The Dangers of Pencil Whipping
Do you remember the last time you had a stack of work-related documents to sign off? Did you read every line carefully before signing, or did you sign them off after barely glancing at the words on each document? Did you confirm that each task was completed? Was there supporting evidence and data to back that up?
Careful reflection may show that you skipped a few lines here and there or skipped whole sections altogether. Yes, this sometimes happens to the best of us, especially when we are in a hurry. However, that’s no reason to keep doing it. The implications of such an oversight are often far-reaching, sometimes even damaging, depending on the industry in question.
Below, we’ll discuss how pencil whipping happens in facilities management, its dangers, and how to prevent it.
What Is Pencil Whipping?
Pencil whipping is the act of signing off on work that has not been done as implied. In other words, you sign official forms, documents, or records and assume everything checks out without verifying the accuracy of what you are signing.
Pencil whipping may occur at different levels in a maintenance unit: from the unit head all the way to the technicians during their routine inspections. It will most commonly happen in the form of approving work that was never completed, signing off a consignment of spare parts, approving inspections or PMs that never occurred, or quality or safety checks that were not done at all.
To gain a better perspective, let’s look at some FM-specific examples of pencil whipping.
How Pencil Whipping Happens in Facility Management
Here are some common scenarios where FM staff may engage in pencil whipping:
Regular equipment inspections are standard practice in proactive maintenance. They help keep equipment in good working condition and ensure the safety of workers and other building users. Yet, when inspections are expected very frequently or where the equipment has been operating for a while without any issues, there’s a tendency to take things for granted, to ‘forget’ inspections, or just assume that all is well and there is no need to check that machine today. In such situations, technicians may choose to hurriedly tick off the inspection checklist and reports and pass it on to the facility manager, who then goes ahead to approve without verification.
Sometimes, even when staff remember that an inspection is pending, they will still sign off because everything seems to be alright. This way, that equipment may remain functional but unchecked for months.
Identifying, assessing, controlling, and eliminating safety risks is a major concern for facility managers. One way to achieve this is via frequent building safety checks. Usually, these checks focus on everything from machinery to employee behavior on the job, their outfits, and the use of protective gear.
However, in busy facilities and workplaces, safety checks are easily overlooked and prone to pencil whipping, especially in locations where the same staff juggle multiple duties.
Checking the accuracy of inventory can be intimidating, especially when there is a large consignment of goods and the task is to be done manually. Employees may resort to falsely reporting accurate stock levels so they can be done and move on to other tasks.
Dangers and Effects of Pencil Whipping
Although pencil whipping may be happening so often in various facilities that we may wave it off thinking “everybody does it,” it can quickly turn into serious operational problems and should not be allowed. If unchecked, pencil whipping will eventually cause the following issues:
Pencil whipping helps to perpetuate a culture of dishonesty and negligence. When one person does it and gets away with it repeatedly, other staff may copy them. The fact that some staff is getting away with it can influence other workers to lose faith in the system’s ability to observe and correct anomalies.
Risk of Legal Action
When people pencil whip, they are basically falsifying records, and that’s illegal. Imagine where an elevator repeatedly lacks maintenance and subsequently malfunctions. The malfunction leads to an incident where someone is hurt. If there is an investigation and it is proven that there are false records showing regular maintenance on that elevator, the company could face legal action.
Another angle to reflect on is that it’s not only the person who made the false entry who could be prosecuted. Since the guilty party is part of a larger organization, everyone from the maintenance director to managers, supervisors, technicians, other co-workers, and the company itself can be liable and punished.
Risk of Job Losses
Of course, implicated staff could lose their jobs because no reputable employer would be willing to risk keeping dishonest personnel on their payroll.
Preventing Pencil Whipping
Tackle pencil whipping as a serious organizational problem. Make sure everyone is onboard by doing the following:
Create a work environment that discourages pencil whipping by:
- Automating and streamlining checks and recording with maintenance software. These software make it generally harder to manipulate records.
- Provide clear instructions and enough time frame for tasks. Rushed situations tend to encourage pencil whipping.
- Instead of just “Yes” and “No” responses, try introducing narratives in the records and checklists that staff are submitting.
Due to the nature of their jobs, technicians need to complete various checklists and records daily in addition to completing other tasks. For them, the urge to rush through records or cut corners can become an everyday challenge. On hectic days, they may assume that a machine is working perfectly anyway, so it doesn’t matter if the inspection sheets are rushed. With time, this act becomes a habit.
To minimize the chances of pencil whipping, it’s vital that technicians are made to understand their importance in the bigger picture of the company’s goals and objectives. They need to be continuously reminded that important decisions will be made based on the data they report. It’s also important to discuss with them at intervals, seek to understand their challenges, and act on their feedback without appearing to punish them.
Conduct Random Inspections
Consider assigning someone else to perform random checks on equipment from time to time. This helps to preserve assets, keep all building users safe, and to cross-check that agreed procedures are being followed. Also, try varying worker’s routines and recording details slightly and frequently so that the staff have to pay attention to what they’re filling out.
During these random checks, look for telltale indicators of pencil whipping, such as a very large batch of checklists submitted at the same time with no problems detected in any of them.
The information gathered from your maintenance data is key to the success of your maintenance objectives on any facility. But that data is highly influenced by the people collecting and recording it. Generally, very few staff will set out with the aim of deliberately falsifying records. Rather, pencil whipping is more of a gradual process that gains momentum the longer it is tolerated.
Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy to use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.