The Importance of Planning in Field Based Operations

Posted by Mark Thompson on March 16, 2015

“The Best Way To Predict Your Future Is To Create It” – I’m not sure I would agree with all of the sentiments of every American president, but the quote from Abraham Lincoln strikes a good degree of resonance when applying that thinking to work and resource management in field based operations.

Without planning operational outcomes will be at risk. Many organisations operating a field based work force will have day to day issues with:

  • Volatile work schedules
  • Ineffective work schedules, with technician / engineer idle time and travel exceeding expectations
  • Priority work not being done, with planned maintenance ‘dropped’ to accommodate reactive work

Usually leading to:

  • Customer Service below expectations
  • Work backlogs
  • Sub optimal asset performance
  • High levels of cost to maintain / repair
  • A disengaged field workforce
  • A difficult and fractious working relationship with contract partners

These are, I am sure, very familiar problems.

In our work with utility companies and other organisations operating field based operations, we often see a focus on automated scheduling and mobile technology, but less so on planning. There are significant benefits in scheduling and mobile of course, but we think the relative absence of planning in an end to end integrated process significantly impacts operational performance.

A forward looking view of work and resources, typically in the form of a forecast, will predict workload and engineer availability and, most importantly, any ‘gap’ between the two.

Priority Level Work

 

The best systems will take account of:

  • Geographic work boundaries (‘hard’ or ‘soft’)
  • Skills (work and engineers)
  • Travel time and engineer effectiveness
  • Work priority

That forward looking view could be:

  • Long Term (5yrs out, 1 year out, 6 months out, 3months out, e.g.)
  • Medium Term (1 month out, 1 week out, e.g.)
  • Short Term (1 week out, tomorrow, this afternoon, e.g.)

In any of these time frames there can be a view of the work / resource balance, and associated ‘gap’. If the ‘gap’ is not reported, not understood, or not acted upon all key operational performance indicators, whether they are service, cost or risk orientated, will be at best be at risk, and most likely lead to issues that cannot be appropriately resolved in the short term or on the day.

Why ignore long term indicators showing work will not be completed? Or that skills sets are not aligned to predicted work?

Where there is a ‘gap’ between predicted work and predicted resource availability, action is required. Actions may be work or resourced focussed. Example actions are shown in the table below:

Example Work Orientated Actions Example Resource Orientated Actions
Long Term (e.g. 1 Year Out) • Work Prioritisation, including consideration of schemes, projects or initiatives, and alignment to Corporate objectives • Succession or Retirement Planning
• Training Plans
• Insourcing / Outsourcing Decisions
• Recruitment
Medium Term (e.g. 3 Months Out) • Work Prioritisation, including Backlog Management • Ring Fencing of Specified Work to Specified Resources
• Use of Cross Boundary Resources
• Use of Cross Skilled Resources
• Planned Overtime
Short Term (e.g. 1 Week out) • Work Prioritisation, including Schedule Management • Use of Peak Lopping Contractors
• Overtime

Work prioritisation, where there are no or limited options to flex the workforce, may lead to work being cancelled or postponed. This may not be ideal, but it will be the outcome of a formal review and decision making process that may also consider mitigating factors or actions.
Decisions related to resources may be constrained by budget, contracts, or legislation, but again a formal planning related review will better ensure all options are considered / challenged.

In any action, the right decision, and the right action made as early as possible is key. Most likely re-training of engineers won’t sort out tomorrow’s schedule, but might for example accommodate the maintenance of a new facility with new technologies and equipment coming on line in 1 years time. As with all planning, a continuous review of numbers and actions, and associated adjustment and update is required.

Systems, numbers, and analytics will show predicted workload, predicted resource availability, and any ‘gap’, and options regards ‘gap’ rectification. Resulting actions and re-aligned workload and resource numbers effectively create a ‘plan’. Much of the number crunching and analytics will take place as back office support function. It is however absolutely critical that Operations believe in the numbers, analytics, and adopted options / actions. Moreover, Operations should formally own the plan. This ensures operational input (they are the experts after all!), and aligns responsibilities and outcomes. But this also demands a commitment from Operational Managers, not always easy when much of their focus is in the muck and bullets of the here and now. The role of the Planner should be to facilitate the process. Operational Managers should play a leadership role.

Skepticism related to Planning is wholly misplaced. Forecasts will be wrong, operational issues are unpredictable, and a reactive mode always required. However, ignoring realistic ‘roughly right’ numbers indicating issues 3 months out, 1 year out, 2 years out, will come back and bit you in the proverbial bum.

So, Operational Managers, by embracing the planning ethic, you can create your future by actively managing your anticipated workload and resources, directly impacting customer service, asset performance, the effective of your teams, and the engagement of your engineers/ technicians!

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Mark Thompson

Mark has a depth of water industry experience that won’t be found in many other consultancies. He has worked with Anglian Water for a number of years in roles which have helped to transform their operations, including improvements to planning and despatch functions, information management and scheduling processes. Mark has recently worked at South West Water to help review and shape their vision for future fieldforce operations.