Guest Column | September 3, 2021

What To Look For In A Mobile Operations & Maintenance Planning And Scheduling Tool

By Dan Smith, Vice President, InterPro Solutions

Looking From Top Of Mountain

Planning maintenance activities and events, scheduling tasks, and assigning personnel with a legacy Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) system - or one of the industrial-strength desktop planning and scheduling tools that sit on top of the EAM - is notoriously difficult. Among the challenges of these legacy systems are:

  • Complex UIs
  • Lots of horizontal scrolling
  • Deep menus
  • Rigid paths/steps to assign work

All of this translates to long learning curves: it can take a new user months to achieve competency on basic planning and scheduling features, and years to fully master the software.

Fortunately, a new class of mobile software has emerged that fundamentally change the way planners and schedulers do their jobs, making it possible for users to harness the power of their EAM system while masking the underlying complexity and enabling them to perform their day-to-day tasks with a few taps on their mobile devices.

Here are some key features to look for:

  • Batch assign capabilities: When you have hundreds or thousands of maintenance activities that need to be scheduled and assigned, you don’t want to be forced to schedule them one at a time. Through the use of multi-select batch functionality, the time it takes to schedule and assign (and if necessary, re-schedule and re-assign) can be reduced substantially – often by 80% or more.
  • Mobile-first design: Taking a mobile-first approach solves most of the UI challenges of legacy planning and scheduling software. These legacy tools were originally designed for desktop workstations from another era. At the time they were developed, the emphasis was on constant introduction of little-used functionality – buried in deep menus – to win the ‘feature war’ against competitors.

With the advent of mobile, there has been a dramatic shift in UI design. Deep menus and horizonal scrolling are things of the past. Instead, the emphasis is on intuitive navigation, user friendliness and the ability to take an action when needed (versus backing out to a different navigation path). These apps don’t require formal training and manuals are almost unheard of – the software is that easy to use.

Planning and scheduling tools that were “born mobile”, i.e., designed for mobile, will almost always avoid the complexities of desktop tools. The way in which mobile devices operate forces mobile designers to avoid deep menus and horizontal scrolling and focus on ease-of-use and intuitive navigation. Long spreadsheet-like lists of tasks and activities are replaced with new UI constructs like cards. Assigned technicians and tools will typically be portrayed as easy-to-understand chips. From a navigation perspective, most mobile tools will allow you to do most anything from anywhere – just tap on the element you want to modify.

  • Drag and drop: This is a feature unique to mobile apps that eliminates the need for endless typing and menu-jumping. To schedule a job, users drag it onto a planning calendar that mirrors an assignment table, or assign by dragging it onto an owner, lead or supervisor’s calendar. Since mobile apps can be used in the field, they make it easy for field supervisors to assign tasks across their crew – leveraging their intimate knowledge of crew member skills and experience. 
  • Calendar views: Calendars provide at-a-glance understanding of work start and stop times, as well as overlapping projects. In a mobile calendar view, schedulers can quickly visualize workloads, easily balance workloads across the team, and manage things like time-off request and overtime assignments. 
  • Kanban boards:  Many mobile planning and scheduling tools now offer Kanban boards to provide an alternative view of backlogs, scheduled work, work-in-progress and completed work – allowing managers to easily move team members between projects and reprioritize jobs as the situation demands.
  • Project & Event Planning:  Another capability to look for is the ability to plan and manage complex, long-running events, such the turnover of a new building to the O&M team.  This allows for the creation of milestones (parents) with associated sub-tasks (children) and dependencies, provide the flexibility to drag and drop milestones as needed, and even to drag and drop sub-tasks from one milestone to another. 

Today’s born-mobile planning and scheduling tools are dramatically easier to learn and use than even the latest-generation desktop tools. The fact that they can be easily used in the field promises to fundamentally re-shape how (and where) tasks get assigned, scheduled and prioritized. 

But there is a tradeoff – the born-mobile tools typically do not ‘out-feature’ the legacy desktop tools. Companies who have a large team of in-house planning and scheduling experts that can exploit all the advanced features buried in those menus may be happy to stay with desktop tools.  But in my experience, the vast majority of O&M groups have very few, if any, schedulers that have been able to build expertise on those old systems – their priority is getting work pushed out and assigned as quickly as possible. We have hit the point where the majority of staff (especially newer team members) strongly prefer mobile tools, so there’s little appetite to become an expert on a legacy desktop tool. When I visit with operations teams, I frequently see staff sitting in front of a desktop computer, but using a mobile device to get their work done. That alone is a good indication of where the future of EAM software, and especially planning and scheduling, is headed.