Trading places: what utilities can learn from airlines, manufacturers

When researchers learned that carpenters weren’t wearing their respirator masks, they asked inline-skaters and roofers – groups of people who also wear safety products – for thoughts on how to increase compliance among carpenters. Remarkably, the researchers reported that the most novel ideas came from people in the field most distant to the problem:  the skaters. The Harvard Business Review reported these findings several years ago in an article titled “Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from Outside Your Industry,” by Marion Poetz, Nikolaus Franke and Martin Schreier.

The story is a good, quick read. And the conclusions made me think about what the utility industry has picked up from government and firefighting (e.g., the Incident Command Structure) and the trucking industry (e.g., more efficiently navigating routes, transporting people and materials). I began thinking about how we manage crews in the utility industry. Crew management is complex work. Managers must adhere to union agreements, keep account of contractor and native employees on property and prepare for each day’s work in an efficient way.

When work shifts from blue sky to gray or major events, the scenarios become more challenging. Those situations aren’t unlike the ones faced by other critical infrastructure industries like airlines and manufacturers. Both industries have large numbers of employees, working complex, varied schedules.

If major weather events cause an air carrier to shift to irregular operations, also called IROPs, the number of flights impacted mirror the utility industry’s customer outages. The air carriers move resources and identify issues to correct the situation. Planes come out of service. And the airlines have to come up with a way to work around delays and cancellations and get flight crews back in the air and ground-handling crews on the ramp once the weather clears. Even during routine operations, air carriers’ flight and ground-handling crews regularly swap shifts and bid for openings, while schedulers have to account for seniority and government regulations regarding flight time and rest.

With a pilot and copilot, scheduling departments have to match these professionals with the aircraft they’re rated to fly and around a sufficient rest period. Being available to fly is simply the beginning of a scheduler’s problem-solving work with what airline’s call trip coverage. In the utility world, employees also have skills that allow them to work on transmission or distribution lines, work in a substation or on a network system. Shift scheduling inside manufacturing facilities isn’t any less complicated than airline or utility industry challenges.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overtime practices at manufacturers with multiple shifts in place have employees averaging up to 500 hours of overtime a year. As employee requests pour in for more overtime or shift swaps, front-line supervisors at plants have to parcel out overtime fairly, or they’re hit with grievances. Many plants then have contractual obligations to publish schedules and approved swaps in a breakroom or service shop.

Benchmarking beyond your borders

In other words, as utility professionals, we’re not the only people who have crew management challenges. If, for instance, your focus is emergency management and you’re talking to a friend in the airline or manufacturing sector, you have a benchmarking opportunity. What, for example, could your friend’s experience with scheduling operations at an air carrier, or as a front-line supervisor in a plant, help you do better during major events?

For instance, if you consider the airline pilot as a skilled operator and a flight attendant as a journeyman apprentice, each is critical to operations. The plane must have a full complement to take off; a bucket truck’s crew must meet OSHA rules to begin work. Air carriers put smartphones in everyone’s hands because they must have the ability to contact everyone at a moment’s notice. Is there a lesson learned there for utilities debating the logistics, IT challenges and cost of supplying every worker with mobile devices?

Every time a plane lands, airlines put crews in a hotel; the crews always seem to know where they’re headed. I’ve not heard of a flight crew worried about whether they might have to sleep in an airport lounge or onboard a plane during IROPs. What can we as utility professionals learn from the airlines about the logistics of lodging for line workers?

Similarly, some manufacturers are now exploring how to reconcile control and flexibility to adequately address work rules, business needs and health and safety issues. Most manufacturers have workforce management (WFM) systems and human capital management (HCM) systems in place. But manufacturers know their systems should have the capability to allow workers to opt in for shifts, express preferences or accept an open shift in real-time. Eliminating grievances with automated shift scheduling software usually means you automate union or company callout rules.

Manufacturing plants considering the use of automated shift scheduling systems hope to deliver their managers “full situational awareness” for staffing, which would also give front-line supervisors discretionary time, while the software automatically handles schedule preferences and requests for overtime. Think of how that approach might be translated into a dispatch center for a utility.

For example, supervisors at utility dispatch centers routinely get involved in making decisions about staffing and schedules. As with manufacturing plant workers, there are various grades of dispatchers. For instance, a newly hired dispatcher can use the company OMS and dispatch a line crew or servicer to a location. But let’s say the line mechanic arrives on the scene and sees something must be isolated that requires switching and tagging. The rookie dispatcher doesn’t have the skill set for switching and tagging, so he or she hands off the job to a senior-grade coworker. Clearly there’s a necessity for dispatchers of various skill levels to be in the center around the clock. But why burden supervisors with sorting that scheduling? Instead, imagine if the utility used a system similar to the manufacturing plant or airline wherein a dispatcher wanting a day off simply tapped his or her mobile device, input a request and the shift system automatically looked at the minimum requirements on hand for that day. Without the involvement of the supervisor, the system either granted or rejected the dispatcher’s request based on an analysis of pre-configured requirements for that day and shift.

Airline and manufacturing professionals will never have the intimate knowledge of utility operations to deliver us a solution out of the box. But they might offer us an innovative starting point for solving our challenges. All it takes is a willingness on our part to ask and listen.

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

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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