The number of work orders processed per miles traveled is a key performance indicator (KPI) for utility companies. This KPI is especially significant for SourceGas, a natural gas distribution utility that covers Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Arkansas, with territories that include many large, rural areas. And maximizing driver efficiency across the business takes on even more importance in these rural territories where re-routing technicians means tacking on hefty fuel, maintenance, and other operational costs.
With manual processes driving its work order and dispatch systems, SourceGas knew this particular metric of work orders per miles wasn’t as effective as it could be. So, the company decided to upgrade the aging mobile system it used to dispatch its approximately 500,000 work orders per year to roughly 500 field technicians on mobile devices. When the utility began searching for a new mobile solution that could keep up with regulatory and business process changes, automating its work order and workforce scheduling processes were key considerations.
SourceGas’s predecessor had installed the original mobile system in 2000 when mobile applications were still in relative infancy. And since the utility hadn’t made any major updates to the system along the way, the solution was outdated. With the platform servers also difficult to replace in disaster-recovery scenarios, and enhancements to the system cost-prohibitive, SourceGas wanted an alternative that would allow for long-overdue improvements.
“There was a lot of risk associated with the old system, and we couldn’t continue to support necessary enhancements,” says Bryan Ax, Enterprise Solutions (IT) Project Manager at SourceGas. “When we did need to make changes, something as simple as tweaking a field length to support more characters could cost a great deal of money.”
Owning the Pipeline
In exploring possible mobile upgrades, another important consideration for SourceGas was to tackle the lion’s share of the implementation, relying on vendor support for development or configuration only when it ran into roadblocks. The organization’s intent was threefold: First, reduce the implementation cost. Second, eliminate the cumbersome maintenance process it experienced with its legacy system, which was custom-coded by third-party vendors. Third, ensure the new system met unique requirements, such as time reporting, while adhering to strict regulatory agency rules.
With these goals in mind, SourceGas chose SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization by ClickSoftware to integrate with its existing SAP landscape, which included SAP ERP and SAP Customer Relationship Management (SAP CRM). (Learn more about SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization in the sidebar.)
“Because we serve both regulated and non-regulated markets and cover four states where our business rules vary, we have a need for rapid and constant change, so it was important to have a tool that we could customize ourselves,” explains Thom Bookwalter, Senior Director of Enterprise Solutions at SourceGas. “A lot of the work we performed is work that ClickSoftware experts normally handle as part of the implementation, but we wanted to take it on ourselves. The ability to make our own changes to the software empowers us to serve our customers as efficiently and promptly as possible.”
Tapping New Reserves
That learning phase started in the summer of 2011 when SourceGas kicked off a collaborative requirements workshop with the implementation partner ClickSoftware, the dispatch office, division managers, service technicians, and the enterprise solutions team. The goal was to prioritize system requirements and develop rules and configurations to support work order and scheduling processes. SourceGas settled on three priorities:
- Automate work order scheduling
- Ensure minimal change management for field technicians
- Maintain its existing timesheet process
Automating work order scheduling was an obvious place for SourceGas to start because the business believed an automated approach had significant advantages over the previous manual approach. Manually dispatching all work was a time-consuming process for dispatchers, and without systematized scheduling policies, it was difficult for all service technicians to consistently receive workloads aligned with business objectives.
“The dispatchers are experienced and have the necessary knowledge regarding what skillsets technicians required for certain work orders; however, the process depended on dispatchers committing to memory the more than 225 different types of work our technicians perform in the field,” Ax explains. “We spent a lot of time and effort developing a single truth of this information and creating transparency around the scheduling policies.”
Before SourceGas implemented SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization, the work order process started, as it does now, with a call from a customer to the SourceGas call center in Fayetteville, Arkansas. SAP CRM blocked capacity and simultaneously created a work order that was sent to the dispatch center, where dispatchers assigned the work out to technicians who picked it up with their Panasonic Toughbook mobile devices. While the previous software integrated with SAP CRM to track a work order from start to finish, dispatch was still the go-between to manually set a work order off on its journey into the field.
Now, an SAP NetWeaver Process Integration (SAP NetWeaver PI) adapter automatically handles the messaging between the SAP system and SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization, and work orders are scheduled and dispatched using the rules and objectives configured in the system, barring the exceptions flagged for dispatch intervention.
From the requirements workshop through development, validations, and training, the implementation process took a little over a year, with SourceGas completing its phased rollout when it went live with its last division in December 2012. From the outset, the company’s decision to own the implementation proved prescient, as challenges mounted in configuring the software to account for all the quirks of its unique service area as well as in establishing rules for types of work. For example, what constitutes an emergency work order? Are work order priorities the same in an urban area, such as Fayetteville, Arkansas, as they are in rural Wyoming? Will service-level agreement rules differ for a technician’s service window?
“The biggest challenge was designing the system to route all the work and schedule all those various rules, and then reviewing that schedule to make sure it does what you told it to do,” says Ax. “That’s a very time-consuming and ongoing process.”
Because one of the top priorities for the project was minimal change management for technicians, customization wasn’t limited to setting rules and priorities for scheduling. To achieve this outcome, SourceGas wanted the new mobile app user experience to mirror the existing user experience as closely as possible. This was especially important for time reporting, which needed to be simplified but still adhere to certain business rules for proper accounting.
While staying true to the existing user experience, SourceGas was also able to enhance the software. To improve technician efficiencies, one enhancement was tailoring service order completion data sent back to SAP ERP for each type of service order rather than displaying all fields on all orders. Another important enhancement was driven by safety measures. “As a natural gas utility company, safety is one of our primary concerns,” says Diane Dodd, Senior Manager of Application Development at SourceGas. “To make sure our emergency orders get the proper attention, we added audio alerts to SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization for dispatchers and on the technicians’ mobile devices. Another new safety feature enables technicians to set a timer to alert dispatch if they haven’t returned to their vehicle by a certain time.”
User training was a key step in the transition. After providing input during the exploratory and design phases, technicians got their hands on the application for initial training in June 2012.
“The goal of that process was to ensure everything met their expectations,” Ax says. “We trained about 20% of the workforce not only to get their feedback, but also to make sure that when we went live, we’d have the appropriate training materials ready based on what we heard.”
SourceGas also counted on its operations team end users to perform the approximately 225 service order types using the new application to help ensure that every business scenario was accounted for. For example, when a technician closes out a work order for a meter exchange, information such as data from a final reading moves into SAP ERP, and certain automation has to happen before the new meter is recognized and synced to a customer account. All this automation had to be tested — for this and every other type of work that technicians perform.
So while SourceGas spent much of the first half of 2012 in development, this final three-month period before the initial go-live in September was a key step in making final refinements.
“We used a very iterative approach and an agile development methodology,” says Ax. “We had regular calls with our operations team and a committee of super-user technicians to make sure we were building the system to specification. This strategy helped ensure buy-in and that we weren’t missing business processes. And because we were developing much of the functionality with internal resources, we helped ensure that we’d have an application that meets all our needs.”
A Single-Source Flow
While the system was custom-built to meet the needs of SourceGas, it is still relatively early to determine a full accounting of tangible benefits. SourceGas has completed more than 230,000 work orders and paid 600,000 timesheet records since go-live. Even so, more data needs to be collected before reports like manpower studies shed additional light on operational efficiencies and benefits.
“We’re still in a system stabilization mode,” says Ax. “But one key benefit from a cost avoidance perspective is that we have been able to do most of the corrections ourselves without having to go back to a vendor for those updates. Operationally, we’ve received positive feedback about the timesheet functionality, automated scheduling, and a range of improvements in usability to the previous system, but there are still behind-the-scenes analytics to perform to quantify some of those pieces.”
Moving forward, SourceGas plans to use SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization to focus more directly on the customer experience. For example, some of the application enhancement possibilities include allowing customers to place orders online, sending text messages to let customers know when technicians are en route, and collecting digital signatures and processing payments from customers directly in the field.
Along with customer expectations, the utility industry needs have also experienced a dramatic shift — from work type and prioritization to follow-up orders. “Our industry has seen a rapidly changing environment around compliance items and requested data. SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization empowers us to rapidly make changes in house, which is very important from the perspective of adapting to this environment,” says Doug Whitefoot, Senior Vice President of Operations at SourceGas.
“There’s a lot of potential now that we have the flexibility of this modern platform,” says Bookwalter. “We’re continuing to move forward, and the customer aspect is part of that. Overall, one of our main focuses as a company is to look at every opportunity to automate functions in the field and throughout the organization. We have a vision of inputting information just once via SAP Workforce Scheduling and Optimization, and it just flows through.”