We have previously explored the top challenges within field operations for operational leaders and how to solve them, however, in order to get to the root of the productivity issues, it is crucial to understand the specific challenges that field operators face during their day-to-day role.
To gain first-hand insights and real-life examples, we spent time interviewing Jackie, a Senior Unipart Practitioner, who worked directly with a leading utility organisation's frontline staff across the UK during the Unipart transformation period. His experiences working directly alongside the field operators both in the field and in the office helped to clearly highlight their core daily challenges and the best approaches used to address each.
Let’s start by taking a look at a day in the life of a field operator prior to Unipart supporting the process:
Isolated Working Environment
Due to the nature of the work that field utility operators conduct they are often required to work alone or in very small teams depending on the scale and danger of the job. For example, if they are sent out on a small maintenance or repair job then it may only require one individual worker. On the other hand, if there is a job that requires them breaking the seal of the pipeline then that would require two or three workers to get the job completed safely.
This means that for an extended period of time the field worker could be spending time alone and this often encourages unhealthy feelings of isolation due to their physical separation and disconnect with other employees and management.
Lack of Communication with Head Office
This is one of the core reasons for their feelings of isolation. We discovered that sole workers were only encouraged to contact their office at the very end of the day upon clearing the site. However, the primary purpose for this call was not to assess their productivity or their frustrations- it was purely a safety check. In fact, prior to Unipart supporting them, the field operators may have only spoken to management as little as once a week. This could result in problems being built up over the course of the week until they managed to speak to management; inciting more frustration
One of the core frustrations facing field force workers was the lack of internet and signal they experienced whilst on the job, which just added to their extensive level of isolation and separation from head office. This was mainly an issue when they were completing jobs in extremely remote areas such as the Highlands of Scotland and the head office just assumed that the mobile devices they were given would still be fully functional to them. Low and behold they suffered with little to no signal at all, meaning that if they had an issue or needed extra equipment to accurately finish the job then they had no means of communication.
Changing Job Priorities
This was a very common problem whereby planned jobs were put on a back burner to respond to emergencies. For instance, Jackie described that utility workers were accustomed to being texted in the morning or late at night to be told to drop the work they had originally planned to do that day and instead to complete a job elsewhere. Or even worse, they would be pulled away mid-job for an emergency as they were the closest in terms of distance- although the closest could equal to 50 to 100 miles away! Unfortunately, this was very commonplace, with field force operators actually anticipating their weekly set out plans to fall through before they had even begun.
‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ Mentality
Their level of isolation and lack of daily communications with management are some of the core catalysts which have created this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality which can be very much present in field force operations. Their physical separation can be directly tied to siloed thinking and working, whereby field operators exhibit a low level of engagement. This can be attributed to the fact they feel underappreciated for their level of skill that they possess. Very often utility workers can be working with dangerous equipment in trying circumstances and there have been feelings that office-bound managers did not appreciate how skilled they had to be to complete these difficult jobs in a safe and efficient manner.
Not having Access to the Right Equipment
Whilst Jackie was working alongside the field operators he witnessed that there were many times that there was a lack of access to the necessary equipment to complete their jobs. A good example that he provided was in regards to test equipment that needed recalibrated on a regular basis and all too often that particular piece of equipment was not available across an entire region due to them all being away for these recalibration purposes, meaning jobs could not be completed on time.
Now let’s look at the day in the life of a field operator after Unipart started the operational improvement process:
The Introduction of the CommCell
To tackle the field operator’s feelings of isolation, ensure they were more engaged, and to provide a platform where they could highlight their daily frustrations, a CommCell with their office was conducted every morning. This daily call gave them an opportunity to discuss what they did yesterday, what their today plans are, and if there are any issues that they wanted to be raised. This formalised platform ensured issues that were impacting their daily work could be addressed in that moment and not get built up over the course of the week.
Face to Face Meetings
This rolls off the back of the previous point to solve the field operator’s separation from management, with Unipart encouraging face to face meetings with their office to be conducted every two weeks to bring them together as a unit. In addition to this, they have found it extremely useful to get the field operators involved in problem solving activities; allowing common issues to be brought to the table with teams across the different regions working together to figure out solutions to these common problems.
Say Goodbye to Connectivity Issues
To ensure the field force operators could actually make use of the technology that they had been encouraged to start using, Unipart addressed their connectivity issues with e-dongles. According to Jackie, the e-dongles solved 90% of the signal issues that the field workers were experiencing and this immediate action taken by management indicated to the field workers that they were taking their issues seriously through helping to make their job easier.
It is important for management to be able to effectively track with KPIs the number of jobs that are being effectively completed within their estimated timescales. In the beginning the field force workers felt like these newly introduced KPIs made them feel like they were being ‘checked up on’, but they soon realised that Unipart was more interested in supporting the workers by analysing why they were unable to complete their jobs. By properly measuring their productivity, we were able to gauge gaps in their performance and find ways to ensure they were able to reach their targets more effectively.
Access to the Right Equipment
To ensure there is available equipment within the region, Unipart ensured field operators were made aware of when particular pieces of equipment were away for recalibration through creating date sheets made available on their hub. So if operator A was sending away a particular piece of kit then operator B and C from the same region would then know not to send away theirs at the same time. This stopped this type of situation from happening again through more efficient planning.
Strong Visible Management
At the core of any change or transformation initiative, Unipart have always ensured that management, whether that be team leaders, middle, or senior management are visible and are seen to be advocates of the change. To guarantee high levels of management engagement, at least once a month, during their morning CommCell, management would participate in the discussion to assess the field team’s level of productivity and if they had any frustrations that they wanted escalated.
So ultimately what is different about the Unipart approach?
At Unipart we believe that your people are your greatest asset; therefore it is crucial that the field operators are being engaged by management to ensure that their voices are heard, there is a mutual level of respect that overpowers their siloed work environment, and actions are created based around their frustrations. This type of collaborative working environment will help to ensure actions are not only taken, but that the field worker environment is continuously improved, ensuring that field operators are engaged, innovating on the ground and realising their full potential.
The Field Operations Puzzle
Discover more about the field worker's challenges which impact upon their productivity and how Unipart use pragmatic approaches to address them in our guide.