Maintenance & Operations (Managing the Physical Plant)

The Unasked Questions

Not long ago I was thinking through work orders, preparing for an event we were hosting on campus. I stumbled upon a series of issues that complicated the direction we were heading with event preparation and setup. The information we had been given was missing a significant amount of detail. That little blip caused me to wonder how, in the future, we could be sure we had the correct information from our customer each time we work through an event.

This is not only an event-support conundrum. We need to consider all of the various projects, events and work on which we make decisions each day. Are we asking the right questions of the right people at the right time? Are we even asking questions at all? Or are we merely taking the information we are given and working with that? Could we possibly know the questions to ask, and if so, how do we arrive at them?

Make a List. Use It.

If you’ve read this column for any length of time, you’ll recall that I’m a fan of checklists. Whether they are written or mental (but mostly written, due to the incredible amount of information we try to keep in our minds these days), checklists are key. So let’s think this through: what is the overall goal in our department? Something to the effect of “fixing broken things and maintaining what isn’t broken” (in order to keep it from breaking). That’s probably the easiest part of what we do. It is our goal to serve the entire campus community by providing transparent services and facilities. This goal of transparency is far-reaching, and the concentric circles that emanate from it touch many diverse areas of campus.

When thinking of routine work such as reactive, predictive and preventive maintenance, we should consider some basic questions. These will include, but aren’t limited to, whether our activity will block a corridor; disrupt a class due to noise; whether power, water service or space temperature will be affected; and will this work be best done at a different time to limit the impact.

Think Outside the Box

Thinking bigger, yet on a less frequent scale, is preparation for supporting an event. If the maintenance team is responsible for table and chair setup, then there will be more to consider. We need to ask whether there are multiple events occurring simultaneously so as to task the available furniture resources, or whether these events require short setup or turnover times. Additionally, we must make certain that all electrical needs are requested in advance. This may require gently pushing the event coordinator to double check with user or service suppliers, such as food service vendors and DJs. These often seem to need more power than they originally asked for.

There are other questions that may not be directly related to our team. However, being the helpful problem-solvers maintenance folks are, it doesn’t hurt to ask. These questions can include how an event will affect traffic flow on campus; will it disrupt classes or other events; or is the event an off-hours function that will require additional support personnel such as security, maintenance or housekeeping… or even to know to have the AC running when it might normally be off.

Finally, on a much larger scale, consider our management assistance during construction projects. Acting as the owner’s representative, we can help a contractor that might not be tuned in to a campus’s rhythms and idiosyncratic needs. Most construction managers are good at managing and coordinating what’s going on “inside the fence,” but not so much outside of it! With our help they may come to consider how far-reaching something as simple as a flatbed delivery of rebar might be. A tractor-trailer blocking a lane of traffic during morning or afternoon rush might not be something that they would consider. It is our job to help them put it all together. Safety is another critical point. What activities or processes are they doing inside the fence that might, under some catastrophic event, end up suddenly outside the fence? During those events, it would be in our best interest to direct foot or vehicle traffic away from the area, but what does that look like for students with a finite amount of time between classes? Or, they might think closing a section of road on a Saturday is a good idea because “there’s no school on Saturday,”’ but not taking into account there is an athletic tournament that day bringing many outside guests to campus!

Our job is to help our customer think of any and all issues that they may not have considered as they are focused upon the event or activity. Remember, the question unasked is the question unanswered.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael G. Steger is director, Physical Plant, for Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at Stegemik@berkeleyprep.org.

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