Pencil Whipping

June 18, 2019

| 4 min read

Pencil whipping: When a healthy scorecard is too good to be true

Let’s face it, everyone cuts corners from time to time. It can feel great to ditch a task that doesn’t add value or takes up too much of your precious time. When it comes to maintenance operations, however, trying to get around daily tasks can throw a serious wrench in things. Unfortunately, forging work has become so common in the maintenance world that it’s earned its own nickname: Pencil whipping. Today we’ll look at why it happens, why it’s a problem, and which tools can be used to combat it.

What is pencil whipping?

Simply put, pencil whipping refers to signing off on work that was never actually completed, whether that’s an inspection, a PM, or a quality check—anything intended to prevent a potential breakdown. Pencil whipping most often occurs at the technician level, and while on its face it might look like an issue of laziness, there are actually many reasons why work might get pencil whipped.

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Reasons for pencil whipping

1. Too many tasks, too few technicians

The ideal maintenance cycle involves four stages: Planning, doing, checking, and acting. Planning and doing refer to scheduling and completing tasks, and checking and acting refer to analyzing the work that was done, and making improvements based on the results of those checks.

In a perfect world, all planned maintenance that is completed will be evaluated afterward to ensure it was done correctly and achieved the intended result. Maintenance managers can then use the results of that analysis to plan maintenance better the next time around.

Of course, no maintenance operation is perfect. In the real world, technicians can get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of tasks they’re expected to complete, and managers are too bogged down by paperwork and other administrative duties to be able to properly check and make adjustments to the PM schedule. This is where pencil whipping often begins. Without PM optimization, scope creep can quickly occur, and things can spiral out of control, leaving both technicians and managers feeling like it’s easier to say the work was completed, even when it wasn’t.

2. Technicians are missing the point

If there’s a task that a technician needs to complete, they should be well aware of why that task needs to be completed. However, there are two instances in which technicians may not make that connection.

The first instance occurs when a technician is expected to complete an inspection as part of a condition monitoring task. The purpose of condition-based monitoring is to free up time typically spent on preventive repairs or replacements. However, if a technician is completing inspections as part of a condition-based strategy, and those inspections are passing every time, they may just stop doing that inspection altogether, thinking it’s a useless task. It’s important to use the P-F interval to find the sweet spot where an inspection will fail often enough that a technician feels it’s a purposeful task to complete.

Another reason why a technician may fail to see the point of completing a task is simply because the reason for the task hasn’t been communicated to them effectively by management. As we stated before, your technicians should know why they’re completing the tasks they’ve been asked to complete. If management is not effectively communicating why something needs to be done, and there seems to be no apparent consequence to not completing that task, it could get pencil whipped.

3. There’s pressure to improve metrics—with no real plan for improvement

The maintenance world is ruled by metrics—it’s how an organization knows it’s making (or failing to make) improvements. However, as Fiix Solutions Engineer Leader Stuart Fergusson recently discussed on the Rooted in Reliability podcast, when an organization prioritizes numbers over their employees’ day-to-day reality, there will be pencil whipping simply to keep management appeased.

As Fergusson said during his podcast appearance, “Pencil whipping always comes out in lagging metrics.” To clarify, lagging metrics are the broader, bigger-picture metrics that operate as long-term goals for the team to work towards. If an organization sets unrealistic targets for lagging metrics, then the work that affects leading (day-to-day) metrics will be affected. If the metric targets are unattainable or overwhelming for technicians, tasks could get pencil whipped to keep up appearances.

The common thread: A culture problem

There are a number of different reasons something might get pencil whipped, but each one points to the same root issue: A culture problem. Whether work is being signed off on because technicians are overwhelmed or because they don’t see the point, the responsibility lies with management to communicate the importance and motive behind work. Processes must also be put in place that ensure technicians are doing work that’s necessary, value-adding, and manageable.

How to prevent pencil whipping

Pencil whipping only occurs in places where it has an opportunity to thrive. Thankfully, there are a number of solutions that an organization can employ to keep it at bay.

Firstly, taking steps to foster a culture of transparency and mutual respect between technicians and management is key. This means creating and sustaining an atmosphere where technicians feel comfortable asking questions and voicing concerns. It also means establishing an environment of trust where technicians feel that their concerns are being heard and addressed.

Maintenance management software is also a great solution for creating accountability at all levels. Using a CMMS to schedule and track work gives maintenance managers a more accurate picture of how many tasks they’re actually scheduling, and whether it’s a reasonable amount to be assigning. Further, having a dashboard that shows a quick view of KPIs provides much better insight into what’s actually going on so managers can plan work better and make daily decisions that support those metrics.

For technicians, having a CMMS app on their mobile device that allows them to track work as they complete it makes it harder to pencil whip as they need to enter data, like parts used and when the work order was started and completed. What’s more, having the opportunity to add comments to an inspection via a CMMS gives technicians an immediate means of feedback where next steps are clearly communicated.

Adding notifications via a CMMS to assets that are key to your organization’s operation adds a level of transparency around each work order that’s performed on that asset. Further, being able to add user manuals to a CMMS gives each technician the information they need to complete any task on an asset.

The bottom line: Create accountability from the top down

As you can see, pencil whipping is rarely the problem and usually a symptom of a larger cultural issue. Ensuring that the right culture and tools are in place will go a long way in preventing pencil whipping.

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