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Automation = Transformation, the next drive for field service?

In our continuing quest to discover and deliver Peak Performance, and to turn it into ‘business as usual’, we have been exploring a three step journey:

1) Mobilise core processes to connect the office with the mobile workers more effectively;

2) Implement a performance management framework and toolset that uses the data flowing through the processes to guide decisions on improvements;

3) Centralise and automate repetitive tasks and release capacity for higher-value tasks.

Automation = Transformation, the next drive for field service?

 We have reached the final step (phew!) having introduced the topic and the initial two steps (here, here and here). This time we are focusing on the transformative power of automation. If your organisation has reached this far in the journey, you will have already automated some parts of the end-to-end process, including:

- mobility to mechanise data collection and remove paperwork, plus

- performance management tools which deliver analyses and reports, automatically including KPIs and calculations tuned to your service business.

As a consequence, you will have eliminated laborious manual tasks and time-consuming manipulation/collation of data in tools like Excel, and turned it into valuable management information. And that’s time wasted before you can even begin to interpret the results!

These deployments of ‘automation’ certainly save time and improve data quality and accuracy, but essentially accelerate existing processes. Certainly, some changes in behaviour are required to gain maximum benefit, but they do not really involve radical modifications to people’s roles and job content – or challenge the fundamental working practices, or force you to re-design the organisation to be more adaptable and quicker to react.

Hopefully, you share our belief that service organisations will only be able to survive and grow if they can become more agile and adaptable. This has become essential if you are to keep up with increasing customer expectations and more intensive competition. Service is strategic in today’s market.

So, what do we mean by automation in this context? Well, the implementation of real-time data collection and analytics which allow you to see what’s going on and respond faster than ever before, brings a new pressure. As if you did not have enough of those already! That pressure arises from the improved visibility of what is actually going on. Historically, information was available so slowly that you could do nothing about problematic situations, other than bemoan what went wrong yesterday/last week/last month.

The secret sauce of excellence

Everything you need to deliver right for the customer is right there in front of you, right now. You can be proactive with that data, rather than using obsolete data to simply hunt out someone to blame for yesterday’s failures. What are you going to do about it?

Delivering Peak Performance is really about making lots of small decisions that reduce friction in service delivery and eliminate minor irritants. In its own right, each one is hardly worth bothering about – an engineer who overruns a scheduled job duration marginally, a delivery that is a couple of minutes late – but collectively they add up to a lot of wasted potential for you to be better.

Targets are often set at the overall, macro-level of your operation, e.g. to improve productivity by 5%, but you have to translate that aspiration into micro-level actions if you are ever to achieve that number. Making the right connection from the top-level targets to the individual behaviours, process steps and specific decisions that influence outcomes, and pulling the right levers is the secret sauce of excellence in this business.

Making sure exceptions truly are exceptional

We can all react to major emergencies – the system that is ‘down’, the critical late delivery that stops a factory production line. We can all scramble in a crisis and sort it out. You won’t find how to do it in the quality manual, rather it relies on experience, instinct and ‘nous’.

But, it is clear that the need to make lots of small intra-day corrections to plans and assignments is much harder to achieve – manual approaches are quickly overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of decisions to be made and the speed required to implement them. That often means decisions have to be made too far in advance, and do not reflect the real-world situation at the point of action. For example, a plan for today that was made last night looked good at 8am, is probably in tatters by mid-afternoon.

Lots of operations today feel like they are drowning in exceptions. That is a contradiction in terms of course – once exceptions to the rules become the norm, they are no longer the exceptions! We have first to get control of this situation and re-balance operational planning, prioritising to ensure we focus people’s precious time onto the right situations. Analysis shows that many of the decisions that have to be made fall into patterns and are actually the implementation of business policies, both the formally agreed ones and the working practices that have simply grown up. That means ‘rules’ – and rules can be automated in software.

Scheduling engines for example, apply pre-defined business rules to optimise the productive use of worker’s time (and reduce their travel times), whilst balancing the cost-to-serve with the value of meeting those Service Levels that customers value – and have paid for! Depending on the speed of response plus volatility of demand, and the diversity and complexity of services you deliver, you may need real-time dynamic engines that can react to changing circumstances second by second.

Applying people power

Properly defining, prioritising and automating the bulk of routine decisions frees up people’s time to focus on managing genuine exceptions – those situations that do not meet the defined circumstances and need human judgement to resolve. Inevitably these roles, typically called controllers or dispatchers, will be significantly changed, and embedding knowledge into the system opens up the possibility of centralising and optimising that part of your organisation to meet the new requirements.

Similarly, moving the point of decision-making about worker assignment nearer the point of delivery (at least in time!) means a different approach is needed for mobile resources. You may no longer be giving them a whole day’s worth of jobs to carry out, but drip feeding them the optimum tasks as they complete work. This can be very unsettling for employees who have always left home in the morning with a view of the whole day ahead of them. Now, they do not have that visibility, simply because no-one knows in advance precisely how the day will actually turn out. This uncertainty has to be countered by a promise to get them home on-time at the end of their shift, if you are to keep their co-operation!

Changing job roles in the office and working practices in the field add up to ‘transforming’ your service delivery. So, don’t under-estimate the scale of the effort needed to reach and sustain Peak Performance. New opportunities and new challenges, but be sure it is what your competitors are already contemplating.

The time to start is now.

If you recognise your own situation in what we have been talking about, are striving to define and deliver Peak Performance in your own operation, we’d love to talk with you – if only to share stories! Contact us here and we’ll be in touch. Also, we are producing a consolidated version of this blog series as a single document. If you would like a PDF copy to share with colleagues then please let us know that too.

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