Optimized Work Force, Outage Management–The People Side of Planned, Unplanned Outages

by Hannan Carmeli, ClickSoftware

“We have an outage! All hands on deck!”

Even reading the words gives any utility worker a tingly sense of discomfort. But why?

Power outages, unplanned and planned, have occurred since electricity was discovered. Outage management has created a sizable industry of people and systems for diagnosis and restoration.

Now, the rise of technology has enabled a leap forward in the speed with which we can identify an outage’s cause or predict it.

Most painfully, the all-hands approach takes the best crews off already critical work, entails calling more crews than necessary to outages, and important work is delayed often arbitrarily and sometimes indefinitely.

But the anxiety is unnecessary because, like the grid, people also can be optimized.

Combining the intelligence of an outage management system (OMS) with an advanced work force management system accomplishes a more comfortable outage reaction, one in which the right number of crews can be dispatched for rapid restoration and minimal impact on planned work.

Comfort grows as we imagine an outage alert that quickly identifies a problem’s cause, recommends the best resources to assign and considers the full spectrum of work being executed in the field, including the priority of the work.

Crews are pulled first from low-priority work that can be delayed without affecting meeting due dates.

Further comfort can be gained as we imagine an outage during which the responsible manager expects to get crews most likely to restore the troublesome asset or assets the OMS has identified as the cause. Results include:

  • Shorter time to planned and unplanned outage restoration,
  • Fewer delays to scheduled work,
  • Better service for affected and nonaffected customers,
  • Streamlined communication to outage resources, and
  • Better visibility for outage supervisors and home yard supervisors.

Traditionally During Outages

Utility managers’ pressure during outages stems from the traditional approach to outage management offered by legacy processes and systems.

The most common culprit against optimizing the work force often is the service location’s accuracy or lack thereof. When a customer calls, the service location at that time is the meter location: the customer’s address.

This triggers a work force management—scheduling and mobility—system to schedule and dispatch a crew to that customer’s address.

As additional customers call, the service locations are identified again as the meter locations, which quickly triangulate to be wrong.

In retrospect, this approach requires critical questions:

  • Were the re-assigned crews working high-priority work before they were taken?
  • Do we have sufficient coverage for other outages that occur in parallel in the network?
  • Does the situation call for all hands, and when will I get my crews back?

The crews’ unknown return time leaves the operational manager with delayed work plans and no ability to inform delayed customers when the work can be completed.

Because OMS systems focus on network optimization and not crew assignment optimization, the outage emergency is scheduled manually and results in assignments that may or may not match the best resources for each job.

The problem is here. No, it’s here. No, it’s here. A challenge for optimized outage work scheduling is customer calls, which create a red herring, leading to inaccurate service locations for work force management to schedule.

The restoration and work delayed by the outage are delayed unnecessarily because of the lack of accurate, timely information.

A Better Way to Manage Outages, People

A better way to manage outages requires understanding the players. When a customer calls, customer service fields the call and reports an activity within the customer service system and the outage management system.

Work force management includes the scheduling system and mobility for dispatch, receipt and response from field crews. These systems, when integrated, create a solution that enables utility companies to overcome the traditional drawbacks of isolated outage management and work force management.

Figure 2: Outage Management, Customer Service, Scheduling and Field Mobility as Players in Optimized Outage Management

Individually, each system and user fulfils its own responsibilities in isolation. When combined, they deliver accurate, real-time visibility to the service location and required skills.

While the promise of optimized outage management brings optimism, the process and interaction between systems provides an understanding of how it can be enabled in utility operations for unplanned outages.

Beyond Emergencies

Unplanned outages provide the most acute stress to utility companies, but even planned outages can be optimized by integrating outage management with its visibility to the problem and work force management with its visibility of all the work and resources.

In both cases, the outage duration is minimized and crews are used most effectively to minimize the impact on normal workloads.

The result is greater asset reliability, happier customers and positive press coverage, which leads to a positive view of the utility by the regulator.

Furthering the goals of every utility, the integration of outage management and advanced work force management—the processes and systems—delivers extended benefits to asset management and the service operation including:

  • Visibility to work requiring planned outages at the same location or nearby, enabling fewer required planned outages,
  • Switching procedures registered in the OMS can trigger completion (or lack) of pre-construction activities, preventing dispatch of jobs that result in false starts, and
  • Optimization of nonemergency work created in OMS including asset inspection and maintenance performed by any crews within the work force, increasing the reliability and safety of the network.

We can achieve the greatest comfort knowing future outages might not negatively impact utility customers and planned work as in the past.

This vision has become increasingly relevant with the added focus on utilities brought by 2003’s outage in the northeastern U.S.,

northern California’s gas main explosion, the aging work force challenge and smart grid initiatives mandated by state and federal regulators.

Each requires focus on reliability of utility assets and concentration on the most effective and optimal use of resources.

Together, outage management and work force management can reduce and shorten planned and unplanned outages.

This will deliver happier customers, press, regulators and shareholders.

Our approach can become, “We have an outage, and we have the best crews working on it for rapid restoration and minimal impact on planned work.”


Hannan Carmeli is COO of ClickSoftware. He has a Bachelor of Science from the Technion Institute in Israel and a Master of Science from Boston University. For more information, visit http://clicksoftware.com.

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