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Reducing the backlog of maintenance jobs

4 min read: As I sit at my desk, I can hear the drip… drip… drip of the tap in the bathroom above that needs a new washer and I can see the holes in the wall I filled a month ago, that need touching up with paint. Many of us have similar lists of chores, that aren’t particularly difficult or urgent, but never get our attention as they are competing with urgent or more appealing tasks in our busy daily lives.

Imagine the size of such a list in a busy theatre, built in the 1930s with a limited staffing resource to run it. It was a long list to say the least and getting longer as more things seemed to be added to it than were removed. And just like those jobs that sit around unattended in our own homes, what needs to be done can gradually become invisible to us.

The staff team, led by Carly, didn’t have much in the way of spare time each day to tackle maintenance tasks. This was particularly true during the busy parts of the calendar where show related issues are always more urgent or important.

However, during the summer months there are a few weeks where the theatre is quiet, and it gives the team time to catch their breath. During these quite periods in the past, previous managers had attempted to get more maintenance tasks done by making vague requests such as “make yourselves useful” or “give the place a tidy up”. It’s not surprising then that last year only four maintenance jobs were completed.

This summer Carly decided to try something different. Firstly, she walked around the building and made some observations then on a whiteboard in the office, she listed every single maintenance task she had seen. The list included jobs ranging from the simple tidying of a studio cupboard, to painting a dressing room. For the first time everyone in the theatre could see everything that needed attention.

Next, Carly set about picking something off the list herself and fixed it. Once complete, she put her initials next to the task on the whiteboard and crossed it out. She asked the team if they could pick something off the list whenever they had free time and also put their initials against it and cross it out.

She didn’t assign tasks, she didn’t set targets of how many they had to complete, she just asked them. Gradually everyone had picked at least one job off the list and completed it.

Carly went on holiday during the quiet period, fully expecting that that their enthusiasm for tackling the list may wane in her absence. Imagine her surprise when she returned to see they had completed 32 of the outstanding jobs, eight times the number of jobs the previous year!

From a behavioural perspective, this approach worked because:

  • The team were given the choice to join in or not. Carly knew her team and the close working relationships they had with each other. She knew that they wouldn’t be able to sit back and let their colleagues do all of the work, so if one joined in, the others were more likely to.

  • She made it really easy for them to find something to work on by creating the list, which meant they didn’t have to hunt around for something to do.

  • She made progress visible by using the whiteboard to cross each task off, so the team could see the amount of work they had done in total.

  • She knew her team and what they found reinforcing; they did not to disappoint Carly or each other, which motivated them to act.

  • She gave recognition for progress, not perfection so every time somebody did something, no matter how small, Carly noticed and went out of her way to say thank you for their discretionary effort.

  • Feedback was plentiful as customers, visitors, and people from the wider organisation started to notice how good the place was looking and made those comments to staff.

When reflecting on the changes she had implemented, Carly said “Working our way down the list of general maintenance tasks has improved staff morale within the building. They feel that people now care about the building and all staff within it rather than everything being neglected”.

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