One Stone at a Time

Tips for building your proactive maintenance plan

By Kelli Anderson

Perhaps the ultimate test of maintenance savvy is not just keeping a facility afloat in times of relative calm but seeing how it responds in times of crisis. For Wheaton Sport Center, a 26-year-old private fitness center and tennis club in suburban Chicago, a recent test of its maintenance management arrived when an 80-year-old city water main burst in front of the facility last year.

"The next thing you know, we're digging our parking lot out 12 feet deep, shutting our water off and going into our reactive mode," says Mike Gilligan, general manager of the facility. "But we're staying open."

Gilligan attributes their ability to keep business operating smoothly to their proactive and meticulous attention to maintenance details, which range from having five-year maintenance plans to hourly pool checks.

"Some things are reactive," Gilligan concedes, "but if you take things you have to do and plan it, it enables you to take care of things that do go wrong that you didn't plan for."

Enter the wisdom of proactive maintenance strategies. For many facilities, maintenance practices are reactive—waiting for that next thing to go wrong before lots of attention and painfully large sums of money are spent fixing it. According to one consultant at Texas A & M University's managing maintenance program, the difference in repair costs vs. maintenance costs is 30:1. Ouch.

Not to mention, that the results of poor maintenance practices can get pretty ugly. An HVAC system crash-and-burn or other major system failure increases repair calls, additional maintenance staff requirements and even turnovers, which are all typical results of poor maintenance practices. And let's be clear, if a facility looks unkempt (think confetti-like trash decorating the grounds, a sloppy lobby, less-than-sparkling pool water or grungy restrooms), the public will likely assume the worst about all aspects of a facility.

However, for maintenance practices done well, the shear volume of tasks can seem overwhelming, whether it's setting goals, devising standards, assessing conditions, evaluating results, and hiring and handling an effective maintenance staff, to name just a few. So how do you go from reactive to proactive or from adequate to outstanding without getting buried in the process? According to Gilligan, that rocky mountain is moved one stone at a time.

First steps

Taking stock of your current situation is step number one. Knowing where you are will tell you where you need to go.

"One of the first proactive steps a manager can take to get a handle on his/her maintenance operations will be to develop and implement an inspection program," advises Scott Payne, assistant director and teaching professor at the school of maintenance at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Conducting inspections and sharing the results with maintenance staff can be a positive step forward."

Gathering information from inspections also should be paired with customer satisfaction surveys to complete the picture. For the city of Miamisburg, Ohio, surveys or feedback systems include opinions and observations from citizens who live adjacent to the park, advisory boards who report their findings monthly, customer-service hotlines and even a secret shopper program.

"It's important to have a user perspective," says Debbie McLaughlin, acting director of the city's park and recreation department. "If feedback is just from the staff, things can begin to look common and be overlooked."

But staff input is critical, she adds. A common problem in maintenance management is not involving staff when they know the job and its pitfalls best.

To constantly keep a pulse on the facility's maintenance health, these surveys and inspections need to be scheduled as a regular part of the facility maintenance calendar, culminating in a formal, annual evaluation to measure the facility's successes and areas for improvement, both practically and fiscally. One good indicator of success is consistency—repeatedly achieving positive results or meeting the designated standard.

Inspections can range from hourly pool checks, daily walkabouts for general cleanliness to specified manufacturer checks on larger systems like the HVAC.

"In its totality all the details are overwhelming," Gilligan says, "but when you break it down—section it off by area—divide it, assign it with signed and dated checklists, and have a purpose and a plan, you can do it."

And don't be afraid to adapt and revise as you go. The inspection process not only tells you what is going right but also highlights areas of needed attention or adaptation. If notations about burned-out light bulbs begin to appear regularly on inspection forms, add light-bulb checks to the checklist if it didn't previously exist. Creating an effective inspection form is an ever-adaptive process that evolves as your facility and its users change.

Quick Tips

Although networking will probably net you the greatest amount of practical tips for making your facility more maintenance-efficient, here is just a small sample of tips from facility managers, maintenance directors and professionals in the field to get you started:

Sweat the small stuff—Switch out burnt-out light bulbs immediately and check them daily. To customers' interpretations, a lack of concern for details translates into a lack concern for what matters.

Get familiar—Keep a laminated list of standards and tasks with every work crew for easy, familiar reference.

Join the service—Hire maintenance staff from the hotel industry. They tend to be service-oriented.

Be a model student—Before choosing a vendor, ask if there is a vendor-predictive maintenance model to learn when services for specific equipment are typically needed.

Go nocturnal—Do major cleaning at night to avoid customer disruption.

Ban "Out of Order" signs—Get broken equipment off the floor within one to 24 hours. Better to have an empty spot than a sign that announces poor maintenance.

Be sensitive—Have gender-specific crews assigned to restrooms to avoid disruption.

Get picky—All staff should be in the habit of picking up trash as they go from place to place.

Good accounting

A second key step toward proactive practices is finding out what money actually needs to be spent to complete a maintenance task to the acceptable standard. To this end, workload cost tracking needs to be developed. This is an essential maintenance tool no manager's toolbox should be without. Workload cost tracking helps managers understand what costs are needed for efficient, effective maintenance as well as foresee what will be needed for that inevitable financial "rainy day" such as major equipment repairs or replacement.

By tracking the costs of maintenance in man (people) hours, equipment use and expendable supplies, a manager can begin to develop a site-specific maintenance plan and begin the transformation to a more proactive mentality.

"The maintenance plan serves as a backbone for successful and accountable park maintenance operations," Payne says.

Not only does understanding management costs enable a manager to stop operating crisis-to-crisis, but having clearly understood costs on paper will persuade those in the financial driver's seat to invest beyond just bricks and mortar to park operations as well. Being able to plan for pool painting or floor resurfacing or parking-lot repairs can be part of a long-term vision rather than a scramble for funding when cracks, dull finishes or potholes become a common complaint from patrons.

Better yet, become part of the planning process for future projects with the architects and equipment vendors so that you can determine the life cycle of a product or learn what inspection/maintenance needs will be required.

Setting goals

Another foundational step toward a proactive mindset is setting goals around which all other standards and checklists should revolve. Having goals will help you prioritize and then phase in those most important maintenance practices as you are able to afford them. For most facilities, safety is probably the number-one goal, but there are certainly others that follow a close second that help define the facility's direction.

For the highly-rated Odetah Campground in Bozrah, Conn., lauded by such reviewers as Wheelers, Woodall's and Frommer's, its popularity has been maintained in its 80-year-history thanks to its dogged adherence to a single mantra.

"We have a goal to never have a campsite looked camped on," says David Plotkin, maintenance manager. "Attention to detail is what we most stress—cleanliness is what campers notice and it's what keeps them coming back."

That never-been-camped-on goal translates into standards of cleanliness and appearance that keep trash where it belongs, grass cut, weeds banished and flowers always watered. Staffers will not hesitate to pick up a piece of trash whether it's part of their twice-daily litter check or not.

Right the First Time

When tropical storm Gaston hit Richmond, Va., in September 2004, Lakeside Elementary School experienced major flooding. Thankfully, a gym floor installed prior to the storm and chosen for its multipurpose advantages and moisture barrier held up beautifully. Often choosing quality products that stand up to regular use can be a maintenance blessing when the unusual happens.

Although most facilities don't have to factor tropical-storm damage into their materials and designs, a basic premise of building right and building with maintenance in mind reflects a proactive mindset.

When an area is plagued by vandalism, for example, installing automatic door locks will reduce the time and cost of having staff lock and unlock doors. Security lights, security cameras and selecting more durable materials are other proactive options that can save money in the long run.

Another proactive approach to building considers the future needs as well as the present.

"A common mistake facilities make is building a new area without assuming growth," says Mike Gilligan, general manager at Wheaton Sport Center in Wheaton, Ill. "The biggest pitfall is being shortsighted. Do it right the first time."

Setting standards

Getting beyond the "it's not my job" mentality—encouraging staff members to take pride in their work and ownership of the facility—is one major key to success experienced by a new approach to standards created in Miamisburg. Once goals are set, standards are created not according to task but according to "outcome." There is a difference.

"Ask 'yes' or 'no' questions like, 'Is the area clear of trash, graffiti and weeds?' If 'no', then get rid of them. The standard is the final result," McLaughlin says. "Asking 'What will it look like when I'm done?' isn't 'A clean bathroom.' That's too vague and subjective. We ask, 'Is it free of clogs, debris and all amenities cleaned and sanitized?' Then you develop a task to remedy it.

A copy of the Miamisburg park and recreation maintenance standards reveals checklists broken down by area with clear standards posted for each area. Athletic field turf, for example, has a "free of weeds and bare spots" standard. Tasks are listed as "spraying, fertilizing, aerating and slit seeding." Also outlined for each area are the equipment and tools, materials, safety equipment, number of personnel, and estimated man-hours needed to complete each task.

Laminated copies of all standards for all areas are in each work-crew's truck for easy reference and availability. Standards are not shut away in a idolized ivory tower but are out in the field being used each day by Miamisburg crews.

In the zone

Even more remarkable is Miamisburg's approach to assigning tasks. Whereas most facilities operate with specialized crews that do a single task throughout one or more facilities, Miamisburg crews have a more holistic approach.

"With zone maintenance, one crew stays in one park and does everything," McLaughlin explains. "They get credit for doing it all. It helps with ownership and eliminates travel time between parks. We've moved away from specialized crews. It also helps with cross-training and skill levels."

According to McLaughlin, having one crew do all tasks (except ones requiring specialty training like pools and HVAC, of course) has eliminated the tunnel vision some staffers can develop when doing a job. It is not uncommon for crews to pick up a piece of litter while on their way to mow. Because they begin to see a park as "their park," they are more involved in making it a source of pride.

Resources to the Rescue

Finding resources to take you through the transformation process of reactive to proactive maintenance just got easier. Converts to the proactive philosophy and teachers of its practices offer several sources to help you on your way:

  • Look at other accredited agencies and network with them.
  • Consider using maintenance-management systems software, especially those that can integrate their product with spatial data attributes.
  • Hire a consultant.
  • Attend some maintenance-management schools, such as:

Pacific Southwest Maintenance Management School

Pacific Northwest Park and Recreation Resource Management School

International City/County Management Association

Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers

Professional Grounds Management Society

American Public Works Association

Building a team

Whether specialized crews or zoned, one universal ingredient makes for essential maintenance success: teamwork. Having maintenance staff members who know their input is wanted and their skills are valued will make a noticeable difference.

"You want a proactive tip that really pays off?" asks Jeff Walter, assistant director for student life facilities of McLane Student Life Center at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "Do lunch from time to time with the folks who take care of your building. They'll love you and your building for doing it. I want them to know the maintenance needs, but just as importantly, I want them to know me. Developing a sense of team with these folks has increased our effectiveness immeasurably."

Likewise, for the multiple-award-winning student recreation center at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.V., having a first-name-basis relationship with the maintenance staff and providing them with wellness programs have achieved results. The four-year-old-facility looks as if it opened yesterday.

"It's not an 'us' and 'them' mentality," says Dave Taylor, director of student recreation center. "We're a team. We hire people who take pride in their work. If they see a piece of paper, they'll pick it up because they care."


Whether it's doing lunch or signing off on checklists, communication is another key factor to going 'pro.' The better the communication from staff to management or from management to staff, the faster and more efficient the maintenance results. Before a problem can be tackled, everyone needs to know a problem exists. Communication can improve simply by scheduling a daily meeting with the head of maintenance. Radio, e-mail, voice mail, dry-erase boards, checklists—it's all part of making sure all the players know all the plays.

"I communicate with the physical plant personnel almost to a fault," Walter confesses. "All of my requests are recorded in their computers and can be referred to by day, date and time as well as by a work order number. They never say to me, 'When did you ask us to do that?'"

Although sometimes being reactive is inevitable due to unforeseen acts of Mother Nature or city sewer systems, it doesn't have to be the norm.

"Start with small steps," McLaughlin says. "Once you see that one thing works, keep building. You may not have all the resources, but you can phase things in by priority. I used to be reactive, but you can find a process to ease into the transition. It just takes a little investment to make the changes."

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