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Work Order Tracking Software (and Why Your CFO Doesn't Use an Abacas)

By Jonathan Davis | April 15, 2019

Have you seen those YouTube videos on setting up spreadsheets for managing work orders? Maintenance managers having to worry about column widths wasn't always a huge waste of time, but it sure is now.

Early on in any industry, there's a lot of tedious-but-necessary work. Hippo is a software company, so let's take an example from computer science. Imagine: Years of diligent study followed by tons of time at the chalkboard working out complex algorithms. One day, inspiration strikes like a lightning bolt with "Eureka" emblazoned across its side. What happens next? The mind-numbingly laborious task of punching tiny holes into thousands of paper cards.

 Jacquard.loom.cards

At the time, that was the way to write software. When faster, easier, more reliable technology was developed, everyone abandoned punch cards as quickly as possible. The time and effort they saved could be invested in more important work. It's the same with using spreadsheets for tracking work orders.

Spreadsheet advantages, some

Spreadsheets were a step up from trying to track everything with pen and paper. Hard drives take up a lot less room than filing cabinets. Punch in some formulas and the software does all the math for you. And because spreadsheets are digital, it's easy to make and distribute copies. With one click, you can back up and share them. On top of all the benefits, maintenance managers used spreadsheets because most companies already had them. Spreadsheets are everywhere in business, used by people up and down the corporate chart; easy availability made them an easy choice.

Spreadsheet drawbacks, plenty

There were real benefits. But there are also many problems. For starters, you have to come up with a layout and then build everything yourself, a time-intensive process. When you watch the tutorials on YouTube, the people know what they're doing and aren't making any mistakes as they go along, and it still takes a long time to get anything even close to being semi-useful. For the average maintenance manager, getting a spreadsheet design together is a slow, difficult chore. And even if you manage to work out a good, easy-to-understand design with all the right fields grouped correctly, you still quickly run into problems.

Imagine you need to make a work order for a broken pump. The first thing you do is sit down at your computer (if you're not close to your office, actually the first thing you do is walk all the way there), pull up the spreadsheet work order template, and start typing. Ok. Did you catch the mistake? First, you have to make a copy of the template and then start typing. You don't want to mess up your template. So, you've got your work order all nicely typed up, and now you need to assign it to a technician. You can either print it out or send it as an email attachment.

If you printed it out, you just erased all the benefits of using spreadsheets in the first place. You're back to the error-prone days of pen-and-paper systems. What about emailing it as an attachment? Well, that's a trick question because you can't actually email it as an attachment. Ever. You can only send a copy of it. And this is where your problems start. As soon as you send that email, there are two copies of your work order. But you can only see one of them, which is the one trapped on your computer. The technician's copy is out there somewhere in the wild.

Spreadsheet work orders: twins separated at birth 

Speaking of YouTube videos, have you seen the ones about twins separated at birth then raised apart? As adults they sort of look the same and share some qualities, but in most ways they're different. Well, the same thing is going to happen to your work orders. They'll start the same, but over time, they'll start looking a lot different. Every time you update your version, it becomes a little more out of sync with the technician's copy. And every time they do something to theirs, for example close it out, it becomes even more out of sync. Those work orders started out as identical twins but finished as distant cousins.

Spreadsheets, prone to being generally awful

That's just one of the problems with using spreadsheets. There are a bunch more. For example, spreadsheets are notoriously inaccurate. One often-cited study found that 88% of Excel sheets contain errors. A big part of the problem is just how easy it is to enter the wrong information or forget to include cells when setting up the formulas. It's so easy, in fact, that a couple of famous researchers from Harvard did just that with one of their landmark studies. If spreadsheets can trip up professors from Harvard, there's a good chance of them wreaking havoc on your maintenance department, too.

Today's CMMS and Work Orders

Why did people put up with spreadsheets for tracking work orders and managing maintenance departments? They had to. Just like back when programmers were using computer punch cards and way, way back when CFOs were using abacuses, there weren't any alternatives. But that's not the case anymore. Not even close.

A modern full-featured cloud-based CMMS lets you quickly and easily generate, prioritize, delegate, track, and leverage work orders. Because work order software is designed specifically for maintenance management, a good one has everything you need already built in. You don't have to worry about workarounds or trying to figure out which formulas to add on your own. And because it's a cloud-based solution, everything is available from any Internet-connected device, at any time and from anywhere. Everyone is accessing the same database, so there's only one up-to-date version of your data. The work order you see is the same one the technician is seeing. No more twins separated at birth.

Generate work orders easily

When someone submits a ticket, you can review it before making it into an active work order. Or, you can simply make your own work orders based on current needs. The important thing is you can do either from anywhere. Instead of running back to the office to type everything into a spreadsheet, you can create and manage work orders from your mobile device.

A good CMMS software lets you quickly include everything a technician needs to efficiently close out, including:

  • interactive floor maps
  • photographs of the asset
  • asset O&M manuals and schematics
  • asset repair and maintenance histories
  • step-by-step instructions and checklists
  • associated parts and materials
They'll be able to find and identify the asset quickly, know how to service it, follow your department's standards and best practices, and have all the right parts and materials with them from the start. No more time-killing trips back to the office.

Once you've built the work order, you can easily assign it through the CMMS. The technician sees the same work order, not a copy. This is crucial for the next step, tracking.

Track work orders from anywhere

Because you and the technician are looking at the same work order, you can track their progress. For example, you'll know if they checked off the customizable steps you set up for the task and used the correct parts and materials. In the end, effective work order tracking makes everything more transparent and everyone more accountable. At a glance, you know what's been done and what's left to do. You'll know who did what and how long it took them. 

Generate work order reports painlessly

A full-featured CMMS does more than just organize your work orders. It also uses that data to create reports, giving you the big-picture view of your department's performance. By tracking KPIs, you gain insights into:

  • labor costs
  • parts and material costs
  • work order close-out rates
  • asset depreciation
Hippo-KPI-Dashboard-29-03-2019

Can you answer these questions about your facility?

  • Which asset has cost the most to keep running over the last six months?
  • Which asset is closest to the end of its useful life?
  • Which technician has closed out the most work orders in the last week?

Tracking work orders and then using the CMMS to generate reports could help you answer all of them. For example, because parts and labor are included in the work order, you'll know which asset has cost you the most in the last six months. Armed with the right information, you can take concrete steps to reduce costs and increase uptime.

Next steps

Although they have a place in other departments, maintenance managers should treat spreadsheets as historical relics. They used to be the right solution, but their time has come and gone.

If you don't already have a CMMS, now’s the time to get one. Providers of modern cloud-based solutions patch and update the software, protect and back up the database for you. The kinks have been worked out the technology. Your data remains both safe and easily accessible.

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Topics: Preventive Maintenance cmms software facilities maintenance tracking work orders Enterprise Asset Management Software


Jonathan Davis

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan Davis started out writing for textbooks before branching out to video games and marketing collateral. He has a master’s degree in journalism and a certificate in technical writing.


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