Attention! All Eyes on Utility Fleets

Utility Fleets

By Paul Hull, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, UTILITY PRODUCTS

There are dozens-probably hundreds-of products, services and gems of good advice for the best fleet management. The fleet, whether it’s three or 3,000 vehicles, must be ready and in top condition and is the easiest to blame if anything goes wrong. I find utility fleet managers to be the most efficient and practical of all. Despite all the new technologies and products to make the fleet better, one component changes frequently: the operators or drivers. Over the years, many people have told me that the only problem in management is people. We all make mistakes, and we all can do good work, whether we are upper management, middle management or “just employees.” A vehicle, for example, can have all the latest gadgets and devices to make it fuel-efficient and roadworthy, but the greatest influence on performance can be the driver. It might be his or her expertise, attitude or commitment to the job.

Drivers of utility vehicles are seldom simply drivers. They must drive the vehicle (such as an aerial lift truck) safely to its work site, and then they must become experts in the service of utility equipment. They have two professions: skilled driver and skilled technician. A truck driver who hauls sand and gravel, a van driver who delivers office supplies, and a driver who delivers gasoline to the local gas station are basically drivers. A utility vehicle driver often is more than a delivery person. He or she drives the vehicle according to a strict schedule and then becomes another professional at the job sites. With fleet management, drivers are responsible for prompt service to customers in the timeliness of their arrival at job site and their efficiency in making repairs or changes. Drivers or operators should meet their utilities’ expectations for conduct and service, and they should be treated as the most visible and dependable employees.

Utility Fleets

Safety is the No. 1 priority for utility personnel. Many training programs are designed to improve driver and equipment safety, but modern and useful technologies such as cell phones and GPS have introduced menaces. These tools also can become distractions. Driving is a full-time occupation and responsibility. As drivers get distracted, driving seems to lose its importance. Included in all safety programs for drivers and operators should be advice about the dangers of distractions, especially if they are entertaining.

Parts That Make the Whole System Perfect

Probably because the fleet is the most obvious utility asset, it also is considered an area to cut costs make changes. Concentrating now on the equipment rather the people who run it, consider fleet management aspects that might be neglected most. This doesn’t happen through incompetence in fleet managers but probably through paper errors. It’s easy to delay truck maintenance a week or two on paper, but technicians in the field or workshop see the effects. If the manufacturer recommends a certain schedule for routine tasks in vehicle performance, follow it.

Excellence in fleet maintenance depends on data about a vehicle’s habits and performance. These data are readily available through several software programs. The data include the driving habits of the driver, the condition of many components, and the advisability of particular maintenance, which may vary by vehicle. Because programs do all this recording, it can be easy to ignore the daily comments of drivers and operators. But these people know when something does not work perfectly-even if the manual says there should be no problems for another 61 days.

Some utilities outsource their maintenance. I’m not sure if this will increase or decrease because much depends on the availability of skilled workers.

Utility Fleets

Much fleet management success depends on having the right information about all vehicles in a fleet. Again, programs can achieve this, or utility employees can perform the checking and recording. Data about vehicle conditions and service needs can be accurate, but they must be read and acted on to be of use. You cannot assume that something commissioned is done correctly. The vehicles will need fuel and maintenance; providing them is not automatic.

I’m reminded of that much-touted and glorified German marshal in Africa, Erwin Rommel. He liked to make dashing, punitive stabs at his enemies’ tanks and was successful until he discovered that the basis he was relying on for his success had failed. Supplies and maintenance for his tanks didn’t arrive in time. He blamed the Italian navy as poor suppliers, which was wrong. It was simply that roaring Rommel didn’t understand or appreciate organizing supplies and maintenance efficiently for his fleet. It was a facet of military work that was taken for granted. His conduct should remind fleet managers that no detail is too small, no procedure too automatic to be evaluated.

The Cost and Efficiency Challenge

At the end of last year when fuel prices took a nosedive, many top utility executives saw the change as an undisputed way to save money (and fleet managers had better know that, too). Fuel plays a huge role in doing business. There is, however, a limit to the extent of savings a fleet manager can achieve when fuel goes down in price. Most fleets in all areas of commerce are told to run on the basis of more productivity with less cost. Fleet managers learn to manipulate many variables, including fuel cost, in budgeting and forecasting. Not all the needs can be forecast accurately, however. We’ve all seen where a product may perform worse or better than its manufacturer forecast. Some engine components can surprise us with the longevity of their good service; components elsewhere on a vehicle can infuriate us when they do not last as promised. Much of forecasting anything is little more than intelligent guesswork.

One common suggestion is to purchase vehicles that use less fuel. But that’s neither the only way nor always the most popular way to save money. More fuel-efficient vehicles tend to be smaller, and those are not always popular with drivers and operators because smaller size limits what a vehicle can do and where essential equipment may be stored. Another way, possibly as beneficial as smaller vehicles, is to eliminate idle time, or wasted time, when the engine is running but nothing else is.

Many suggestions exist for controlling fleet cost. Remember, the drivers are most important. Their conduct is critical to success. Their habits cause ups and downs in fleet costs. Their safety and efficiency-both en route and at their destinations-is vital to good business.

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