by Tim Szybalski, First Quartile Consulting
First Quartile Consulting (1QC) has surveyed utility crew productivity practices as part of its annual questionnaire for the past five years. One of the factors for improving productivity is scheduling the right size crew for the job-part of the overall important role played by the planning and scheduling function.
1QC asked several detailed questions regarding typical crew sizes and equipment for different types of jobs. Two approaches were used to gather crew size data: first, four detailed scenarios were presented for jobs of increasing complexity; then a broader list of work tasks without detailed descriptions was presented to gather data on smaller jobs.
The conventional wisdom is that smaller crew sizes are more productive. Analysis suggests companies change crew composition to fit specific tasks. The data suggests that one-person crews are used for the simpler overhead jobs but two- and three-person crews are more the rule for most underground tasks. Larger underground jobs generally are still assigned to four-person crews.
In a post-survey analysis, the most important finding was the number of trips to job sites. Crew sizes reported for the various scenarios varied greatly. For some of the companies, especially electric-only utilities, developers or contractors perform much of the trenching and civil work. Other utilities use specialty or contract crews for pole delivery and pole setting.
Benchmarking comparisons are worth exploring for an individual company, but 1QC’s experience shows that many other factors go into determining the right size crew: safety requirements, equipment, union rules, skill sets, use of apprentices, role of “working” crew leaders, job mix and travel distances.
Crew Sizes for Four Scenarios
The survey identified four detailed scenarios of increasing complexity:
Figure 1 shows the number of companies that send different size crews for each scenario:
- Scenario 1 (overhead service). The most common practice is to send a two-person crew, followed in preference by a one-person crew.
- Scenario 2 (underground service). The results were mixed; a four-person crew was most common but varied from two to five, depending on trenching work done by the developer or contractor.
- Scenario 3 (install padmount and underground service). Both three- and four-person crews were predominant, although three companies are using five-person crews, again depending upon the work done by others.
- Scenario 4 (a more complex job). The four-person crew was the most used, although the crew sizes ranged from two to six. Several companies relied on pole setting or pole delivery crews that were not reported in the data.
A few data points were omitted. One company reported a one-person crew who acted as inspector for contractor crews. Another company reported the cumulative number of employees who went to the job site (an interesting benchmarking number but not consistent with other reporting).
The survey also asked for employee classifications. The typical larger crew had a mix of journeyman, apprentice, working foreman and other. None reported nonworking foreman. This information might be useful to a company that wants to know why its crew sizes are different than other companies’ crew sizes.
Crew Sizes for Broader List of Work Tasks
The survey also asked about crew sizes for a broader list of work tasks. The average crew size and number of companies’ reporting each crew size are provided for the following tasks. Table 2 is sorted from top to bottom based upon the average crew size (which ranges from 1.4 to 3.4).
Going down the chart, the average crew size increases with job complexity, although there are variations among companies. The tasks at the top tend to have one-person crews, those in the middle have two-person crews, and the largest tasks have three- or four-person crews. The same caveats about differences in work done by developers, contractors and specialty crews still apply. A company could use this table to identify where its practices differ from other utilities’ practices.
Equipment Assigned to Different Job Types
The survey also asked for types of vehicles assigned to different job types for all the scenarios and the broader list of tasks. The detailed results of the four scenarios illustrate the range of practices, equipment types and nomenclature received. A significant difference was whether companies reported using diggers, backhoes or both. Based upon conversations with selected companies, it appears the companies that did not report diggers and backhoes relied on developers or contractors to do the work. These tended to be the electric-only companies as shown in the first column. The detailed results for the scenarios are shown in Table 3. The detail for additional tasks is available but not reported here.
Table 4 shows the types of equipment being sent to the job site for each scenario. A company different than the norm might investigate differences in practices. One key driver is the use of developers of contractors to do the trenching work. Another area to investigate is the number of trips and timing of specialized crews or pieces of equipment for trenching and material delivery.
The survey was designed to find the answers to “What’s the right number of people?” and “What’s the right type of equipment for the job?” There isn’t one right answer. Variables include whether the company relies on developers or contractors to do the trenching; whether equipment is delivered to the job site; and how safety concerns affect staffing decisions. This crew size and assigned equipment analysis is valuable to companies that are interested in exploring their crew practices and evaluating their positions compared with peers. If a company’s typical crew is wildly outside the norm, then that is a flag to look for an opportunity for improvement.
Tim Szybalski is a director at First Quartile Consulting, a management consulting firm that performs consulting and benchmarking services across electric transmission, distribution and customer service for North American utilities. Szybalski’s career includes more than 25 years of consulting to utilities and more than 15 years working as an engineer and manager for SDG&E and PG&E. He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University, a master’s degree in operations research from University of California, Berkeley and a MBA from San Diego State University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.1qconsulting.com for more information.
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