Utilities are responsible for a long list of deliverables and outcomes. Overlay customer service calls, weather events, and worker safety, and it’s easy to see why planning and scheduling are critical components of the overall success of operations. While utilities maintain ongoing oversight, so do regulators, keeping tabs on and ensuring that service and maintenance are carried out in a timely manner. Mastering all these moving parts means utilities must plan, prioritize jobs, schedule activities, and adapt the right workers, skills and equipment for each job. This technical spotlight from IFS focuses on existing flaws in how some utilities plan and schedule, as well as the ultimate costs businesses must pay. We’ll examine how modern approaches to these critical capabilities not only fill gaps, but also introduce greater efficiencies to protect — and even grow — the bottom line.
Over the past decade, we have seen some notable advancements in the industry. Yet many organizations remain rooted in the past, relying on manual spreadsheets, paper maps and Gantt charts to advance utility. This lack of efficiency comes at a cost, and often it comes at the cost of the work being done in the field. In fact, most field workers expect that 30-50% of planned work will contain defects that need to be addressed before work begins. Another 10-15% of work in the field is expected to stall due to oversights in the original plan. Engineers and designers are also affected, often withdrawing from their jobs to help address these issues and ensure the work is performed correctly.
For many utilities, planning and scheduling is a one-dimensional linear activity that applies a timeline to a desired outcome based on available workers, equipment, and other components. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. The limitations of this model are twofold. Unable to predict, predict and optimize in real time, the result is a reactive (and chaotic) environment. Inconsistent work schedules; assets fail and often miss established SLAs. At worst, businesses fail to meet regulatory requirements for utility assets and worker safety.
The best plans are based on a broad view of overall operations, looking beyond timelines and resources to consider business value and outcomes. By integrating business strategy into our plans and schedules, we can ensure that every outcome supports business goals. Planning and scheduling optimization (PSO) technology provides an active interconnection between planning, scheduling, and execution. This two-way flow of information ensures that plans are continuously optimized in real-time based on events happening on-site and elsewhere. The PSO technique involves four basic steps:
Step 1: Weigh the options. What-if scenario exploration is critical for a variety of operational needs: workload and capacity fluctuations, capital projects, critical events, asset inspection and maintenance, and long-term planning. The plans and timelines for these scenarios were tested against various outcomes to help determine the best way to proceed. Data is collected from different systems throughout the operation, such as SLAs, hourly staffing rates, OT rates, potential regulatory penalties, asset service schedules, and other details. These data points are integrated into the PSO system to help inform a range of possible outcomes. Each recommendation specifies the necessary personnel, including location, availability, skills, proficiency, certification and other considerations. Once the utility has selected the proposal, the plan is loaded into production. Test the scenario by asking a series of questions. If the project authorizes overtime to support an earlier completion date, will the increased labor costs be offset by other efficiencies? Are there enough resources to cut the timeline in half? How will this affect other jobs? By examining all potential outcomes, utilities can see with certainty how each situation affects overall operations and the bottom line.
Step 2: Quantify returns. One of the most important advancements provided by PSO technology is value-based analytics. This ability goes beyond the simple question of whether a project will be completed on time and within budget. Rather, it is a highly granular exploration of the associated costs applicable to various scenarios that utilities must consider when developing work plans. For example, due to unexpected delays in the field, it is possible for a utility to miss an SLA deadline that would be penalized. PSO technology can quickly determine whether other work should be de-prioritized to meet SLAs, or if reallocating workers would result in higher costs for the utility company. Trickle-down effects such as additional door-to-door service, worker overtime and other factors are considered in the overall value-based analysis. This built-in business case capability assigns real-time value to every decision planners make.
The third step: continuous optimization. PSO technology continually refines the plan and its associated timeline. Machine learning and artificial intelligence apply skilled algorithms that can quickly examine and determine the most efficient path forward. For example, emergency repairs are required on site. The system recommends the best worker for that job to be assigned to optimize efficiency based on travel time, whether the necessary equipment is on hand, the worker’s overall efficiency in a particular repair, and even whether there is other work available in the area. Unlike traditional planning solutions that typically offer a 2-week optimization window, PSO technology supports planning timeframes ranging from a few months to a full year. With PSO, optimization is always on. The technique analyzes and continually moves the pieces to determine the best sequence of events, recommending the most efficient path forward.
Step 4: Aggregate Workforce Efficiency. The final stage of any planning is execution, when scheduling and other details are enabled and pushed to dispatchers and workers in the field. This is where the real test of the effectiveness of the plan comes in. PSO technology seamlessly integrates with mobile workforce management (MWM) solutions, extending the power and efficiency of PSO systems to field work. The interconnection between all PSO steps—the bidirectional flow of information—plays a critical role in coordinating field activities where unexpected anomalies are most likely to occur. Scheduling must deal with these exceptions, relying on PSO and MWM systems to respond in real time to worker absences, injuries, crew changes, equipment issues and other situations that can disrupt schedules. Using tools in MWM, dispatchers can evaluate dispatch results and adjust or lock orders, allowing for unique dispatch constraints or requirements that PSOs must adhere to. This granular control balances automation, visibility and control. With the optimization engine running continuously in the background, changes for the day can be quickly checked and recommendations made to ensure the work is performed as efficiently as possible.