PRB Articles

Maintenance And Operations

It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you!

As any observant manager (and aging athlete) knows, things are always breaking down. At the heart of it, Nature has a nasty habit called entropy: “the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity” (American Heritage Dictionary), which is another way of saying entropy is a universal “leveler.” Ski slopes and scenic bluffs are eroded by rain and waves. Recreational waters are filled with sediment stripped from the land. Buildings are pummeled by hurricanes and earthquakes and assaulted by arson and vandalism.

It’s a constant battle, and maintenance and operations are on the front line.

“Maintenance” and “operations” are like peas in a pod; one seldom appears in a sentence without the other. Like many commonly used phrases, however, this tandem is expressed automatically without reflecting on why the two words are associated or even what they mean. By taking a geographic perspective, managers can connect them to a system of five “spheres” that demonstrates why the words are joined and how this pairing enables managers to optimize both.

Five Spheres

Before maintenance and operations are defined specifically, Figure 1 (Uhlik, 2006) and Table 1 should be examined and explained. (Please be patient here; the description is somewhat complex).

Traditionally, geographers make a broad distinction between the physical (natural) world and the human (cultural) world. Physical geography deals with forces and processes occurring independently of humans within four “spheres” called the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere (see Table 1). Human geography is concerned primarily with the anthrosphere: the forces and processes initiated by humans and their effects on all five spheres. (Maintenance and operations belong to the anthrosphere because they involve or benefit humans.)

Further, these five spheres exist both externally (“outside”) and internally (“inside”). This distinction leads to the introduction of a second pea-pod phrase: areas and facilities (see Figure 2). One way to think about areas and facilities is to place them at either end of a continuum describing the relative influence of the five spheres. Thus an area is a portion of geographic space intentionally delimited for a defined use and as such is exposed to all five spheres. It is affected by the four natural forces, and also by the anthrosphere.

For example, an area could be a protected wilderness, a national forest or a recreational soccer field. Each is open to the elements and also managed by humans for a particular purpose. In contrast, a facility normally is an artificial structure (like a sports club) that completely isolates people from the four spheres of the external environment. In between are structures that shield participants from one or more of the physical spheres.

For example, a concrete slab such as a playground basketball court acts as a barrier between the bare earth and the players’ shoes. Build a pavilion over the pad and the players are safe from both a downpour and the resulting mud, and the arrangement begins to resemble a facility and so on.

Maintenance And Operations Defined

Applying this scheme of physical and human spheres to areas and facilities allows maintenance and operations to be defined precisely (see Table 2). Maintenance is actions performed to ensure that area / facility physical components continue to function at expected levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

Operations is decisions made to ensure that area / facility human systems function at desired levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Essentially, then, maintenance deals with the “stuff” of physical forces and places (surfaces, materials, supplies and equipment), and operations involves the “staff” functions affecting people (service, finance, safety, security, communications and logistics).

Humans mimic natural features and processes, but in a way that tries to control Nature. As a result, each feature or process in the physical world has an equivalent force or process in the human world. For example, a lake in the natural environment becomes a pool in the human environment; natural sunlight becomes a light bulb, etc.

Additionally, the same processes that occur externally are imitated internally. A recreational lake--or an aquatic center--requires lifeguards, chemicals and appropriate equipment and supplies. Live plants need light, water, nutrients and a suitable temperature, whether they’re located in the wild or within a facility.

So someone needs to decide who, what, when, where, how, and why, and then actions must be taken to implement those decisions. The key to efficiently and effectively accomplishing this process is to use Figure 1 to identify the connections among each decision and action as they relate to the spheres. The problems that must be solved or issues that need to be addressed are not usually isolated, but are interrelated.

Maintenance And Operations In Action

The manager of a football stadium requires staff, one of whom is a groundskeeper. What will the position pay and what effect will that salary have on the budget? How will the groundskeeper communicate with the manager, other staff or clients? Who will be responsible for ordering supplies and equipment, and on whose authority? When the air is hot and dry, who adjusts watering and mowing schedules and on what basis? If the weather is threatening, when will warnings be given, and who will insure client safety and facility security?

Mapping maintenance and operations problems and issues ahead of time allows managers to create a playbook that sequences and synchronizes decisions and actions.

The bottom line is that humans are like athletes in a perpetual competition with Nature: a formidable team known far and wide as the five “spheres” of entropy. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and an integrated maintenance and operations framework provides the game plan.

Kim S. Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at

Work cited:

Uhlik, K. S. “Object-oriented learning and testing.” Schole, 21, 177-183, 2006..

Figure 1: Components of the Four Spheres of the Physical Environment


temperature, humidity, pressure, sunshine (radiation) and wind (circulation)


plants, animals, insects, bacteria, viruses, molds and fungi


natural rocks and soils and “rock”-derived solids

Figure 2: Components of Maintenance and Operations


(“Stuff” & Places)

surfaces, materials, supplies and equipment


(“Staff” & People)

service, finance, safety, security, communications and logistics

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