Monday, 9 September 2013

Taking smart metering workforce management to the next level

On the face of it, the UK smart metering roll-out probably seems like a relatively straightforward exercise; simply a question of swapping out the existing meters. On the contrary, however, it is actually a highly complex process, although much can be learned from the day-to-day challenges faced by existing metering operations.

Rather than increasing risk by deploying generic work management and scheduling tools, success will depend on exploiting an emerging range of next generation support software, specifically designed to meet the smart metering challenge. Ideally, these tools will be deployable in conjunction with the current-best-of breed solutions and products already optimised for the specific characteristics of the metering mix. Coupled with innovative refinements to address the increased scale and complexity of smart metering installations and skill requirements, these tools will provide a perfect solution for maximising customer satisfaction, controlling installation costs and reducing risk.

Wheatley’s proposed Smart Roll-out Optimiser, will take smart metering workforce management to this next level. It is being designed to underpin strategic planning and maximise the implementation efficiency of the smart meter installation process, at the same time as ensuring maximum quality of service (QoS) levels to customers. By providing a front-end to any workforce management system including Wheatley’s Assign solution, it will focus on the critical areas of installation planning, customer engagement and workforce utilisation. It will enable companies to model hypothetical installation schedules as the basis for optimising smart meter installation plans, ensure customer engagement/contact centres are able to support the selected strategy by maximising confirmed appointments, and provide real-time feedback of actual performance against plan, allowing timely intervention to daily work schedules and the refinement of ongoing activity.

It will adopt a three-stage approach to the meter installation process, enabling metering companies to achieve an optimum installation schedule based on the maximum possible number of confirmed appointments with prioritised customer groups or regions as appropriate. Installation scenarios, built in the Campaign Planner, will allow an accurate forecast to be provided on how a particular smart metering campaign might develop in practice. These scenarios will be based on a mix of factors such as individual installer skills, operating hours, available workers, numbers of confirmed and assumed appointments. Once an optimum campaign is defined, a Customer Interface module will present the customer contact team with the necessary information to drive the appointment booking and confirmation process, allowing the escalation and targeting of contact effort as the campaign date approaches or operational efficiency requires intervention. An Operations Interface will provide the ability to monitor confirmed appointments against available resource as well as resource utilisation, allowing “’what if’ studies to be undertaken so that the operational requirements of campaigns can be further optimised. Finally, as work is completed, it will be possible to compare actual activity against planned performance to identify and rectify any issues.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Tackling the hard stuff first

We are all guilty of it, we put off what we don’t know how to tackle.

At Wheatley’s we have a complex and extensive set of products which are distributed to a variety of customers who all have very different requirements and demands.

We have in the past found ourselves drowning in a sea of competing demands, so what has made the difference, and how do we keep our head above water now?

Having a dedicated approach to resource management is essential. Wheatley’s allow support personnel and Project Managers time to collaboratively allocate resources to ensure support work and product enhancements are balanced in the resources they are allocated.

The Agile framework has realised some huge benefits to working practices at Wheatley. We still adopt the PRINCE2 framework when interacting with clients, but we adopted the Agile way of working within the company a while ago and it has already produced some great results.

In any Agile sprint there is easy stuff and there is hard stuff. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance, so how does Wheatley go about tackling the hard stuff first?

Luckily we are blessed with a fantastic team of developers and QA staff. They are motivated and highly skilled. In reality that’s all you need, but what else have we done?

We give ourselves time to organise a sprint. It may seem like a lot of man hours to get everyone around the table for anything from 1 hour to a whole day, but it is worth it, I promise.

We prioritise individual pieces of work into no longer than two days, or eight story points in complexity, which by definition breaks down the hard stuff into bite sized pieces.

We make sure someone in the meeting is prepared to keep the group on track and ensure we are balancing customer demands against the direction the company wants to take a product. It’s always clear to all those involved, what needs doing and what stage it’s at, and that is key.

Wheatley’s have also invested in their staff by offering everyone the opportunity to attend a communication and influencing course. This gave us all bags of useful tools and tips on how to cope with complex work. For example, they recommended that any one activity is only concentrated on for 55 minutes in any 1 hour. The other 5 minutes should be used to take stock of what you have done, sit back and relax (by means of meditation techniques if you have them at your disposal) and then asses what you are going to do next. When adhered to this technique really does help clear the mind and make a daunting task seem less so, and it makes for great viewing in the office when someone is mid meditation. I go to a beach in Thailand, listening to ‘Venus as a Boy’ on my Discman (yes I’m old), and have been known to start singing out loud, which would be fine if I could carry a tune.

Do you have any better meditation ideas?

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Tristan joined us for three weeks work experience

... here is his blog about his time with us:

In years gone by, people have complained about the shackles of a nine-to-five job. However, this is not just a job; this is an experience that will stay with me for a lifetime.

I have long been into my tech, ever since I was first introduced to a computer when I was seven. I still get that same buzz off using a computer to explore new technology as I did the first time I used one. Every time I get a new computer, or become immersed into a new online fad, that little seven year old inside of me reignites with giddiness. I thought getting a job in IT would be a small transition that would not set this off, but I was wrong.

This job does not conform to what I first envisaged for nine-to-five job. This experience will be one I’ll never forget and hope that in the future I will once again be offered the brilliant opportunity to return to the firm. As I now head off to University armed with the experience from Wheatley Associates, I feel assured that this can be the start of an exciting and promising career in IT.

I ask you:
Tech may float my boat, but what thing sets off your inner child, and when did it last arise? Leave your answer in a comment below.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The roll-out challenge facing smart meter operators

This is the second of three articles looking at how companies can prepare to deliver the most efficient Smart Meter roll-out.

By Craig Edge (CEng, MIET)

With over 50 million meters to be changed in a relatively short space of time, nothing can be left to chance with the smart meter roll-out. The vast quantity of meters involved will not necessarily translate into a low-cost per install. While some customers will be easily convinced by the benefits of smart metering, making it possible to devise high density, high access rate schedules at the beginning of the roll-out, others will not be so easily seduced. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ will become scarcer as the programme develops. The simple and easy access installations have to be balanced with those that are more technically challenging and the customers that are difficult to engage with.

Setting aside technical challenges such as communal metering points, apartments and flats, the key challenge for meter operators will be to ensure as many ‘confirmed access appointments’ as possible, with customers fully understanding what to expect from the installation. So, it is about more than just scheduling and driving the field workforce.  

Meter operations are a prime example of where the effectiveness of the front-line workers is heavily influenced by planning and intelligence in the back office. Successful and economical delivery of meter installation programmes requires sophisticated workforce management and customer engagement systems unified to drive targeted campaigns.  The systems need to be able to manage both complexity and volume while allowing skilled managers and staff to orchestrate and react to dynamically changing parameters. There is little that front-line workers can do to improve matters if they are given too little or too much work, a poor route or fail to gain access. 

This is where a front-end work management application that integrates installation planning, customer engagement and workforce utilisation will come into its own in helping organisations deliver excellent customer service while constraining operational costs within desirable limits. The work management and scheduling tools must be able to optimise a different set of parameters to balance the highest level of customer satisfaction with economic operation. It potentially includes:

A mix of confirmed and unconfirmed appointments.
High levels of no access visits where the customer does not keep the appointment.
Requirement to pre-notify customers of all appointments, so no speculative visits.
Large variation in execution time for non-access compared to access visits.
Regulatory financial penalties for late and missed appointments.
Large variation in potential access rates based on customer groupings.

It is not an easy mix to manage. To compensate for no access outcomes, work management systems must allow for a degree of overbooking. However, to avoid poor customer service, this capability needs to be used intelligently, based on the work within the schedule and local characteristics of the customer mix, all of which are dynamically informed by constant feedback from actual results in the field. Only tools built specifically for metering purposes have evolved the necessary variables and controls to successfully manage this mix.  These include:

A mix of confirmed and unconfirmed work.
  • Travel time.
  • Skill requirements.
  • Task mix.
  • Task duration.
  • Degree of “over booking”.
  • Desirable operating hours (school runs, dark evenings etc).

While a schedule comprising only confirmed appointments is the ideal, it is also important to incorporate an element of unconfirmed appointments into the schedule to ensure installations are progressively achieved for difficult to engage customers. The volume of unconfirmed appointments will influence the extent of any overbooking and the system’s ability to provide feedback to the schedulers on completion rates for unconfirmed appointments in a highly granular fashion, is crucial to the ongoing refinement of the process.  

Monday, 12 August 2013

Adopting a different management philosophy

This is the third blog looking at why we should move our American based management philosophy to incorporate thinking more like that of the East. (Read the first and second posts.)

The people out in Asia are feeling good about themselves. While the western economies struggle with debt, unemployment and sagging competitiveness, most of Asian economies seem to jump from strength to strength, powering through the early years of the millennium with apparent ease, its companies becoming more and more prominent on the world stage. So it’s no wonder that many Asians have come to believe that their economic systems are superior to those of the West — and there is a growing belief that policymakers in Washington, London and Berlin should sit up and pay attention. In the 20th century Asia was schooled in the wonders of capitalism by the West, and benefited tremendously from this tutelage. Now however, at the risk of being accused of social proofing, many westerners believe the time has come for the West to learn from Asia. I am not contending that one is better than the other, what I am contending is that the different approaches lend themselves to different situations and that the ideal company needs to incorporate both styles.

In the previous blog I discussed the cultural precedents of inductive (Eastern) versus deductive (Western) thinking.  Asian managers instinctively process information inductively. As such they can pursue a highly abstract idea as a guide for their actions. While Western managers apply established patterns and approaches to deliberate on their decisions’ a process supported by the approach of the MBA. Of course this is a generalization, not all Asians think inductively and not all Westerners think deductively. For example Richard Branson exhibits high degrees of inductive thinking and Hui Wei (the Chinese telecoms giant) where Western consultants were employed to manage certain advanced projects specifically using Western techniques.

If we agree that a business is there to maximise profit and we agree that the profit level is determined by the business environment, then the success of the business is determined by how it adapts to the environment and combines resources to build new capabilities. In this world the ideal would be a manager or team that could behave in both inductive and deductive ways depending upon the requirements of the situation. For example when a firm is in the market entry phase the inductive approach to explore new opportunities is a key asset– no MBA graduates in the start-up phase then. However when a company grows the challenge of efficiency would require more deductive, evidence based approaches. In hard times or when entering a new market even large corporations will require the dominance of the deductive once again.

How can a company switch between these styles? The answer is that managers need to be aware of their dominant style and ensure they have around them those of the opposite approach and be willing to subserve their style as the environment dictates. This may have interesting impacts on corporate cohesiveness, individual dominance and the function of Boards of Directors.

The conclusion: if we accept the benefits of both Asian and Western management styles and outlooks as applied to different environmental challenges then for a company to perform at its best would need board members and decision makers to reflect the environments it is facing, or is likely to face as opposed to the function it performs. They would have for example a Director of New Market Entry and a Director of Efficiency. This is opposed to the typical current board make up of Director of Engineering or Director of HR and so forth. Each Directors’ role being precisely categorized as an inductive or a deductive function, enabling the rapid response to changes in the business landscape.

If you’re a Western manager and want to find out how deductive you are try some free tests at the Assessment Day website.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Efficiency in the workforce (or the accumulation of marginal gains)

The British Cycling team have a motto on which they base their work ethic; ‘the accumulation of marginal gains’. In simple terms this is the idea that simple things cannot significantly impact performance by themselves, but when a number of them are taken together, they have a significant impact overall. It’s easier to find 1% gain than 10%, but if you can find 1% ten times…. Remote Workforce Management is much like this.

To make a workforce more efficient requires a number of different things; The ability to make sure that the man on the street knows exactly where he is going, that he knows what he has to do and has the skill to do it, that he is visiting his jobs in the most efficient order, that the customer is expecting him and he will be able to access the property, that he can capture the data from the job quickly and accurately.

Each of these items in itself does not contribute massively to the efficiency of the workforce as a whole, but a system that delivers all of them together gives significant performance advantage.

Accurate positional information means that the engineer is not hunting for the place where he has to do the job. Modern geo-location systems have simplified this enormously; many people own some sort of satellite navigation system, many even have this capability on their phones. But how long does it take to enter the postcode of the destination; 5 seconds? 10 seconds? Multiply this up for 10 jobs a day and 100 operatives and you have a figure of 5000 to 10000 seconds a day – that’s somewhere between 1 and 3 hours of lost productivity, just entering a postcode into a TomTom! What if the system that the operative was using could do that for them? 2 hours a day, 10 hours a week, 500 hours a year saved for our imaginary 100-strong workforce.

Our operative arrives at site, unsure of what he has to do. Is he here to fix a problem or perform routine maintenance? He asks the homeowner; they don’t know and weren’t expecting him (if he is lucky enough to find them at home – we will come back to that). He phones back to the office and after consulting their systems they confirm that he needs to perform some maintenance and that a letter was sent to the homeowner two weeks previously. Better still, the homeowner had confirmed that they were going to be at home. So how long did this little exchange take? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Again, multiplying up, even assuming that this only happens once a day for each of our 100 operatives; between 8 and 17 hours – one or two man days. If we could eliminate the need for this conversation then we could reduce our overheads by one to two FTEs.

Having established what he needs to do, our hapless hero is forced to tell the customer that the system has incorrectly given the job to him. He doesn’t know how to do maintenance, he can only do installations. He has to phone back to the office and make another appointment for a different field operative to come and visit. He has wasted a lot of his own time (he could have been on his next job by now – maybe 30 minutes ahead of where he is) and now another operative needs to visit the same property and gain access. Additionally, the customer has had a bad experience and may be thinking that perhaps the company isn’t particularly good at this – should they be looking elsewhere? So what does this mean to our efficiency – even if it only happens once for each operative per week, this give us an accumulated time of 3000 minutes a week or 600 minutes a day - between one or two man days (and this is only the wasted time of the operative who has knocked on the door, let alone the other operative who needs to perform the follow up visit). Again, this is the equivalent of one or two FTEs.

So what other marginal gains can be exploited –the most obvious one is the efficiency of routing. If our operative is visiting properties in an efficient order then he is saving time, but also fuel costs and wear and tear on the vehicle. Adding an extra job a day through efficient routing is a simple way of increasing the overall efficiency of a workforce, but there is also added value having an advanced Remote Workforce Management system;

In this day and age, it isn’t quite as simple as the ‘travelling salesman problem’ (the shortest route between a fixed number of known places with no other constraints). Demanding customers want to make decisions about when it is convenient for them, rather than being told when they can have the job done. They want to know to the narrowest possible window when the operative will arrive. Some may be at work and want to be notified by text 30 minutes before the operative if going to show up. They want to be compensated if nobody shows. They want to know how long the job will take. They want to ensure that the job is complete when the operative leaves. All these elements can be described as the ‘customer experience’ – a phrase that is perhaps overused.  Increasingly organisations such as supermarkets are leading the way. Online booking of appointments, choice of delivery slots, SMS notification of delivery window, emailed confirmations – companies with remote workforces would do well to sit up and take note.

This leads us neatly on to the ‘no access’ factor. We have our jobs booked neatly and our route efficiently scheduled. We have the right guy for the job and he has turned up at the right property at the right time. He knocks on the door…. No answer. In order to do the job, first you have to be able to access the job. Forward calling and advance notification help to reduce the instances of no accesses. Collation of statistics regarding no access, or prior notification of customers prone to be absent may affect the behaviour of the systems involved. If you know that someone is prone to being out when you call them, then don’t you call in advance to check that they will in? No access visits is probably the largest efficiency drain for the remote workforce. One no access has much the same effect as a wrong skill, with the added inconvenience that you do not have the customer present to rearrange the visit. Calling cards need to be left and other processes established to deal with this (another one or two FTEs).

Finally, when all the cards are stacked in his favour – he has accessed the correct property on time and has been able to complete the job – he needs to be able to quickly and accurately capture data pertaining to the job he has performed. He could write it down, but this means that someone needs to understand and translate his handwriting. There may be data pass back SLAs that need to be adhered to. He could capture the information through a web page or similar, but what if there is no internet coverage where he is? Ideally, he can capture the data through a built-for-purpose application that captures all of the information required, validates that data before he leaves site (to ensure that there is no need to revisit) and passes the data directly back to the office for immediate use.

With systems tailored towards an accumulation of marginal gains, the solutions can be easily justified on the savings from those gains alone. Add to those the operational efficiencies of having all of the information in one place …. and there is a compelling argument for an advanced Remote Workforce Management system.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Discarding the American Management Philosophy

This is the second post looking at why we should move our American based management philosophy to be more like that of the East. (Read the first post here.)

The difference in management styles between the East and West has their origins deep in the cultural histories of those peoples. In this second blog I will summarise the origins and explain the hows and whys of how they came to be. In later blogs I will look at how and why the West would be wise to adopt and change its management outlook. To state up front the reason is that the people out in Asia are feeling pretty good about themselves right now. While the West struggles with debt, unemployment and dwindling competitiveness, most of the East is powering through the downturn with ease and its companies are becoming more and more prominent on the world stage, a lot of them from pretty much obscurity. So it’s no wonder that many Asians have come to believe that their management styles are superior to those of the U.S. and Europe or at least more suited to the world as it is today.

But where did these differences come from. At the core is a different way of thinking. The West shows a heavy dependence on deduction. An empirical and rational approach to all matters business combined with the need to prove all things theoretical. This manifests itself in an ever increasing need for exactitude. One glaring result of this is the move by companies to measure almost every aspect of an employee’s performance. Performance related pay and promotion are not new and certainly not Western, but what is is the almost obsessive desire to measure this performance against rather unconvincing and often damaging objectives. It also favors the extrovert individual – when was the last time you saw a job advert requesting an employee be wise. You won’t because you can’t measure that as easily as you can ‘driven’ or being a ‘team player’. And yet these more introvert skills are extremely valuable to businesses. Would we have had a banking crisis if the core skill required of a trader was thoughtfulness, probably not.

By contrast in the East these softer skills are held in much higher esteem. This is because Eastern management styles tend to be inductive as opposed to deductive. The emphasis being on strange things to Western managers such as balance, moral values and the Zen ‘way of all things’.

The origins of the West's deductive style can be traced back to the likes of Plato whose stance was to move from the general (thoughts) to the particular (reality). This led to the Nominalism and Realism schools in the Middle Ages which rejected the use of general notions in favour of empiricism which in turn led to experimental science as we know it today. In Eastern philosophy the Greek origins of the West are replaced by those of the various Buddhist schools that permeated the cultures of East and South East Asia. At its core this philosophy states that we infer a fact or characteristic about some object based upon our knowledge of another characteristic and that there are in fact no essences. This means that all things can only be viewed as a part of a whole system and not individually. As an example, ask yourself ‘what is the one thing that makes a chair a chair?’ You will soon discover how annoyingly hard that question is to answer.

If you acknowledge the unimportance of essences in isolation you are faced with the conclusion that measuring single facets becomes rather meaningless simply because they are all interlinked. The West is looking at the parts, the East the whole and the key facet of a great furniture maker is not the ability to measure the performance of the seat weaver, but rather asses the usefulness of the chair; and the two are distinctly unrelated. This translates into Western business measuring the more easily quantified micro-qualities of their people and products rather than their usefulness to the ecosystem of the world in which they operate.

As we move into the future do we want the West’s role as that of a population of great seat weaving business or great chair makers? I would contend that if we continue with current Western management styles we will become the former while true value lies in the latter.