Many top-tier CMMS/EAM packages proclaim workflow functionality. But they usually do so in a secondary manner with words deeply embedded in their promotional literature. They also tend to do so in a way that doesn't quite fully explain what it is and what it can do for maintenance and the rest of the enterprise.
By Tom Singer Contributing Editor, Principal, Tompkins Associates, Oak Brook, IL September 15, 2002

Many top-tier CMMS/EAM packages proclaim workflow functionality. But they usually do so in a secondary manner with words deeply embedded in their promotional literature. They also tend to do so in a way that doesn’t quite fully explain what it is and what it can do for maintenance and the rest of the enterprise. It is typically blurred in with discussion on work management, planning and scheduling, and procurement. I suspect that many prospective maintenance organizations give it little thought when evaluating CMMS/EAM solutions.

This oversight can be a lost opportunity, since maintenance is a business activity that is well suited for the tenets of workflow. But this lack of thought is not surprising since at first glance workflow appears to be an implicit component of any CMMS/EAM package. As an administrative tool, a CMMS/EAM supports work management and coordination for most maintenance functions and related enterprise activities. But workflow has a much deeper and more precise definition than work management.

What is workflow?

According to the Workflow Management Coalition ( ), workflow is “the automation of a business process, in whole or part, during which documents, information, or tasks are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules.” Given this definition, it might initially appear that workflow functionality is an inherent component of a CMMS/EAM. Most CMMS/EAM packages provide the ability to manage corrective and preventive maintenance activities from initial definition to completion. They offer facilities to coordinate the flow of information between various points within the maintenance department. Some even provide the ability to exchange information with other departments within the enterprise. CMMS/EAM packages automate the flow of maintenance information within the enterprise.

While every CMMS/EAM package exhibits certain workflow characteristics, few provide functionality that fully embraces the Workflow Management Coalition’s definition. Few organizations employ workflow concepts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their maintenance operations. Maintenance departments tend to place their primary focus on the automation of data capture and dissemination when implementing a CMMS/EAM. They look at entering work requests, defining and scheduling PM tasks, procuring and issuing parts, tracking labor activity, and capturing the work actually performed. They seek to meet their basic management and analytical needs through the software package. But how intent are they on automating the business processes they employ?

Shuffling information

The key to true workflow automation lies in the entirety of the definition. It seeks to automate the flow of tasks and information within a business process between the various entities responsible for executing the process. It does this according to predefined rule sets. Many business processes involve numerous decision and activity points where one person acts upon information and passes the results to the next person in the process. Even with specialized software applications, organizations can spend an inordinate amount of time and money shuffling information from one point to another in a decision making process.

Despite their power and sophistication, our business systems can create islands of automation within our organizations where the restricted flow of information and activities affect the overall effectiveness of the enterprise. Anyone caught in the quagmire of a loan application or insurance claim probably can appreciate the need for workflow automation. Banks and insurance companies have sophisticated back office systems to support their business operations. Yet the process of getting a loan or claim approved can be terribly time consuming and labor intensive. These operations must enforce their business rules to ensure that the end result of the approval process is a sound decision. But this enforcement can generate a deluge of paper forms and emails that must work their way down the decision making chain before the end result is reached.

It is not surprising that the banking and insurance industries are prime targets for the application of workflow technologies and concepts. Any enterprise that spends considerable effort on complex administrative tasks should take a look at what workflow can do for its operation. The benefits of workflow automation can be substantial in many situations. It can reduce processing costs and cycle times. It can improve customer service and quality. It can provide an effective backbone for change and engineering control management.

What about maintenance?

But what can it do for maintenance? What does it have to do with wrench time? In addition to its technical charter to keep equipment and facilities operational, maintenance also has an administrative aspect. It employs specific procedures and rules that govern how it performs these tasks within the enterprise. Its business processes can involve many decision points where information and activity are passed between various parties inside and outside of the maintenance department. It’s administrative and control processes can be very labor intensive and time consuming. So it is not surprising to see top-tier CMMS/EAM providers proclaiming workflow functionality. It is a concept that can provide dividends if applied correctly and in the right situation.

CMMS/EAM vendors generally employ workflow technology and concepts in two areas — work management and procurement. Both of these activities can have significant administrative overhead. Work management starts with a work request and ends with closing a work order. Between these two events are numerous decision points and activities. The request is reviewed and approved. A work order is then created. A decision is made whether the work order should be planned. Required resources are identified and procured. Production impact of performing the work is gauged. The work order is scheduled and released.

These activities and decisions are performed according to the business rules that reflect the operational goals and constraints of the maintenance department. Since maintenance operations vary in complexity and service objectives, these business rules vary among maintenance departments. Without a workflow solution, these rules must be administered manually through checklists, e-mails, and forms. A workflow-enabled CMMS/EAM solution provides the ability to define these rules and process activities accordingly. These definitions allow certain decisions and activities to be entirely automated within the software, while others are executed by people who have the necessary information at their disposal.

An MRO procurement solution might employ automatic generation of material requisitions based on minimum levels and e-procurement order placement. But it doesn’t truly embrace workflow tenets unless its approval process is automated according to the specific purchasing rules of the organization. It falls short of workflow objectives if it requires excessive paperwork to be shuffled between various points in the procurement process.

Cost of doing business

It is easy to dismiss the administrative overhead that organizations impose upon themselves. It is an indirect cost. It is a cost of doing business. Yet careful analysis of an administrative process can yield unsettling results. These indirect costs can be very expensive. Workflow analysis and software tools offer the means to control these costs.

Using workflow functionality within a CMMS/EAM package can yield substantial benefits. Even if a CMMS/EAM package does not provide the rules-based engines of more sophisticated workflow-enabled solutions, it can be employed in a manner consistent with the definition of workflow. But software is only part of the equation. The real gain in workflow analysis comes from employing a logical business process design where all aspects of the process are reviewed, analyzed, and adjusted to fit the true needs of the organization. A maintenance department does not need a top-tier CMMS/EAM package to realize this gain. All they need is the dedication and vision to critically evaluate the way they do business and seek opportunities for improvement.

Author Information
Tom Singer is an information technology consultant who specializes in designing, developing, and implementing systems solutions that meet client operational needs.