Turning Around A Fleet, One Benchmark At A Time.
This is the success story of PPL Electric Utilities:
In a utility industry so focused on delivering results, it can often be difficult to see new ways to improve operations for itself. That is, unless you’re completely new to it and can see it from an outsider’s point of view. That was the approach John Adkisson, Manager of Transportation for PPL Electric Utilities, took. By not knowing what couldn’t be accomplished, there were no roadblocks to what could be achieved.
With 20 years of experience as a Navy submariner, and no years in fleet management, John brought a fresh approach and steadfast commitment to his new role. Utilizing a strong partnership with Utilimarc, one of the nation’s leading fleet software providers, he uncovered the weaknesses of his business and improved them quickly and effectively through foolproof data and innovative ways of thinking.
John and his team turned PPL from a last-place contender to one that rises above all others. Read what John had to do to get there—and continue to stay there:
Q: Thank you for meeting with us and helping other fleets understand how to operate more efficiently.
A: No problem. Thank you for having me. I hope to help as much as possible.
Q: I heard there’s a good story about how you got introduced to Utilimarc. Care to explain?
A: Before joining PPL, I was in the Navy for 20 years. I had no experience with fleet management. And in some ways, this eventually worked out in my favor.
Being someone who hadn’t spent 30 years in the industry, like my peers, put me at a disadvantage. While I didn’t have the experience they had, I quickly discovered that I had outside help in Utilimarc.
My relationship with Utilimarc wasn’t always favorable. Or so I thought. When I first came to PPL, I saw an invoice from Utilimarc and couldn’t figure out what it was for. I asked my team about it, and all they said was Utilimarc was a benchmarking company, but nothing more than that. I couldn’t understand why we were paying for their services.
I called Utilimarc and told them they have 10 minutes to convince me to pay the invoice. I’m not kidding when I say they convinced me after 5 minutes. Following the phone call, they flew to my office and showed me firsthand how valuable the Utilimarc Benchmarking product could be for my business. That’s how I got my start with them. And, honestly, how I was able to turn around PPL right from the start.
Q: What challenges do you face?
A: There’s always pressure on a fleet to downsize, cut costs, get rid of vehicles or make staffing more efficient. The opposition to that is what I heard daily: “No one does what we do. You can’t compare what we do because we are so unique. We need everything and everyone we have.”
What I found through Utilimarc was, we’re not as unique as everyone thought. Through Utilimarc’s Benchmarking product, I quickly compared our operations to others who were doing the same thing.
Through those results, I was immediately able to dispel that whole argument that you can’t compare us to anyone else. I did. And our results were eye-opening, to say the least. It allowed me a credible, objective data set to compare to. From here, I now had proof and support to make the operational decisions I made.
Q: So, PPL is not “unique.” How did you use the data to make your department more efficient?
A: I saw we were spending a lot more than other utilities in cost per mile and cost per vehicle. It highlighted vehicle classes that were obviously underperforming from a cost perspective. It also revealed that we were overstaffed with mechanics and support personnel compared to our industry peers.
Q: Where did you start? What was step one?
A: There was one metric, Direct Work Order Hours per Mechanic, that put us at the bottom of the list. Based on that data alone, we decided we only needed X-number of mechanics. As our workforce began to retire, we chose not to replace them. We made this change over five years.
Next, we compared our Work Order data to the industry. Our vehicles were seen at a higher frequency than other utilities with the same vehicle types. For example, we saw we were bringing in a bucket truck four times a year for preventative maintenance. Yet, as manufacturer suggests and state law requires, we only needed to look at it twice a year. By reducing it to two, our performance began to improve.
Q: How did you know what to do and what to track?
A: On the Benchmarking portal, you can see the top seven vehicle classes in your fleet and your ranking — first, second, third or fourth quartile for that vehicle class. You can see the problem and then attack it from there. The hard part is figuring out how to make the change or find the golden nugget. My team and I brainstormed to figure that out.
I have to come up with creative solutions to problems. The biggest thing I need is objective data to help me create better solutions, instead of just relying on what we’ve always done.
I’ve also used Utilimarc’s Technician Staffing Module to determine the right number of mechanics needed based on the inventory and work order volume at each individual garage. And actually, we’re able to perform effectively with less than what the module recommends. The analytics are there to support our staffing numbers.
Q: Do you think staffing is a common problem?
A: Yes, but I don’t think being overstaffed is the common problem. A fleet manager has to justify the optimal number of mechanics needed to execute operations. One needs an analytical tool that says we are under-staffed in this garage, here’s why, and here’s the effect. That’s valuable if the manager needs to convince his or her senior leadership that more workers are needed.
The analysis Utilimarc provides may say there’s more work orders on vehicles because aging units are breaking down more often. That’s the kind of data a fleet manager needs to justify why he or she needs an extra body or why resources need to shift from one location to another. It gives the statistical, hard evidence.
Q: In other words, it’s easier to get additional head count if you have the data to support it.
A: You have to provide justification. Utilimarc allows the fleet manager to access the analytical and statistical data to help make decisions. Then you can create the business case — this is what the data says, this is why we need it, and this is what it’s going to cost.
Q: Tell me what the process is like when you get the Utilimarc Benchmarking report.
A: There is a portal where I access my data. The first thing I do is check where I rank compared to last year, to see if I moved up or down. I then present this data to my senior executive team. If there is a negative trend, I focus my energy there.
The first reaction you’ll have to the data is that you don’t believe it. If it says you are doing something good, you’re going to believe it. If it says that you are doing something bad, then you are going to say that the data is screwed up.
You have to have the mentality that you need to improve. I always limit myself to three things I need to fix. That way it’s manageable. When those are done, I fix the next three things. Your manager can help prioritize what those are.
Q: What about your team?
A: I have an excellent working relationship with my leadership. They support me as long as I keep them informed of what’s going on. They have never turned me away from doing something they know will make the business better.
You have to keep affected employees informed as well. Meet with them. Talk to them about their concerns. Get the message to them. I have learned the hard way that if you don’t include them in the discussions, it won’t go the way you want it to go.
Q: Seems you made quite an impact your first year. What about years 2 and 3? Were you able to make further improvements?
A: Between years two and three, it became evident that with as much data as I had, I still needed more. I needed to know more about my vehicles’ fueling habits, work orders, and utilization. That’s when we implemented Utilimarc Telematics.
We realized, as great as this data is on a macro level, we needed detailed vehicle information. With today’s connected vehicles and data streams, we’re seeing that’s more feasible than ever.
We started a pilot in late 2013 and immediately saw the benefits of having real-time data for vehicle utilization and maintenance. From an operational and safety standpoint, we could instantly see the location of the vehicles and how they were being used.
Q: How long was the pilot?
A: The pilot was two phases over six months. The first three months, we tested the product’s technology and the data we would receive with 30 vehicles. We picked a diverse vehicle group based on type, geographical location and functions — SUVs, pickups, bucket trucks.
After three months, we added more functionality, like equipment to know when a boom was in the air or stowed. And Utilimarc’s Vehicle Co-location, where we could see how many hours per week a supervisor was visiting his crew. Data like that is something we’ve never had before.
After seeing the results, we decided to begin the full Utilimarc Telematics installation in 2015 to our entire fleet.
Q: I’m assuming you had to sell this up your senior leadership. Was that a challenge?
A: My senior leadership was favorable of this type of technology. Utilimarc helped us create the ROI and business case to prove out that the investment would generate a return.
We also understood the benefits from a utilization perspective. For example, I was able to justify reducing six vehicles out of one work group’s fleet. With six SUVs at $30,000 each, that’s $180,000 that I didn’t have to replace in one year. I wasn’t spending that much on Utilimarc’s Telematics. Right there is a return on investment.
It’s paying dividends with the Florida hurricane relief efforts. We literally watched the dots go down Interstate 95 to Florida. The field supervision has access to that data, too. They know where their crews are at any given time so they can ensure they’re in the right spot that Florida Power and Light wants us.
Q: Were there challenges to this? Was there resistance?
A: Oh yeah, big time resistance to this one. There was a sense that we were invading the privacy of our employees. I also think the resistance came from the fact that we were able to shed light on an area that they said can’t be fixed. You have the data now, let’s fix it.
Q: Did you have supporters?
A: I had plenty of supporters. Most of them were in upper management, but my mechanics were very supportive of this because it solved an issue for them. It solved the problem of finding vehicles that were scheduled for maintenance. They saw it as information to help do their job.
Q: Through all of this, it sounds like Utilimarc was there to help you navigate through all your data, installments and questions. Did they feel like a partner of yours?
A: Our dedicated Utilimarc account manager and I got to know each other quickly. Anytime I called, needed something or had a question, they were always there to respond. They still are, both from a technology and a reporting perspective.
Reporting is key in this whole thing. Utilimarc helps us present the important data points we need. They also work closely with the utility industry. Explaining our problems to Utilimarc is not a big deal, they get it.
When I looked at other telematics providers, Utilimarc was the most cost competitive solution that could be tailored to my needs. Other telematics providers wouldn’t customize their product. Utilimarc was very adaptable, could tailor their product, and actually listened to what I wanted. The other telematics providers were telling me what they were going to give me and how much I was going to pay.
Q: Where are you today?
A: Benchmarking is very clear in showing we are solid in the first quartile. We have reaped the benefits of using that data. But we’re never done. There’s always room for improvement and the data shows it. If you are willing to use the data, there’s no limit to where you can go.
We’ve impacted our mechanic productivity. Their productivity has increased. We were able to do this because the Utilimarc Benchmarking data showed we had fewer mechanics per vehicle compared to other companies.
I can also see real reduction in spend year over year. I have a report that I update regularly with my department’s spend, and I can see that we’ve been able to decrease our yearly spend by 21% since I started in 2013.
Q: Have your efforts impacted how people view fleet at PPL?
A: Before I came here, fleet had a negative reputation. We had a culture in transportation that was do it my way or else. The data and numbers have allowed me to be more efficient and transparent. Using data has gained trust and allows me to show I’m doing this because it makes good business sense. The data has removed the emotion from the conversation.
Q: What makes you proud?
A: What I’m most proud of is that we’ve executed the plans we needed to. We’ve done it in a safe way that provides little to no degradation in service.
My VP would tell you that we have executed real change in the business that has a financial benefit to our rate-paying customers. While at the same time, making the fleet more productive. He cares that the vehicles are available, safe to operate, and it comes at an efficient cost. I think he’ll tell you that I’ve met these requirements during the 5 years I’ve been doing this job.
Q: What’s next?
A: We’re continuing to use the data and reports we see through Utilimarc’s products to make our fleet even more efficient and make fact-based, data-driven analysis to inform our business decisions. We’re looking at where we’ve never been able to measure or analyze before, and focusing our efforts there.
Q: This has been really insightful. Thank you for sharing your experience with Utilimarc.
A: It’s been my pleasure. In a lot of ways, I honestly couldn’t have done it without the help of Utilimarc.
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