Digitization in Utilities - Slash Cancellations, Crush Costs, and Multiply Effectiveness

Slash SNAFUs in Utility Scheduling & Dispatch

Of all the strategies for increasing value traditionally pursued by utilities, the simplest is the most persistently overlooked: Standardization.

Sure, certain portions of a typical utilities organization—such as power generation and supply management—already run with factory-like precision. But what about other functions like scheduling and dispatch, customer service, and billing? Of course, everyone believes that utilities work, or any work, is currently standardized—and they are directionally correct.

But take a closer look and you will discover this current “standardization” is based on informal tribal knowledge and rules-of-thumb. Think of it as under-standardized rather than unstandardized. In terms of customer experience, lost revenue, reliability, and margin leakage, this is not a trivial distinction—closing the overlooked gap delivers a windfall of near-term value.

Better yet, it’s a surprisingly accessible opportunity, for utilities of virtually any size. And it can yield transformational business improvements in as little as six months.

Standardization also paves the way for advanced analytics and automation; see the “Power Trio” below:

Let’s see how this power can slash costs and turbocharge effectiveness in the foremost “big rock opportunity”: scheduling and dispatch.

Job cancellations: A problem with cascading consequences

If there’s one issue that sends utility leadership’s blood pressure skyrocketing, it’s job, or work order, cancellations. They’re widespread. They’re costly. And they’re especially maddening, because the majority of them are avoidable.

A typical utility will often see 25 percent of its jobs get cancelled or rescheduled before they can be completed. Sure, there are emergencies and acts of God that can’t be controlled, but about 80 percent of utility job cancellations are completely controllable. Even for a smaller utility, that translates to millions of dollars—and hundreds of thousands of work-hours—of waste every year. And this doesn’t even include the staggering, negative (and avoidable) impact on customer experience.

It gets worse, especially for customers. Nearly half of all utility job cancellations occur on the same day that they’re scheduled for.

It’s not just costs. It’s not just rework. At the extreme end of the spectrum, job cancellations can lead to lawsuits; investigations, audits, fines, and other sanctions from the state utility commission; and major reputational damage when reported in the media. You don’t want to be the utility that shut down that hospital wing, or factory for hours for a planned job… only to tell them, “Ooops, we messed up. Sorry you sent your workers home. Now you’ll have to send them home again, on a different date which we promise—or at least hope—will be accurate this time.”

Tracing the Root Causes

You certainly know lots of the reasons that jobs get cancelled. These can start early in the process, when a job is scheduled. Or they can occur later, when the crew is being dispatched.

But what you may not know is the depth of the problem—how a cascading sequence of seemingly simple and disconnected elements can quickly snowball into a job that doesn’t happen.

This gets right back to the issue of standardization. When your scheduling team is planning out jobs, they’ll have some standards already at their fingertips. They’ll know, for example, how long a certain type of job should take; this helps them block out the appropriate number of hours.

But that standard can fall short. And scores of others are simply missing:

    • The 61-minute hour. Here at The Lab, we’ve seen scheduling teams that will book their crews, using the standards mentioned above, for 100-percent capacity, with barely a minute’s cushion for realities like traffic and bathroom breaks, let alone emergencies which will require immediate crew and equipment re-assignments. It’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t play well with reality.
    • The Tower of Babel. Every utility has lots of different departments and staffs with numerous projects. They use different systems to plan, assign, and process work. They often employ wholly different procedures. Compounding the problem is the fact that the disparate systems, and even departments, don’t talk to one another. And the different procedures (and activities which comprise them) not only differ from one department to another, but often differ for the same exact department, for the exact same process, at a different region or location.
    • The Missing Persons file. Workforce management impacts both scheduling and dispatch. Where are those people when you need them? Do you have the ability to track them, or at least their vehicles?
    • Access denied. Your worker arrives at the apartment building. But no one sent her the gate code. She’s locked out. Or no one checked the “Dog” box in the job packet, with dangerous consequences.
    • Should’ve been here yesterday. Are all the long-lead-time items accounted for? Were they ordered when they should have been? Where were the job aids to facilitate the fulfillment and back-timing? For everything from permits to obscure materials to equipment like water trucks, cranes, and helicopters, last-minute cancellations are downright inexcusable.
    • Can you dig it? Was a GIS map consulted before the pole-hole or other digging crew was booked? Is there a rocky nightmare awaiting?
    • Zoned out. We can’t begin to tell you how many job cancellations can be avoided by the simple checkbox-item of ordering a temporary no-parking zone. Was it requested on the initial site-walk? In the scheduling? Confirmed in dispatch?

Standardize, Standardize, Standardize

Identifying and quantifying these root causes takes work; fortunately, The Lab does this kind of work all the time, with quick wins typically identifiable in just a matter of weeks.

You might be surprised to see the “long tail” of root causes—and the cluster of primary and secondary reasons which cluster right at the top. Among avoidable reasons for job cancellations, the top contenders are often:

    • Prerequisite not identified during fielding—or completed pre-job
    • Digging issues
    • Access issues
    • Design issues

Seeing where the issues occur informs the triage for the standardization effort. This includes cleaning up the “spaghetti mess” of rework and redundancy. It includes clear job aids, cleaned-up forms, and unified project packets and checklists. It also includes some basic tech intervention: Many utilities employ contractors whose job sheets still exist… on paper. The downstream work— and headaches—that this creates for billing and project closeout is both maddening and costly. The Lab fixes problems like these with a simple clickable form which standby linemen, for example, can complete and submit from their mobile device.

Business Intelligence (BI) to the Rescue

Superman has X-ray vision. Empowered utilities leaders have business intelligence (BI), also known as advanced analytics, provided by The Lab.

These are custom-built interactive visualizations—imagine your own little private website—which automatically collect tons of data from innumerable disparate sources and formats. They then aggregate this data so you can easily see it, in a familiar format, such as a calendar, a map, or a bar graph. Simple as that. At just a glance, you can see, for example:

    • Job cancellations by area and district
    • Total cost of jobs cancelled by area and district
    • Top primary and secondary reasons for job cancellations

And all the filters are clickable. Select the daterange you like. Drill down to see adherence by district, department, or even individual employee. Everything else updates, and auto-populates, in real time.

It then becomes easy to pinpoint root causes—and thus mitigate issues. Comparing the historical trends with current data paves the way for continual improvement, keeping projects on time—and avoiding outages.

It Gets Even Better...with Bots

The job isn’t over when that valve is opened or that circuit is energized. There’s a lot of paperwork to be done, especially when you rely on contract labor.

Inside your utility, that translates to mountains of tedious and redundant work for highly-paid employees. Here’s another area where The Lab can add tremendous value; let us “park some bots” on these repetitive chores. These bots can open, read, and update Excel sheets, payroll apps, and others, just like a person would—only they’re blazingly fast, never take breaks, and never make mistakes.

At utilities, The Lab typically identifies scores of “bot opportunities,” a.k.a. use-cases, which eliminate human touch-points and errors, while saving tens of thousands of worker-hours per year—which can then be reallocated to higher-value activities.

Slash those scheduling and dispatch costs now 

If you’re looking to crush scheduling and dispatch costs while slashing avoidable job cancellations, contact The Lab to schedule your no-obligation 30-minute screen-sharing demo. We’ll show you how we deliver all this power—remotely, from our U.S. offices in Houston—and answer any questions you may have, too. We’ll also show you how our projects self-fund in six months or less, guaranteed.  

Simply call (201) 526-1200 or email info@thelabconsulting.com to book your demo today!

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