How we use our vehicles might be more important than what they are.
By Paul Hull
Today’s utility vehicles, whatever their role in an organization, are probably better made than before. Performance, driver or operator comfort, and fuel efficiency are all features that have steadily improved in recent years. Whatever vehicle style is needed for a fleet is available. With such excellent tools, how can we become more efficient? The answer is simple, and it’s the same for all tools and equipment—it depends on how we use them.
Have you ever met a field expert who thinks he or she knows how to make a machine or vehicle do more than it’s supposed to or who knows how to disable a so-called unnecessary feature? It’s the same as the operator of a new dozer with new technologies who thinks the new technologies are sales gimmicks and drives the dozer onto its side on the first slope after ignoring the manufacturer’s operation recommendations. We do not need employees who are wizards at disabling operational or, worst of all, safety features on new equipment; employees who do this should not be employed by us or anyone else. Good efficiency in a fleet starts with the drivers obeying the rules.
Every utility has procedures and rules for the safety and efficiency of the employees. For drivers, the rules will promote wise vehicle operation. The rules can concern time spent at specific tasks or breaks, fuel, maintenance, speed and all aspects of driving that are known to everyone but neglected by some. Neglect is not part of our efficiency plan. An important part of fleet efficiency involves good communication between everyone involved. It means that an experienced driver who suspects there is something working incorrectly on his or her vehicle should not be ignored as a troublemaker, but respected as someone whose knowledge, when conveyed to a maintenance technician, could mean savings of many hundreds of dollars. Early detection of vehicle faults might be noticed first by the driver before anyone in maintenance takes a routine look at the vehicle. Drivers should, therefore, be encouraged to discuss their vehicles with the technicians who service and maintain them. A 10-minute talk at the end of the day can be worth many dollars and save much time. In military circles I believe the procedure is called debriefing; it could be compared with the report a manager expects of all productivity or non-productivity. Communication is a valuable efficiency tool for everyone in the fleet.
Are manufacturers more interested in the field operation of their products? It is an accepted fact that all major brands produce well-designed vehicles, machines, derricks and aerial lifts. In the past two decades, customers have become more assertive in their demands for maximizing machine uptime and are ready to switch manufacturers if their equipment—or their interest in after-the-sale performance—falls below expectations. Many machine failures result from incorrect maintenance, too little maintenance or the use of low-quality spare parts, and those bad habits are out of the manufacturers’ control if they are not involved in the maintenance process. Some manufacturers hope that by offering a range of carefully tailored customer support packages they will be able to keep the machines running at optimal performance, creating satisfied customers who will buy another one of their machines at the time of replacement. It’s logical and to everyone’s benefit.
The People Factor
I think the vehicles in our fleets are like racehorses. Many of them are of equal ability, but their performance and efficiency become world beaters when they have the right jockeys. In my many years of attending conferences, seminars and exhibitions, I have never met a group that surpasses the electric utility fleet managers, who have their conference in Williamsburg, Va. No group has impressed me more with its commitment and knowledge—so much so that I feel the utilities that employ them probably have the most efficient fleets. I mentioned commitment and knowledge—the people who run and work in a fleet must have both.
A big responsibility of fleet managers is to know what advances have been made in equipment and how new technologies and techniques could benefit their fleets. In mentioning techniques as well as technologies, I am encouraging everyone involved in fleet management to question if there are better ways of running daily fleet operations without overinvesting in new equipment. A better way to use what we have is always a practical step forward; sometimes it might be better management of the our skilled people. With the nationwide scarcity of skilled employees at all levels, this would be an excellent time to review and improve the management of skilled employees because there might be a better-paying job elsewhere.
Keeping up-to-date is one of fleet managers’ most time-consuming responsibilities because there is so much information thrust on them—some is valuable and some is mere sales talk and they have to decide which data is worthwhile. Success is not just knowledge of new equipment; it can involve an intelligent appraisal of new technologies such as software for the many office and field computers now used. There are many software programs that address both general and particular issues for companies with fleets to manage. A fleet can be four vehicles or thousands; it can serve hundreds of customers or many thousands.
A good example of efficient utility fleet management comes from Ohio, where Cincinnati Bell has more than half a million customers. In a single year, this utility’s more than 300 technicians can make more than 250,000 service calls for residential or business repair and installation. The utility found that the necessity for manual intervention in service scheduling was courting inefficiency. If there were changes in the day’s plan, such as a technician finishing a work order at a location other than what was originally scheduled, it was difficult to reorganize. It meant a dispatcher had to contact a technician to manually re-adjust the schedule, which frequently caused a delay in reaching the right customer. Cincinnati Bell started using Trimble Taskforce, a scheduling and dispatching software program from Trimble, a globally recognized leader in global positioning systems (GPS).
“Taskforce really helped us meet our business goals of increasing service levels for our customers,” said Roger Rosenberger, vice president of Customer Operations at Cincinnati Bell. “It decreased our labor time and waste. Given our highly competitive environment, this was exactly what we needed.”
Software such as Trimble Taskforce can enable utility technicians to close out work orders in half the time and decrease overall driving times—allowing more completed jobs per day and greater customer satisfaction.
Our fleet efficiency determines the level of our customer care. Because ours is a service industry, that is indisputably important. Some have commented that software or computer-related programs that control driving operations are fine for companies whose business is delivery, but what are our utilities doing but delivering service? Knowing where our vehicles and machines are at any given time is crucial to daily success. Scheduling practical routes and scheduling jobs at sites where the distances between jobs are not determined in random fashion are helpful, especially as fuel prices appear to be rising again. Unnecessary or duplicative travel is unacceptable.
It is a matter of planning each day, and some of the inefficiency into which we might have slipped has been because of the boredom—and the resulting tendency to be sloppy and inaccurate—caused by monotonous work procedures. Today can be different. Yesterday’s tedious and inaccurate paperwork can be eliminated with new technologies. The field technicians’ workdays become better understood and better completed. Don’t be put off by some experts who flaunt new words and terms to prove how expert they are because most of the new technologies are easy to learn and simple to run, even if you don’t claim or want to be a computer expert. The steps to efficiency are here, in our people and in our programs and equipment. The first step is the decision to do it—so get off that chair and take the first step!