- By: Tom Kerestes
Utilities initiate projects for many reasons. Some are vital to day-to-day business operations; others are part of service expansion or the result of new technology that promises lower costs and/or better service. The most difficult projects to implement are those that fall into the category of “transformational.”
Only as strong as the “weakest link”
Most people intuitively realize that moving a transformational project forward involves simultaneously managing a large number of interrelated parameters. But, to make a transformational project successful, it helps to have those parameters in mind when the project begins, as well as a solid plan in place for achieving the project vision.
Actually, there are five factors to consider when starting a project. They are: (1) strategy, (2) people, (3) process, (4) technology, and (5) metrics/data. Successful transformation requires addressing each of these to some depth, as well as attention to any interconnections among them. The trick is to balance all five factors in proper alignment, since a deficiency in any one will cause serious issues in all the others. In other words, a transformational project is only as strong as its “weakest link.”
While the first four factors typically are part of most significant utility projects, the last one often is ignored. Hence, the “metrics/data” factor typically becomes the “weakest link,” and the transformational project will fall short of expectations. But before diving into the metrics/data factor, let’s establish the framework in which it resides by setting the context relative to each of the factors.
Strategy – setting the direction up front and maintaining it
Gain consensus by focusing on what is within the control of most people, always basing decisions on the largest data sets that are the most accurate. Realize that expectations should be established by those doing it, including references from other industries at both the national and local levels. When seeking to improve the customer experience, review the available data, critically review your resources, and determine the service level you want your customers to be experiencing five years from now. The timeline can always be accelerated or slowed.
People –using the best and brightest
Implementation of performance management techniques are commonplace in most industries and will work in your utility culture. That means full-time supervisors who manage people and metrics that drive future efficiencies. It also means tracking individual productivity and effectiveness of customer-facing staff. The take-away is that your customer really doesn’t care how your utility is organized and who does what, only that they are provided the services they desire.
Process – constructing policies and procedures from “end-to-end”
Policies and procedures can be used to break down silos, with consolidation of training, improvement projects, and other general functions incorporated into a centralized team. Keep the customer in the forefront when developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies.
Technology – rules, standards, social media, and mobility
Development and adherence to rules, standards, and other common practices will drive out costs and reduce training requirements. Invest in social media offerings when feasible to reduce costs and don’t over-rely on your contact center for customer communications. Instead, focus on communicating through e-mails, texts, and the web. Mobility solutions follow, but just stay current on technologies in heavy use across all utilities and industries.
Metrics/Data – the forgotten factor
It’s an old cliché but it’s true: “What gets measured, gets done.” Let’s look at this a bit deeper, because this factor is the first to drop off the radar when budget cutting begins. The best way to avoid overlooking metrics and data is to start with benchmarks. If you can’t find the right benchmarking set, then start with a few local utilities with a similar size and customer base. Make contact with them and ask them for a few minutes of their time to share some information. Be willing to give them your information in exchange for receiving theirs!
Consider creating a business case for each project deliverable. Seek to show value and when achieved, communicate it! This is the best way to keep management satisfied that progress is occurring, and it has a positive and uplifting effect on the project team.
The exhibits below illustrate an example of a utility’s metric-tracking desktop. Figure 1 shows, by month, the percentage of all automated meter reading (AMR) accounts that are “estimated” accounts.
Figure 1 - Percent of AMR Accounts Estimated
Users can drill down to view additional details about the counts by month in the “Billing AMR Data Details” (Figure 2).
Figure 2 - MR Billing Details
Any project team that interacts with customers should report metrics monthly. Start at a high level with the simplest of views and add more specific elements as the months progress. Always compare metrics to the benchmark and the desired performance target. This focus should dominate management’s attention. Never stop collecting and verifying customer information (e.g., right e-mail address).
Understand the value
Utilities, like all companies, can only manage what they measure. It follows that by not measuring critical services you provide your customers, these services are invisible to management and, therefore, nearly impossible to improve. This is also true of transformational projects.
Be critical in what you really want to improve and don’t be afraid to measure the value received. And if you’re not realizing the value expected, accept that fact and move in another direction. Consider your exercise a valuable experience in verifying an intuitive and logical course of action did not work to provide better operating practices.
Starting with defining metrics that are valuable to you and adding to them, modifying them and making them known to others results in people understanding that your transformational project really does add value to your utility’s bottom line!