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Planning for field operations: optimising routing & regions

Published on 29 October 2020

Planning for field operations: optimising routing & regions

Joined up decision-making makes visible how we deliver for customers (and at what cost) and then drive improvements in how we do this. In 2013, the UK CEO at DPD was keynote speaker at our conference. As a delivery company, they stood out for service. They knew where parcels were, when they’d arrive, and customers could track real-time. When they set delivery windows, they knew what it would take (and cost) to deliver that promise. Above all, everybody knew why it mattered and where they fitted in to achieving success.

If we fail to plan, we plan to fail
In 2019, British Engineering Services (BES) won our Innovation of the Year Award. They’ve seen sales double, with a planning-led service reliability capability which is unique in their market. With cost savings c10-15% and 50% reduction in wasted downtime, they’ve seen a 74% improvement for ‘on or before’ SLA for the largest clients. In the six years, there are still few organisations using planning to get ahead , but digital transformation, service differentiation and cost effectiveness are now among the top items on the board’s agenda and there is growing planning capability to bring about this change. 

Flexible routing and regions 
Flexibility in a largely fixed cost base was a crucial part of success at BES. Previously engineer surveyors had rarely crossed borders, but regions were removed, and drive time radii was adjusted if required, based on demand, in pockets or as part of a national shift of resources into a priority area. Engagement through workshops paved the way. Engineers thought they could allocate best, but when given an exercise everyone did it differently. They realised that there was no consistency or best way of working and the automated system soon demonstrated better results.

Although retaining regions, a large-scale telecoms operation has gained huge benefit by softening borders, from both an efficiency and engagement perspective. For someone who has already travelled a long way, it can feel easier to just go a little further, over the border, rather than travel a long way to another part of their own region. Surveyors will still phone ahead on their way to jobs and manage those important local customer relationships. Crucially, this was built in, from the budget stage as part of the operating model. It forms part of the recruitment process. This is like multi-skilling in a contact centre; it always works best with flexible boundaries! By contrast, in a smaller home care provider, with flexible on-call nurses, regions are a simple way to allocate resource. The opportunity to go outside the region, however, is a key part of the flexible contingency for their Jeopardy Management team.

With all change, communication and engagement is key. Gain buy-in first, by setting expectations and explaining your goals early, and look to take on board the suggestions of those affected. Be prepared to be flexible, as individual requirements are revealed, and build your routing strategies around workers as well as customers. Do you want to make sure field workers have a short and easy drive for their first and last jobs? Or give flexibility on when they go to a local depot to pick up or drop off parts? Build this into their routes to make life as simple as possible.

Learning across many sectors
Good practice can be found in many types of operation, from health visitors to safety inspection or engineering services. Over the years, member case studies have built a strong blend of practical examples. In outsourcing at Capita PIP (2019), regional flexibility, as well as leadership and governance, was key to transforming performance on their government contract for benefits assessments. At Anglian Water (2018), smarter schedules cut travel time by 9.30 hours, with 42% fewer visits and 78% cut in backlogs. The secret? Bunching work so that preventative maintenance was done while on site. The key to success? Empowering engineers and capturing accurate, complete data. At Openreach (2017) empowering engineers and working across patches led to a 17% cut in travel time, and had a big impact on absence too. Decision making was joined up because engineers knew what mattered most to customers and were able to apply their specialist knowledge.

Finally, some operations can be supply-led rather than demand-driven, like at a broadband provider who offers appointments in line with peaks and troughs of staff availability (supply), especially useful in a sparse, rural area. Either way, analyse propensity to fail to prevent issues rather than just react. Include routing principles in your long-term plans and strategies, so that budgets are achievable and assumptions or handoffs consistent at all stages of the planning cycle. This will help to make sure that you can correctly size, and cost, your field workforce. At BES, planning now drives sales and pricing decisions, underpinning profitability and margin. This means sales strategies can be focussed on areas of opportunity where higher capacity can drive costs down. In field operations, price is intrinsically linked to capacity, based on resource availability or the cost of scaling up a skill set, in each place.  

This article was first published in the 2020 Best Practice Guide - 2020 Vision: Crystallising your knowledge

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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