How does maintenance backlog get out of hand?

November 21, 2023

| 2 min read

How does maintenance backlog get out of hand?

The news isn’t breaking, but the figures keep climbing—the National Parks Service (NPS) is grappling with a staggering $11.9 billion maintenance backlog. In a world where Congress earmarks just $3.25 billion annually for such projects, this backlog has become an indefinite challenge. While the media has covered the complexities surrounding this issue, we’ll explore what maintenance backlog entails, how it escalates, and how organizations find themselves in this predicament.

What is maintenance backlog?

Maintenance backlog is work that needs to be completed for safety or operational reasons to avoid further asset breakdown. This is work that hasn’t been completed yet. It’s the necessary maintenance that lingers, risking asset breakdowns if left unaddressed.

What’s an acceptable backlog?

Maintenance teams can’t be everywhere at once, so some maintenance backlog is unavoidable and expected. But it’s important to figure out the appropriate level of backlog in relation to your industry and business needs. The ideal scenario is a backlog that is stable and controllable, even if your organization is hit with a record number of emergency breakdowns. Maintaining a balance between resource allocation and the costs associated with maintenance is essential.

Start cutting down your backlog with this free backlog priority template

The role of maintenance software

Controlling maintenance backlog is really difficult without the help of a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). A CMMS helps maintenance managers get a grip on what work needs to be done and when, by giving them full visibility on backlog. It also keeps maintenance top of mind and doesn’t let small projects fall through the cracks.

Why does maintenance backlog escalate?

The level of risk associated with each asset, alongside contextual factors, determines an acceptable backlog. Low-risk assets tolerate longer backlogs, while high-risk assets require attention. Regardless of risk level, backlog can lead to equipment failures, safety violations, production losses, and legal expenses.

The NPS situation illustrates how easy it can be to let maintenance fall to budget constraints. By continually deferring preventive maintenance, you risk letting small fixes turn into large, expensive projects that your budget simply can’t keep up with.

In July 2013, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to consider supplemental funding options for the NPS maintenance problem (which, at the time, was only $11.5 billion). During the hearing, Senator Tom Coburn highlighted the danger of ignoring preventive maintenance.

“Because every year you don’t do preventive maintenance, you get behind the curve. Then pretty soon now, you’re replacing a road rather than resurfacing,” said Coburn.

He went on to point out the vicious cycle that underfunding from Congress coupled with the existing backlog was creating.

“It’s half of what [the NPS] need. Now, they’re running a $377 million deficit on maintenance every year. So, every year, they get further and further behind. The degree of maintenance to catch back up, the cost becomes more complex because you’re not doing preventative maintenance, you’re doing structural maintenance.”

The NPS is an extreme example. It’s a massive organization with major infrastructure projects that spans the entirety of the US, and it’s not a stretch to see how a bit of backlog can have such severe consequences. But it’s a good cautionary tale that illustrates how easily maintenance can get out of hand. A few deferred jobs that fly under the radar can build up, and eventually result in much more extensive repairs. And once you fall behind on maintenance, it can be incredibly difficult to catch up.

A strategic approach to maintenance

To prevent catastrophic backlog, relying on a CMMS isn’t enough. Implementing a proactive maintenance strategy, coupled with regular monitoring of activities, is the first line of defense. This approach enables organizations to stay ahead of repairs, identify backlogs early, and avert the challenges posed by deferred maintenance.

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