Executive Insight, Policy & Regulation, Smart Grid

You’ve got to Automate the Tactical, Eliminate the Manual

In the song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” lyricist Harold Arlen also reminds us to “eliminate the negative.” It’s a good lesson; because when we fist pump to celebrate nailing a hard job, there can still be negatives to eliminate. If utility supervisors want to “accentuate the positive” that comes from strategic thinking, they need to eliminate manual steps that pull them away from being purposefully focused.

Getting strategic about operations

When supervisors see their day devolve into being more about “administrivia” than leadership, are they really using their experience and skills? Determining who is available, what work needs to be done, sizing crews, finding the right equipment, assigning work and communicating work schedules consumes a lot of time, especially when the tasks require numerous emails, spreadsheets, phone calls and work orders. What would happen if a utility streamlined those functions through automation? Then technology would give supervisors back their time to work strategically, helping the utility be more efficient.

A supervisor’s ability to get resources into the field allows him or her more time to make crew visits, work on future projects and provide strategic insight to leadership. During major events (in contrast to daily operations), there’s even less opportunity for supervisors to be in the field. But automating the administrative tasks mentioned above would allow field managers to dedicate more of their workday to anticipating challenges and strategically solving them (e.g., requesting needed resources or equipment, releasing those no longer needed, and working with leadership to respond to internal and external requests). In a world like that, field supervisers might actually get eight hours of rest.

How can a utility make that happen? The key is knowing whom supervisors have available to work, what equipment they have and need, what work is required and what material is needed. If supervisors have this at their fingertips and in one system, they can expeditiously move crews to the job site. That know-how comes from computerizing the process of crew building and tracking and reporting on not only who’s available to work but how a supervisor deployed resources during the last major event. With one automated system of record that can bring all the necessary information together for crew planning, dispatch and reporting, supervisors can earmark who’s needed (both native and contract crews) and call in and release crews faster. That, in turn, reduces the length of an outage by eliminating the time to make phone calls, emails and swap spreadsheets to account for who’s on the property and what equipment they need to restore service.

The digital picture of what was once a paper-driven crew tracking process becomes strategic. In an automated crew-management world, the supervisor’s work is easily seen and digested by the utility’s executives and corporate communications team. The utility’s communication team can, in real-time, accurately tell customers about restoration efforts, perhaps reducing inquiries by regulatory groups. The supply chain can clearly see needed material. And dispatchers can track crews, while providing situational awareness of the utility’s working resources.

Eliminating the ‘Morning Shuffle’

I know of one northeastern U.S. utility that for years relied on whiteboards and sticky notes to manage what it called “the morning shuffle.” The shuffle was often a long process that at times delayed sending crews from the service center to the job sites. Managing the morning shuffle pulled the supervisors into an administrative mode that made them think and act tactically and reduced the efficiency of their most valuable asset: their employees.

Once the utility automated its morning shuffle, supervisors knew in real-time who was on rest or sick; trucks could be loaded with equipment the night before because the utility had a dashboard of who was available to work with whom and when. This freed supervisors to get into the field for crew visits and safety observations and become more accessible to their teams.

Accentuating the strategic

A supervisor tied to a manual process will have a hard time getting into the field and seeing how they can positively impact their operation. If a supervisor can get on site, he might, for example, find a crew struggling to set a pole because of rocky soil conditions. In that situation, because the supervisor knows that a rock hole auger is available from another service building, he can request the right tool on behalf of the crew and expedite delivery.  

Here’s another imagined scenario:  A utility crew is relocating 15 poles, setting the new line and energizing it. Since the supervisor’s utility has automated many of its manual processes, the supervisor has time to get on site to observe and advise. Once there, she can assess what’s happening. Perhaps, she sees one of her line mechanics, who makes $40 per hour with a $150,000 piece of equipment, cleaning up the byproducts from relocating a portion of the old line. Instead, she brings in a contractor making $25 per hour whose focus is hauling away and disposing of, or recycling what’s left from, the old line, so the line mechanic can return to the job he’s highly trained for.

There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of these moments every week that supervisors can affect in a positive way if they’re in the field, free to focus their strategic vision. A good way to help supervisors affect that positive change is by helping them eliminate their manual work.

About the author: Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at [email protected]