Operational excellence is now more important than ever to solve
the regulatory and cost challenges of field operations
The importance of efficient field operations has never been of greater significance for utility organisations. Tougher leakage targets and an even sharper focus on customer satisfaction levels make field operations a core component of a modern and successful utility. However, improving on these targets in field operations can be a challenge because of an organisation’s fragmented operational structures.
Our experience has shown that organisations often struggle to grapple with the logistical operation of planning and deploying their field operations teams effectively. In fact it is a problem that Ofwat deems to be ‘one of the biggest challenges for our sector’. This poses a pressing problem for business leaders as field operations typically make up one of the largest percentages of utility organisations workforces and as a consequence it presents a large area of untapped productivity improvement.
This conundrum is not new. Many utilities have approached the problem by deploying technology or outsourcing their field teams to drive greater accountability and performance. This has been done with some success - new innovations, such as 'Core and Vac', can deliver significant benefits when deployed correctly. So, why then, are we still seeing field operations dominate the industry’s agenda? From our experience working on the front line of field operations, both for our own business and our clients, there are a number of underlying reasons affecting the performance of field operations:
The utility industry is often incentivised to progress by regulatory targets, or the agenda of governing bodies. A particular example is the drive to reduce leakage; both in water & gas. The issue of network ‘leakage’ is of strategic importance to organisations as significant incentives and penalties exist. In practice, placing significant weight on certain KPIs can create issues with day to day operations.
As an example, many organisations carry out ‘leakage drives' as a way to improve leakage performance. On paper this may seem like a way of delivering rapid improvement. In reality, such schemes often drive inefficiency into the field operations process.
During 'leakage drives', specific job types are often made a priority, usually with little regard to distance and work sequence, which are key components of an effective field operations plan. Disregarding efficient job completion in favour of short term benefit will negatively impact key performance indicators, such as productivity and customer satisfaction.
Cost and workload associated with field operations
Following privatisation of the utility sector, demand for field services has continued to grow, leading to sensitivities over cost pressures and higher workloads. Driven by a greater demand from regulators and customers for more reliable and diverse services, coupled with ageing infrastructure, field operations operating models are now more challenged than ever. Utility operators are taking varying approaches to the situation, including outsourcing their operations to varying degrees and implementing wide scale technology to aid job closure, however, few organisations take a joined up, systematic approach to address all of the causes.
The public sector legacy of the utility industry has been well documented but there are still components the industry are trying to grapple with and move forward from. Legacy contracts, ageing work practices and low engagement levels all play a contributing factor to delivering the pace and level of change required to keep up with the demands of a modern utility organisation.
Of course, there are many other elements which contribute to the difficulties of implementing and sustaining efficient field operations. What we have seen is very few organisations approaching the challenge with full consideration of the end-to-end process, and all of the component parts. Thus improvements made in one area can create problems up or down stream. This creates further inefficiencies and frustrations but crucially it reduces the ability of the organisation, as a whole, to deliver sustainable, people-led change and improvement.
Unipart Expert Practices have supported a multitude of organisations in transforming their field operations. Our new guide 'The field operations puzzle' will provide the insight for you, and your organisation, take steps to unlock the full power of your workforce and deliver sustainable change:
The Field Operations Puzzle
This article explores the challenges within field operations , including the ever-increasing requirements of both the regulator and the customer, and how they could be met.