Several factors in the Field Operations of many utility organisations directly affect field team productivity. An inability to complete jobs efficiently or achieve targets often results in frustration, and leads to the creation of an ‘us-versus-them’ working mentality that may be caused by unseen internal tensions.
The lack of a shared mission contributes to this, by promoting ‘siloed’ thinking and working, where disconnected teams focus on what is best for them to get their jobs done efficiently, not what is best for the organisation or for the value stream in its entirety. This naturally provides an environment where competing interests can unwittingly create animosity between teams, and indeed between different levels across an organisation. We explore 3 main causes of poor field team productivity, and how they can each influence an ‘us-versus-them’ working culture.
1. Strategic Priorities
We understand that regulation, with the threat of being penalised by governing bodies, leads to Utility Field Operations being heavily targeted and monitored. However, management teams can be tempted to focus strategic priorities on achieving specific targets (e.g efficiency drives); rather than focusing on improving field team productivity across the board.
Planning teams tasked with pursuing particular targets will prioritise the scheduling of jobs that will help meet these targets, which may de-prioritise other aspects of efficient job scheduling, such as: customer impact, travel times and optimal work sequencing. In a situation where conflicting priorities exist between management and front-line staff, the ground is fertile for ‘us-versus-them’ dynamics.
Disregarding efficient job completion will impact on the number of jobs that can be completed by field teams - it compromises their ability to work to their full potential, and as a result productivity declines. Engagement can also fall as staff quickly realise that they are being deployed in an inefficient way - no one likes their time or efforts to be wasted, even if it is being compensated. Unachievable KPIs or ‘moving targets’ can render such targets as meaningless and irrelevant to field teams.
This has a net result in leaving field teams feeling frustrated as their efficiency is detrimentally affected.
2. Increased Workload Demand
Pressure from customers and governing bodies to challenge price rises by lowering operational costs, whilst also improving the overall customer experience, is continuing to put pressure on field teams. Increased workloads can pressurise field teams to do whatever they can to complete jobs on time. However, the system is not set up for this and productivity is impacted by scheduling issues, delays in equipment arriving on site, or the lack of accounting for travel times to and from jobs.
It is no surprise that field teams frequently exhibit low levels of employee engagement when they are frustrated by a lack of robust, standardised processes. To combat the increase in workload, many utility organisations have introduced digital technologies (e.g. telematics, field service management systems etc) but the digitising of sub-standard processes will not resolve fundamental issues in job planning or job execution. The roll out of any change initiatives without input from field teams can easily lead to resistance, further reinforcing an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality.
3. A Question of Legacy
The jury may still be out on whether the privatisation of utilities has been a positive shift or not, but it is safe to say that the industry is still struggling to move forward to keep up with demand and increased business requirements. Long-standing legacy contracts, outdated working practices, and the outsourcing of work to sub-contractors are keeping utility organisations stuck in the past. Staff employed in Field Operations are change weary and sceptical of further change initiatives, having witnessed ill-thought through initiatives in the past. Operational processes can be a difficult and ponderous place to impose change from the top-down. Such forms of change resistance are at the heart of an ‘us-versus-them’ culture, where staff do not trust management and do not feel like they share the same priorities.
Trust between management and front-line staff creates a competitive advantage, it is crucial to address the root causes of poor field team productivity levels. It is the responsibility of management to increase expectations for field team engagement, but it is also their responsibility to consider their workers at every stage of the operational process. By working to achieve high levels of employee engagement - developing a shared mission, encouraging and empowering change from the bottom up - companies can start to tackle the productivity puzzle. Including field teams in decision-making will make them feel more involved, and will help remove an ‘us-versus-them’ working mentality. The end result is a more efficient job completion process, reduced waste, improved efficiency and significant cost savings.
The Field Operations Puzzle
This article explores the main challenges within field operations which impact upon productivity improvements, and looks at the best approaches to solve them to keep up with the ever-increasing requirements of the regulator and the customer.