April 23, 2019

| 4 min read

CMMS failure codes: What are they, and how should they be used?

No one likes when things go wrong. Worse still, when it happens without an explanation, it can be immensely frustrating. How are you supposed to prevent a problem from occurring again when you don’t even know what caused it in the first place? In the world of reliability, failure codes exist to try to avoid this situation.

What are maintenance failure codes?

A failure code is a shorthand that can be cross-referenced with a list of reasons for failure to understand why an asset failed during production. Failure codes can be displayed as numbers, but are more commonly written as alphanumeric acronyms. If an organization is using a CMMS software, a failure code can be applied to a work order for quick reference. While there are some common equipment failure codes, each organization typically ends up having its own CMMS failure codes list, depending on which equipment they have and the industry they operate in.

Why are CMMS failure codes used?

The benefits of using failure codes with a CMMS are two-fold. There is an immediate benefit of assigning a reason for failure, and there’s a future benefit. Let’s look at each one separately.
The immediate benefit of using failure codes is that it ensures breakdowns are given the attention they require. When a breakdown occurs, it can be all too easy to just fix the thing that broke, rather than think about why it broke. Failure codes are correlated to reasons for failure, so in order to assign a failure code, you need to take the time to understand why a failure or defect occurred. This can be done by carrying out a root cause analysis. If this is done correctly, each of your failures will be organized into a pre-defined category, such as breakage, corrosion, imbalance, misalignment, overheating, or vibration.

The future benefit of failure codes comes in when it’s time to assess and optimize your maintenance operations. If your organization has made it mandatory to assign a failure code in a CMMS for every breakdown, you’ll have a backlog of historical data you can refer to at any time. You’ll be able to see the number of times a specific failure code has occurred for any given asset. You’ll also be able to determine the failure rate for a particular asset by dividing the number of times a failure code has occurred by the total operating age of the equipment.
Collecting failure data through the use of common equipment failure codes will also allow you to understand failure modes over time, which is a crucial aspect of building any reliability-centered maintenance strategy.

For maintenance organizations that don’t use CMMS failure codes list, determining any sort of failure trend is a labour-intensive process of searching through their work order history and making several educated guesses.

What can you do with CMMS failure codes?

Knowing the failure rate for a failure code can help you do the following:

  • Optimize PM intervals: You can learn a lot about how often a piece of equipment needs to be serviced by looking at its failure rate. If it’s failing very frequently in spite of regular PMs, you may need to look at what else could be causing failures to occur.
  • Assess the desirability of additional PM tasks: Looking at historical failure codes will make it very apparent if a piece of equipment is always failing for a reason that could be easily curbed by introducing a new PM.
  • Eliminate unnecessary PM tasks: If a piece of equipment is rarely failing, but being serviced very frequently, perhaps it’s time to reassess how often this equipment actually needs to be worked on.
  • Improve failure response: With many failures, some degree of troubleshooting is necessary to find an appropriate way to address it. Having failure codes paired with information about what was done to address that failure will ensure that your technicians can get to the bottom of a similar problem more quickly in the future.
  • Improve work practices: Having an improved understanding of why defects are occurring will lead to better work practices overall. Efficiency will increase and PMs will be optimized if the data provided by failure codes is leveraged correctly. Examining failure codes can also identify broken processes or additional training opportunities for employees. For example, if motors are failing prematurely when their mounting is a fixed base, it might be a good idea to offer additional training for your team on correct alignment during motor installation.

Overall, staying vigilant about using failure codes provides easy access to statistics about equipment failures or breakdowns. Let’s apply the points above to an example. If you have a fleet of similar machines, you could run a report for a period of time and, by selecting a failure code, determine how many times that failure has occurred on an individual system. You can then compare this data across the entire fleet. If the failure rate is above average, it may be worthwhile to proactively replace parts, shorten the PM interval, or even replace the asset.

Having the correct codes at your fingertips will also provide you with the data you need to improve OEE, or to implement a Six Sigma or TPM program. These statistics are invaluable in any continuous improvement program. Codes can also help spot trends with work practices that cause the failures. For example, let’s say that you have equipment that has problems with contamination. You could run a report for a period of time and determine how many times your machine has had contamination problems. It could turn out the contamination is caused by a single technician who is over-lubricating moving parts.

Who’s responsible for inputting CMMS failure codes?

Ideally, it is best to have data entered by those who investigated and corrected the failure. In most cases, this will fall under the technician who responded to the failure.

How many CMMS failure codes should you have?

The whole point of having failure codes is to provide your technicians with an easy way to quickly analyze and categorize equipment failures, problems and faults. For this reason, effective and accurate code lists are required to identify trends.

On the one hand, having too few failure codes does not enable the level of data analysis needed, or it results in meaningless, nonspecific data. On the other hand, if there are too many options, technicians could suffer from “choice overload”, resulting in a number of “Miscellaneous” or “Other” codes being assigned, which will again render the data meaningless. Ideally, you should aim for 20-30 failure codes. Thankfully, pop-up CMMS tables eliminate the need to memorize codes.

Who should develop failure codes?

Failure codes should, above all else, be easily available and understandable to the people who request work, to the maintenance personnel that complete the work, and to the engineers who need to understand what is occurring in the field. For that reason, developing failure codes requires an integrated approach with these three groups, especially if there is a desire to do some sort of wide-ranging analysis. Ultimately, the codes have to allow the field personnel a relatively painless way to provide the information that the engineers need. Unless that occurs, the end product will not be used.


In general, CMMS failure codes are collected for the purpose of failure modes effects analysis (FMEA). Analysis, in turn, provides knowledge of patterns in equipment failure with respect to other external and internal factors. There are endless applications of having knowledge like this, but in general, it can be used to improve reliability, system availability, and ultimately, the company’s bottom line.

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