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Competitive pressure on all businesses means that companies are investing increasing amounts in field service optimization solutions which offer a reduction in operating costs, an increase in resource productivity, maximized resource utilization and enhanced customer satisfaction. The aim is to improve the efficiencies of their people.

But business benefit does not exist on an infinite scale, and the behaviour of people can fundamentally erode a project's return on investment (ROI) if it is not appropriately managed. There is an often-forgotten human perspective on field service optimization which companies need to consider as they search for ROI when implementing such optimization projects.

During my career, through both management and observation, I have experienced the day-to-day challenges associated with managing a field service organization of maintenance technicians distributed nationally and globally. The technicians generally completed many short-duration maintenance tasks each day, and primary Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) included utilization, efficiency, productivity, repeat visits, and customer satisfaction.

These KPIs are interrelated and changes in one often lead to changes in another. Utilization is a typical measurement and is often the focus of optimization that all service managers aim to maximize, but there are often unexpected side effects associated with over-utilization, eventually leading to the field force becoming counter-productive with deteriorations across the other KPIs as a consequence. This can lead to any software implementation designed to address these very issues becoming ineffective.

The effects of resource utilization are illustrated in Johnston and Clark's time management theory, the "coping zone." The "coping zone" is the area of significant resource utilization where the technician becomes stressed and is simply trying to cope with the day's challenges, meaning that concentration and productivity levels are significantly reduced.

Logically, this theory is broken into four distinct areas.

1. Low productivity, low utilization: With a low workload, field engineers are not stretched and pace themselves taking excessive time to complete jobs. There can be a mindset of "Why rush? I have nothing else to do afterwards."

2. Rising productivity, rising utilization: When engineers receive a steady workload their minds are focused on the work, and there are fewer idle periods.

3. Peak productivity, high utilization: If an engineer receives a constant flow of work that occupies much of their working day, there is absolute focus to "get the job done" and "move on to the next one."

4. Falling productivity, peak utilization: When an engineer receives too high a workload, quality and productivity begin to deteriorate because there is a tendency to rush and a greater reliance on working overtime or using contractors. At this level technicians struggle to cope with the demand, repeat customer visits increase and quality suffers. This situation rapidly becomes "counter-productive" especially if it is experienced for prolonged periods.

Implications for implementing optimization

With this concept in mind, there are potential implications for the implementation of optimization software particularly at either end of the utilization scale. In the field service environment, "drip feeding" tasks is often the preferred method for maximizing the effectiveness of the technicians. This means that the technician only receives the details of their next task upon completion of their current activity which enables the optimization algorithms to regularly alter and adapt to the changing circumstances to produce the "best" schedule.

Human Factors

This is however evidence of the technology perspective which simply aims to solve business problems solely through the use of technology. According to segment one of the coping zone diagram, keeping field technicians unaware of pending activities for the current day is inefficient from the human perspective and leads to reduced resource productivity. Recent discussions with senior service directors around the globe support this perspective. Increasingly directors request that although drip feeding should still occur, the technician receives some indication of the next possible activity to avoid the "Why rush?" syndrome.

Too much emphasis on maximizing resource utilization also has a technology perspective because optimization solutions enable companies to achieve the business goal of completing the same amount of work but with fewer resources. Case studies prove that achieving this goal typically results in resource redeployment or, in some cases, redundancies. Dramatically reducing resources however so that utilization remains at a very high level on a constant basis can cause deteriorations in resource productivity and efficiency. Companies must be mindful of not optimizing to the extremes of utilization, and instead must be pragmatic when setting a realistic and attainable level.

Optimization projects that focus only on technology and that ignore the human perspective can render even the most water-tight business case unachievable. To ensure the solution delivers results both in terms of productivity and profitability, companies must ensure that their technicians reach peak productivity with a steady flow of work.

Finding the optimum balance between resource utilization and resource productivity is a real challenge for many service companies. Effective management of the "coping zone" requires sound business awareness, appreciation of the customer's business, excellent decision-making skills and, most importantly, a clear understanding of the interrelationships that exist between technology and people.

During the implementation of a field service optimization project, providers should therefore be working closely with their customers to deliver a solution that will operate effectively in line with realistic day-to-day field force management. This partnership enables companies to see dramatic improvements in productivity as well as ROI in just a matter of months; just what they need to allow them to compete effectively in today's hyper-competitive world.

Article submitted by:  Stewart Hill, Solutions Manager of Field Services at Indus International.

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