March 9, 2023

| 3 min read

Proactive vs. reactive maintenance: What’s the difference—and can they work well together?

What’s your favorite food—that last meal you’d never say no to? We all have one. But while it may be your all-time favorite, does that mean it’s the only thing you want to eat for the rest of your life? Probably not.

We could think about maintenance strategies the same way. Every maintenance manager has their own set of maintenance guidelines that inform their day-to-day work and how they manage their team. Some believe a preventive strategy makes the most sense, while others strive to set up a predictive program. But any well-rounded organization knows that success is maximized when many different maintenance approaches work together rather than choosing one and sticking to it.

With that in mind, let’s explore two maintenance strategies that initially seem to be at odds with one another: proactive and reactive maintenance. These approaches can work together in the right scenarios to create a balanced maintenance strategy.


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What is proactive maintenance?

The terms proactive and preventive are often used interchangeably, but there are more than a few degrees of separation between them. Proactive maintenance is a preventive approach that aims to anticipate problems (failures or defects) and stop them before they occur. While any preventive maintenance program would schedule work based on time or usage-based triggers, proactive maintenance takes a more focused approach. It considers data from a CMMS, condition-based monitoring, and machine sensor data to determine when proactive maintenance should occur. Any work performed on a scheduled basis should address the root cause of failure for the asset at hand.

Let’s bring in an example. Say you have a PM set up for a large piece of rotating machinery to replace the cylindrical bearings every 2,400 hours. This would be part of a preventive maintenance program. However, if, after careful analysis, you determine that failure typically occurs when measured vibrations consistently exceed a baseline vibration threshold set at installation, you would set up a PM that triggers within the P-F interval of that indicator occurring.

Carrying out the proactive maintenance repair successfully hinges on the quality of resources that an organization has at its disposal—a skilled workforce, the ability to track machine health, and the software required to gather data and schedule work.


Read our guide to choosing the right preventive maintenance software

What is reactive maintenance?

Conversely, reactive maintenance occurs once a piece of machinery has already failed. In contrast to proactive maintenance, no analysis, tracking, or anticipation is required to carry it out. As the name implies, work is only completed in reaction to a breakdown.

Reactive maintenance tends to have negative associations with it, and for a good reason. It’s true that for many organizations that are working with older maintenance systems like pen and paper or Excel, being in a state of reactive maintenance results from being unable to anticipate failures rather than being a strategy the organization has actively decided on.

When Fiix surveyed customers, we found that while 25% of customers were currently using reactive maintenance, none planned to use it in the future, meaning they hoped to replace it with another approach. In a report by Plant Engineering, 33% of survey respondents said they hoped to decrease downtime by moving from reactive to preventive maintenance.

proactive vs. reactive graphic

Reactive vs. proactive maintenance

At this point in the conversation, we should insert a giant asterisk: Reactive maintenance is only a problem when it’s not planned. Maintenance professionals hear time and time again that they should be moving away from reactive maintenance and over to more sophisticated asset management strategies. However, reactive maintenance can be part of a sophisticated, well-balanced, reliability-centered maintenance strategy.

The catch is that if a reactive approach is adopted for a piece of equipment, it should be done as the result of careful analysis. That’s right—the claim that reactive maintenance doesn’t require any planning or research is only partially true. Yes, reactive maintenance is based on anticipating and preventing failure for an asset is not always efficient or effective. However, determining which assets fall into this category and how you manage them makes a difference. This is where having the right tools and creating a good plan comes into the equation.

For example, you may use machine data and a CMMS’s help to determine that replacing a part costs less than regular maintenance. You don’t plan maintenance, but you do plan a response. Any reaction is well-thought-out and efficient. Similarly, you might crunch some numbers, look at past failure data and determine that a machine breaking down would have little to no impact on production. In this scenario, a reactive approach could be appropriate for that equipment. Again, the plan isn’t to regularly service the asset but to use your resources in the most cost-effective way while also focusing on reliability.

Proactive maintenance has many benefits, but most importantly, it can save you on costs. Proactive maintenance is a process that ensures your equipment and machines are functioning at their best so they don’t break down unexpectedly. This means you’ll be prepared for any issues and won’t have to deal with costly repairs or replacements.

Proactive maintenance also helps reduce the risk of accidents by ensuring your equipment is safe. If you’re not doing regular checks on all of your equipment, it’s more likely that something will go wrong and cause an accident—and then you’ll have to deal with the consequences of that accident and the cost of repairs or replacements. Maintenance teams would find a lot of benefits by planning a proactive maintenance strategy to track their maintenance activity.

The bottom line: All maintenance types are welcome in a reliability-centered approach

The key takeaway is that context is everything, whether you pick proactive maintenance or reactive—today’s reliability landscape offers a buffet of strategies. It is important to understand how each can be used successfully for your circumstances. Picking one to stick with forever doesn’t make any sense.

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