Integrating mobile solutions
Utilities describe their challenges, successes and lessons learned
Published In: Intelligent Utility July / August 2011
AN INTEGRATED MOBILE WORKFORCE MANAGEMENT platform - tying in field management, outage management, customer information, geospatial information and other systems - provides utilities with the ability to transform the way field work is performed. It can improve restoration times, increase customer satisfaction and increase overall productivity, thereby lowering cost. These were the goals of the mobile dispatch project launched by Exelon Business Services' two electricity distribution companies, ComEd and PECO. The project was featured in the January/February 2011 issue of this magazine, and a subsequent Intelligent Utility Realities webcast in April took a deeper dive into this project, as well as new mobile work-force management projects implemented by JEA (formerly Jacksonville Electric Authority) and Vectren Corporation.
The challenges faced were different in scope, the successes notable, and the lessons learned definitely worth sharing here. Edited for length and style, panelists Jackie Scheel (manager of water and sewer customer service responses for JEA), Mark Browning (director, IT ComEd Solutions, Exelon) and Rich Schach (vice president of energy delivery, Vectren) offered numerous utility insights. A few are shared here.
I asked about the cultural changes associated with adding new technologies to the mix in the field, and the types of technologies being incorporated with the field services groups at each utility.
SCHACH It's kind of interesting to watch. Like all utilities, and probably a lot of industry, we've got an aging workforce and we're going through quite a transition with retirements and the like. What's interesting, and it's probably just a sign of the times, is that as we bring in these people to our organization who have had a little more access to the iPhones and the games and things that this generation is used to, not only are we not seeing a cultural issue, but we're seeing, "Why can't it do this?" or "Why can't it do that?" The whole world is changing around us, and we're actually getting in a generation of folks that not only find it easier to use, but also are helping us find ways to make it better.
Now, having said that, we still have a considerable workforce that has been around for a long time and we spend a lot of time trying to ensure that we keep their training up to speed. We are providing a lot more communication about what the value is and trying to have them recall what they used to do compared with what they do today. What we're seeing is that even those folks who at the beginning were just dead set against a laptop in the truck, I'd venture to stay that at least 80 percent are more than happy to have it and would be upset if you took it away.
SCHEEL Historically, prior to 2007, we used some type of Toughbook. Sometimes, this is where you ask, okay, if you come from nothing, then you can introduce folks to anything new. We did try, and then when we went to make the change to what are we going to use in the future, we tried the PDAs. The folks did not like them: they said they were too small, they couldn't see them.
For me as management, I love the PDAs. But they did not like them. We even tried the tablets. I have to give kudos to our IT department. They said, okay, here's what you have; take them and use them. But we voted on just a regular laptop. You can buy three laptops versus one Toughbook, and not all the trucks are so rough that they require a Toughbook. Now as far as field services, which is where I came from, I would strongly encourage the PDA if you can. But we have not engaged our employees enough. They are a little resistant to it, and right now, we're not pushing that venue. We just use regular laptops with aircards that go into base mounts installed in the vehicle. But I would love to use PDAs. If it could start out that way, I would never give another option.
BROWNING We started out thinking that we were going to deploy a lot of different form factors, a lot of different tools. Early on in the project, we quickly realized that the majority of users viewed the tool as something that was going to remain in their vehicle and that they wouldn't be carrying it around. And it was really the taking it out of the vehicle and using it in various ways that we thought - in terms of collecting information in substations, making rounds and the like - would drive the need for different form factors.
But we didn't see that big push to drive to multiple form factors. So, we really took a one-size-fits-all approach for the project, and now, almost two years post-project, we're starting to see maybe a revitalization of this drive for new form factors. I view it as a maturity and an evolution of the technology. The ruggedized laptop in the vehicle is probably something that solves 80 percent of our business problems, and now that 20 percent is driving the need to start to look at different form factors, in the form of smart phones and PDAs, that maybe synch with the device to go out, collect some form information and come back and sync with the vehicle's MVT and push the information back up. So a lot of evolution, I think, is going to occur there over time.
I asked each panelist about guiding principles or key lessons learned with their deployments. Here are a few of many that were discussed.
BROWNING We approached this project as an extension of the edge of corporate network. This is an important piece in that we did not set any limitations or boundaries over what the field worker could do. The field worker was provided the same level of functionality and capability that an office worker in our environment would have. A fully enabled Web browser would allow them to leverage the corporate intranet and the Internet to perform their various work functions. And this was a key component that I think really helped our project gain traction with the field workers. It demonstrated trust in the field workers, trust that management had in their ability to use the tools, and it gave them an opportunity to look at how they could do their job in a way that was most effective for them versus how I think management and the project team might have viewed how they would use these tools.
And then finally, with deploying a mobile solution to 3,000 users who are all mobile, constantly changing, moving around, a lot of tools and technologies need to be put in place around software management and software distribution to keep the platform current, secure, and up to date at all times.
SCHEEL I'm from the business side, but sometimes in the IT world, people say, "How important is testing?" Well, you can never contradict or even contemplate what the system's going to do, so you have to test each one of your scenarios. You've got to test each one of your field activity types and let it write back to the system to see how it's going to come across. A lot of testing is what people seem to want to cut out of their timelines, and I highly recommend you do not cut your scenario testing out.
Also, a major factor to having a successful mobile work-force unit is to get your front line employees engaged and ask them exactly what it is that they want to see or they don't want to see. They're the ones who are going to be using the system the most. When we added the meter service agency on [Ed. Note: JEA has been building its mobile workforce management platform in stages since 1988], we more than tripled the number of users. We added 200 users, and I will tell you one of our lessons learned here was, during the testing, during the project, we did as much load testing as we could, but what we did not realize was that most of these users would all be signing on at the same time. So what we did realize was that, at about 7 a.m., we had about 400 users hitting the machine. So we had to go back to our IT department and add a couple of different servers.
We called it "morning sickness." I would advise anyone that, when they do their testing and they do their load testing, they consider when and how many users will be on the system at the same time.
SCHACH We spent a lot of time upfront establishing the right data into the tool, and that's proven to be just a huge part of the success for Vectren. We do a lot of work managing by performance metrics dashboards and what not. If the data's not in there correctly in the first place, it's tough to get buy-in from your field management. If they just don't believe the original data, (then they won't) believe the data the system's now spitting out. We spent so much time early on that we've gotten buy-in, and now we can just move on to managing the actual work.
Panelists also discussed changing business processes with the new mobile platform.
BROWNING Another key piece of the project was really looking at taking our current manual business processes and looking at how they would be implemented with the new technology. We certainly didn't want to take a current manual process, put technology around it, and still do it the same way. There was an opportunity to leverage technology and redesign the process and we tried to do that wherever we could. A big piece of this was focusing on handoffs between work groups and ensuring the right data got out to the field at the right time for each of our users.
SCHACH Meter order management was my largest activity, and as such, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we could better manage that area. One problem we had was that our labor contract had originally, some years back, forced us to treat our various operating centers across our service territory as individual operating centers-everybody sort of did their own thing, if you will.
The workers were tied to those areas or depots and they couldn't cross boundaries, and it just didn't make sense. You could have an emergency where somebody might live literally across the street and they were not allowed to work that emergency because of the labor issue.
So once we were able to break that model through contract discussions, it opened the gamut of flexibility for us to then focus on this category of work.
And finally, more keys to success, and overall benefits:
SCHACH Since 2004, this cost category saved about $3 million. So, we're operating at $3 million less than we would have then, and obviously that's a number that's going to continue on in the future and hopefully even get better. We've also improved the number of orders per FTE and, in some cases, multiple more orders per FTE.
BROWNING Another key success factor during this project was around deployment. This was a program that was cutting across six departments across two companies. We wanted to ensure success by doing a slow roll, trying it with one group, piloting where we could, gaining learnings and experience from that group and then expanding to really build momentum. And that was something I think we found was very successful. So piloting, and soliciting feedback and incorporating that into the next phase was key to ensuring that anything that was working we build on and things that weren't working so well we tried to address as we moved through the project.
SCHEEL Everything is tied in [with regard to vehicle tracking]. In fact, we're in the middle of a GPS project, too, that will tie everything back in together into this one. We do have the vehicles tied into the laptops. We have to do that for anyone who lives in a hurricane area, for FEMA recovery. We have to be able to track the vehicle that went out there with the work order. I believe you could only do that with some type of workforce management. I don't see how you could do that on a piece of paper.