Part 1 in a two-part series
With the constant flow of new optimizing technologies and an ever-increasing emphasis on cost reduction, efficiency, and productivity, it is surprising to see Utilities continue to struggle with something as fundamental as the effective planning, scheduling, and execution of work.
On the face of it, the core business of a utility is simple. It is defined by safely and cost effectively keeping the lights on or gas flowing to customers. Even the work that occupies most employees has an intuitive logic to it. Primarily, it is to maintain the current infrastructure and equipment, connecting or disconnecting customers, and generating or managing the flow of power or gas through the system.
Yet, even with that inherent logic in the business, it seems like many utilities are challenged to figure out how to move more work through their planning, scheduling, and executing process safer, faster, and at a lower cost.
However, given that the planning, scheduling, and execution process is so critical in utilities, it begs the question: Why is it often such a major source of frustration? We observe that the difficulties are not normally complex technical issues-utilities are good at those. We tend to see that planning and scheduling difficulties are often people issues, and resolvable ones at that. While we acknowledge that every organization is different, we do see four very common non-technical problems that affect the planning, scheduling, and execution process.
1) Conflicting Objectives
When it comes to high level strategic objectives, we tend to see alignment. Nobody disagrees with “keeping the lights on” or “maintaining equipment to optimize the life cycle costs”. Therefore, arriving at a unified and aligned understanding of the operational goals and organizational purpose should be straightforward. However, the reality is that keeping things clear is more complex. Everyone, from crews to engineering professionals to executive leadership, has deeply held motivators that feel important to them. We often see:
§ Some teams’ primary focus is making sure they have enough work to keep busy (or stretch the available work to make it look like they are busy).
§ Some people would do whatever the customer asks, even if it makes little business sense, in the name of “customer service”.
§ There are people who see status in being assigned the high-profile project or having the biggest budgets.
§ Then there is the whole challenge around maintenance. It’s rarely sexy, it’s expensive, there is little recognition for doing it, but you (or your successor) will be crucified if you don’t.
2) Decision Making Rights
Even if the people who make up the company have their own interpretations around what should be done or what’s most important, planning and scheduling should still be straightforward. If people know who is entitled to make planning and scheduling decisions, those decisions should be respected. However, we routinely see organizations where:
§ The question, “Whose decision is it?” cannot be answered clearly.
§ The value of consultation (which is a great thing) is confused with giving those being consulted veto powers.
§ Decision-making is described as “shared” with no clear means to make a decision when the parties don’t agree.
§ Decisions that are supposedly made one day are revisited the next day because somebody did not really agree with it.
3) Failing to Incorporate Local Knowledge
Most Utilities have centralized and/or outsourced aspects of their planning and scheduling process. It’s common to see the Engineers and Designers developing plans in one city for crews in a different city to execute. That works well when the Engineers’ view of the situation at the job site is perfect, but it’s typically not. On the other hand, the local crews do know the neighborhood, and while they may not be Engineers, they do what’s there now. It should be easy to communicate the local knowledge from those who have it to those who need it, but we see barriers:
§ Engineers and planners often rely on electronic asset databases with flaws in the data.
§ Engineers who don’t have the time to do site visits.
§ Employees and local crews who don’t really have the time to respond to questions.
§ Engineers who don’t really like to ask for input.
§ Local crews who don’t provide input in a helpful way.
4) Improper Accountability
Almost every employee in every Utility understands that their boss is entitled to tell them what to do and hold them accountable for their performance. What people object to is somebody else from a different part of the company showing up and telling them what to do or criticizing them for what they did. A principle to live by in effective organizations is that accountability must follow the lines in the organizational chart. However, it is common to see unhealthy practices, such as:
§ Planning departments or support groups “over-reaching” and attempting to manage operational execution.
§ Scheduling groups who think it is their role to hold operations accountable for getting work done on time.
§ Operations groups who worry that they don’t have enough work to do, so they take it upon themselves to tell designers what they need or just go ahead on their own.
(The second part of this series will be Wednesday, Dec. 27)
About the authors: Duncan Kerr and Milan Trpin are managing partners at The Engine Room Group, a performance improvement firm that accelerates leadership development and workforce performance to achieve measurable business results. www.theengineroom.ca.