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Implementing a computerized maintenance program.

Any company, no matter what its business, continually tries to improve the efficiency of its operation. That often means computerization of manual systems which no longer effectively serve their purpose.

In a large residential property, one area in which automation can play an important role is maintenance scheduling and tracking systems. At the Regents Park apartments in Chicago, management implemented a computerized work order system several years ago to remedy the shortcomings of the handwritten process and provide better service.

The property

Located across the Outer Drive from Lake Michigan, Regents Park contains 1038 apartments in two 35-story buildings. The property is home to a broad mix of tenants, many of whom work in the area of downtown or are students and faculty of the nearby University of Chicago.

The property contains a garage, health club, restaurant and market, all open to nonresidents. The property employs a staff of 30, including maintenance personnel.


Before computerization, work orders were generated manually using a three-copy carbonless form. The first two copies went to the "ticket man," and the third copy was placed in the tenant's file. When the work was completed, one copy of the form was left in the apartment; the other was returned to the maintenance office so the supervisor could see the job was finished.

However, when a ticket man lost or misplaced an order, management would not know the work had not been completed unless the resident called back.

More important, because the system was manual, it was difficult to measure if a ticket man was productive. As a result there was very little analysis being done, and no one was making any intelligent decisions about how work orders were being handled.

The decision to automate

Senior staff members of The Clinton Company, the management company for Regents Park, spent a great deal of time assessing an automated system before the conversion actually took place. Various factors were considered in planning the system, including the staff's ability to organize, collate, and cross-reference data and the difficulty of training personnel on the new system.

To minimize training problems, the firm decided to design the work-order entry screen to resemble the existing manual form.

The potential value of other information the computerized system could generate was also considered. Much time was spent discussing whether any additional fields should be added to the form.

The software was eventually developed in conjunction with WJS and Associates of Elk Grove, Illinois, a firm which specializes, in part, in writing programs for property management companies. The Clinton Company was already using packaged tenant database and accounting programs developed by the software company. Creating the work order feature was a matter of building on this foundation.

The company worked with the publisher to develop a needs assessment for the new module. It also contracted for one hour of staff training and four hours of consultant's time to help organize data and format them in the appropriate structure.

The software

The work order software used at Regents Park has two parts. One is an automated tickler file, which allows the user to plan for completion of work by a specific date. The other section is the information retrieval component.

The computer system consists of several dumb terminals and a central processing unit (CPU). When data are keyed in at a terminal, they are transmitted directly to and stored in the CPU.

Clinton ran parallel systems for about three months. The data were entered into the CPU, and a manual backup work order was prepared. At the beginning of 1988, the manual backup was dropped.

Training was provided by the MIS manager of Regents Park for the department heads, who in turn trained their staffs.

Daily operation

With the new computerized work order system, service requests are taken between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. by the receptionist in the property office. The terminal screen at her right elbow always displays the work order format, waiting for data to be entered.

When a request is received, the receptionist keys it in and assigns a priority code, "E" for emergency or "N" for non-emergency. At the same time, she quotes standard charges. At night the requests are taken by the concierge on duty, who can key in the data from a terminal in the lobby.

The work orders are printed out several times daily on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch form. The only exceptions to this procedure are the nighttime emergencies, which the concierge relays verbally to the ticket man.

The environmental services officer (ESO) controls the process at the receiving end of the work order initiation action. She decides whether a job requires an outside contractor and assigns in-house work to the ticket man.

When a ticket man concludes a job, he leaves a separate preprinted form in the apartment notifying the tenant the work has been finished. He then completes the pertinent sections of the work order and gives it to the ESO, who keys the data into the system.

The ESO also monitors the progress of the work, staying on top of any delays that might occur. She notifies residents when a job cannot be completed in a timely manner. This close oversight was impossible with the manual system because tracking was too cumbersome.

Lost work orders are no longer a problem, although the paper copies may still be misplaced. By coding the work order for status (pending, assigned, or completed), it is easy to print a report showing all outstanding service requests. This is done daily to be sure nothing is missed.

Performance analysis

Information can be retrieved in a number of ways from the system. Aside from their status, the department head can analyze work orders by apartment or by the common and commercial areas. A study can be made by category of work done, such as plumbing. The printout of the specific work also contains a breakdown by task (e.g., replace kitchen faucet), allowing assignment of the most skilled person to each task. And, of course, the performance of each ticket man can be reviewed.

The information is used in the work planning process, and thus trends or patterns of repairs can be spotted. For example, extermination patterns let management know when a problem is beyond the scope of an isolated infestation, so that they can schedule spraying in adjacent apartments.

Another use of the information is to help predict how many outside-contractor hours may be needed in a coming year. Tenant abuse of an apartment also can be detected.

A few difficulties

Initially, some personnel failed to key in the word "New" to get a work order assigned a number. This was due mainly to a lack of computer experience, especially on the part of the four concierges who take work requests at night.

The problem was handled by giving the workers a "cheat sheet," which they could check to assure they keyed in the correct information. Because each work order is dated, timed, and marked with the initials of the person who enters it, the party responsible for the incorrect entry could be determined and additional training given.

Aside from some initial computer phobia, there were few other serious problems encountered in the conversion to a computerized work order system. About halfway through the first year, the database file ran out of memory for additional work orders, and the computer storage capacity was enlarged. Older orders were transferred to inactive status. A short program was written that permits old work orders to be retrieved from the inactive file for study when desired.

There has been no reduction in staff as a result of the change. Nor did residents notice a difference in terms of service. The 24-hour turnaround was maintained. However, the 1 percent of the work orders no longer got lost, and tenant communications and maintenance work flow analysis were improved.

David Mack is a supervisory asset manager in the Loan Management Branch of the Chicago Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is responsible for supervising a team of managers overseeing HUD's insured and subsidized multifamily housing inventory. Mr. Mack has written numerous real estate articles, many of which have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.
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Title Annotation:Computers
Author:Mack, David
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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