilities.

Managing to Maximize Value Added

Once a manager knows not all work adds direct value, he or she can identify what does. Often it’s easier to identify activities that are nonvalue-added or wasteful. But don’t associate “unimportant” with tasks that are considered “waste;” the two are not synonymous.

For example, getting the correct part from the warehouse is important (top left quadrant), but the time to get the part is waste within the maintenance work management process. People not in the maintenance crew often can locate parts more efficiently.

We get feedback: Why should only value-added steps make up productivity measures and not those considered waste? After all, if important steps must be satisfied to complete a job, those crews should receive credit for being productive, right?

Managing plans and work flow to increase productivity, however, is not about giving credit; it’s about maximizing wrench time for a maintenance crew. Embedded in every job are necessary, nonvalue-added steps. To maximize wrench time, plant managers must manage those steps to reduce their impact on crew productivity. Examples of important, nonvalue-added work activities that often contribute to reduced productivity through inadequate planning include:

  • Pre-job setup
  • Tagging/lockout
  • Troubleshooting
  • Parts retrieval
  • Job tooling
  • Job start and stop
  • Problem investigation
  • Activity overstaffing, understaffing or both
  • Activity cross-discipline

Each nonvalue-added step can be managed to minimize maintenance crew time requirements. If attacked individually, they will drive incremental improvement in the organization. To achieve productivity gains and sustain them, the processes and station practices that drive many nonvalue-added steps into the work flow must be addressed. Doing so will improve performance and create step-change improvements in other vital areas.

People think skill is most important for performing productive, quality work, but the key to productive, high-quality work is being more proactive up front in:

  • Ensuring assets are maintained according to the strategic asset plan (driving more planned work vs. emergent or reactive work);
  • Effectively doing maintenance planning and scheduling; and
  • Integrating supply chain activities seamlessly with maintenance planning. Usually this is achieved only through process and practice improvements. Having more control over the work and improved work quality are fringe benefits.

Improving Work Force Productivity

If you get one hour of productivity from your crew, then two hours would double work performed. Improvement in each phase of a documented work management process can drive productivity gains throughout a plant.

Developing a process-improvement plan that accounts for all steps in a job improves productivity, lowers cost and allows all of a site’s working groups to operate in lockstep, driving maintenance productivity improvements, work quality, speed and flexibility. This approach also benefits outage management, contracting, resource management and activities along the supply chain.

Areas in which productivity can improve vary by plant. A full assessment of the work management process can identify weaknesses and breakdowns across the five major steps in any project:

  1. Work identification
  2. Work planning
  3. Work scheduling
  4. Work execution
  5. Work closeout

Each step builds on the last, and problems in one area often drive performance issues downstream. During the initial assessment, areas for improvement present themselves at minimal cost.

For example, a work identification assessment might find that the operations group inefficiently explains equipment problems, which prevents the planning organization from understanding what work needs to be done. When maintenance starts their work, they end up planning and repairing at the same time, increasing cost and man-hours and risking delay because of missing parts or unexpectedly out-of-service equipment.

In addition, the real problem often is not addressed, which introduces rework. Once this process gap is identified, a resolution can be developed. For example, after identifying a process gap during an assessment, a client found that taking a picture or video as a problem occurred gave the planning organization a better understanding of the problem so they could plan the maintenance fix better.

Capturing specific information during work identification makes work planning and execution more productive and satisfies operations needs. Resolving issues that inhibit effective, efficient maintenance increases wrench time dramatically.

To improve productivity, complete a full assessment of the five work management steps. Then develop a detailed plan that identifies key process areas that could produce the greatest benefits with the smallest investments. (This differs by plant and company).

The plan should include suggested improvements to maintenance productivity support tools and processes, and it should define objective measures of the impact of proposed process changes on the conduct of maintenance. Also identify and develop a few critical management reports and key performance indicators to allow management to monitor improved processes.

Finally, all changes must be owned by station management and supervisors so improvements will be sustainable.

Once the work management process has been assessed, productivity improvements have been identified and plans have been created, the challenge is to drive change through the organization to see these small gains culminate in substantial profit gains.

Effectively managing such changes requires education and real-world experience, but all managers must participate. Effective change managers:

  • Embrace higher expectations of the work force. Do not be afraid to ask hard questions about productivity. Why did a job take so long? What prevented the job from going smoothly? How can we prevent this productivity drain from occurring again?
  • Educate themselves in effective work management using a best-in-class or world-class model as the goal. Spend time and money to educate management and the work force on what a world-class operation looks like and what implementing such expectations in your station would do. Find out what management issues really drive problems.
  • Quantify what true productivity is at their stations and are not content receiving only typical productivity metrics such as site time over the total number of labor hours paid. Productivity gains can be the most sustainable, cost-effective solutions to tight budgets and market constraints, so generation leaders should stress the importance of creating an efficient, effective work force. Continuous improvement must be the top priority of management, and there is ample improvement potential within work management.
  • Coach frontline managers and supervisors to see productivity initiatives as opportunities to improve maintenance efficiency as opposed to the standard Big Brother perception most envision when they hear “productivity.” “Work smarter, not harder” applies in this scenario and should resonate in all business processes and communications to crews. Instituting a change within your organization from the way it has always done things to one that hedges all risk of work and work force delays is simple but not easy.
  • Engage the work force, union and nonunion alike, in making their work environments one of the most efficient and proactive. Most work forces are eager to be effective. Transform your station’s philosophy to treat the work force as management’s customer, and do everything to eliminate barriers to their being as effective and efficient as possible.

Productivity improvement opportunities exist. Capturing most of them starts with redefining productivity.

With minimal cost, utility plant managers can raise their work force expectations, remove productivity barriers and see cost and cultural benefits of world-class performance.


Doug Dale is a vice president of UMS Group Inc. and the performance management solution leader. A specialist in technical and process issues associated with power generation, Dale is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. He also spent eight years in the nuclear Navy. Reach him at

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