Digital makeover boosts mobile workforce management at PHS

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright August 10, 2014
Summary:
Workplace service provider PHS looks to save millions on fuel bills by connecting washroom service drivers into a new mobile workforce scheduling system

PHSWashrooms089-crop
The impact of cloud computing and social media on consumer behavior is now rippling into every corner of the business-to-business environment — even as far as the washroom.

When the handdryer breaks down or the roller towel needs changing, shouldn't the facilities team be able to book a call-out online and expect a rapid confirmation of when the engineer will get there?

Workplace services provider PHS is now gearing itself up with a digital transformation designed to meet such expectations. It's currently in the final phase of rolling out a new mobile workforce management system that allows it to track the location of its engineers and allocate urgent jobs on the fly.

At the same time, the company is developing an online portal where customers will be able to log faults or call-outs instead of phoning or emailing requests. This opens up the potential to handle out-of-hours emergencies even when there's no one available to answer the phone.

Headquartered in Caerphilly, south Wales, and with £418 million ($700m) revenues in its last reported financial year, PHS is a fifty-year-old business serving more than 200,000 customers around the UK. Its washrooms division employs 1,800 engineers working out of 23 depots to maintain washroom equipment such as handdryers, roller towels, aerosol sprays and sanitary bins.

Automated scheduling

Ian Featherstone PFS
The new mobile workforce system is built around IFS 360 Scheduling, replacing a laborious paper-based process that relied on local knowledge and individual preferences to plan the drivers' routes each day. Automating the route scheduling process is having a big impact on efficiency, says Ian Featherstone, CIO at PHS:

Deploying the IFS solution has made a significant difference to the performance of our depots. For example, schedulers now spend around half an hour checking routes as opposed to a full day arranging routes and managing driver schedules ...

We're increasing productivity by about nine percent. Our fuel bill has actually gone up to start with, because the average fuel per job has gone down, but we're doing more jobs. We believe there'll be a seven percent saving, or £2 million [$3.3m] annually, on our fuel bill.

The increased fuel consumption as the system rolls out is a reflection of the larger number of calls drivers are now able to fit into their day, Featherstone told me.

On average a washroom service driver does 21 jobs per day. [With the new system] we've had routes produced with 50 or 60 jobs per day — and the driver's managed to complete them.

Vehicles are now tracked using O2's Drive service. Knowing where the vehicles are allows the system to dynamically allocate new jobs if a driver finishes earlier than expected or if an urgent call-out needs attention.

PHS wrote its own software to run on Motorola PDAs that drivers take with them containing all the day's data from the scheduling system, such as the route, the list of jobs and their addresses, how critical each visit is and information on what needs doing. The PDA captures the customer signature at the end of the job electronically, providing proof of completion that can be kept on file, forwarded to the customer or printed on the invoice.

The software also takes into account service level agreements and there has been a noticeable impact on service level compliance, Featherstone told me.

Spreading the workload

The core system that holds the customer data is also PHS's own proprietary design, but Featherstone rejected the idea of developing the scheduling system in-house.

I said we should be buying packages not having a big in-house development team. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel, repeat what others had already done — we wanted to learn from their mistakes.

The new system takes advantage of public cloud resources for some of its workload. PHS spins up instances of the IFS platform overnight on Azure to work out the next day's schedule, said Featherstone.

There's a massive processing overhead overnight. So we ramp up 100 servers on Azure overnight — and then we turn them off and don't pay for them during the day.

With four depots now live and more coming on board at a rate of two each week, PHS expects to complete the year-long implementation project in October. Additional savings will then become possible, said Featherstone.

Once we've completed the roll-out, we believe the big win is when you're able to blur the lines between depots geographically or in different divisions.

You can then use [available] resources in other depots or divisions to help with your workload. We can look at multiskilling drivers and multiskilling the vans.

It's a lot of change for the workforce but the company has been careful to win their support, said Featherstone.

We've put a lot of effort into having workshops with the drivers and explaining to them the beneftis. We also changed their bonus arrangements to incentivise them to stick to the automated schedules rather than doing routes in their preferred manner.

Verdict

  • It's a sign of how much we take mobile technology for granted these days that it seems almost unthinkable to operate a field service workforce that isn't connected back to base.
  • Digital transformation is essential to stay competitive, but as PHS has found, there's a substantial payback too.
  • The challenge now is keeping pace with customer expectations. Already PHS is planning to streamline customer interactions with an online portal. How long before it starts equipping its appliances with sensors that report their status back to base automatically?
  • Digital transformation isn't a one-off, it's a continuous process.  Whatever platform you choose to make it happen, choose one that will continue to adapt to changing requirements.

Image credits: Courtesy of PHS