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National Grid makes savings by giving engineers control of their data using Tableau

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 5, 2018
National Grid engineers have more insight into how they’re performing and have reduced their reliance on spreadsheets by implementing Tableau.

National grid gas
National Grid owns the electricity and gas transmission system in across England and Wales, and is responsible for balancing supply and demand. It has an army of engineers on the ground that are responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of the system, and the organisation is now giving these engineers better insight into their performance and the performance of the network through the use of Tableau.

National Grid’s story is common amongst many large organisations, where it typically has relied on spreadsheets, Sharepoint and manual processes to get the insights that it needs. However, unsurprisingly, this is cumbersome and inefficient.

Just over a year ago, it decided to rethink its approach and create a data lake, bringing all of its disparate data sources together, and implement Tableau to give engineers real-time insights into their performance through the use of customised dashboards. Some of the results have been impressive, with uptake strong and savings being made.

I got the chance to speak to James Linnett, National Grid’s analytics development lead, at Tableau’s annual European user conference in London this week, where he explained how the organisation is rethinking how it’s using data within its operations team - 600 engineers thus far. He said:

We have a lot of disparate data sources, a lot of information in Excel, a lot of information in Sharepoint, we have multiple databases that contain a lot of information. So the project came about because we wanted to provide our operations teams with automated, robust reporting. Move it away from manually produced spreadsheets. We pulled a new data lake together first, using Oracle Insights, to bring all this information into one place, and then Tableau was chosen to be the front end to visualise the data.

Our main customers are mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, nuts and bolts people. They’re not people that would necessarily be used to self service on data. Normally they’d get a spreadsheet with their specific performance, their specific view, and it would snapshot and get sent to them directly.

However, they’re now using Tableau to view their performance on how they’re doing for their work that’s been planned, monitoring the number of defects we’ve got on the national transmission system, what areas those defects are in, who is closing them down, how quickly they’re being closed down.

Although the project has only been running for twelve months, National Grid has already saved over 75 hours per month in manpower, compared to when it was manually producing spreadsheets. Linnett said:

Historically they’d get their performance on a spreadsheet, and if they wanted some more information or to drill down into a spike, they’d have to go back to the team, more reports would have to be run, etc. Tableau has enabled us to put all of the granular level detail into the dashboard.

Education, education, education

As is often the case with BI and data visualisation rollouts, the uptake can often be slow, as users are so accustomed to manual processes and workarounds. There’s a learning curve and more often than not, organisations need to put in place education programmes to get people on board.

This was certainly the case at National Grid. Linnett found that in the first three months of the project, only 30% of users were making use of Tableau and the new data tools available to them. Linnett said:

Before we rolled out Tableau to users, we put a video together to tell them that new software is coming. Explaining what a data lake is, what Tableau is, how it can benefit them, that sort of thing. Just to get them warmed up to the idea. We also produced a lot of webinars, both live and recorded, to show the user how to navigate through.

We have also produced quick reference guides, with all our dashboards, showing them how to use specific dashboards, why they would use them. We do a lot of ongoing adoption, such as email newsletters, discussing enhancements that are coming, and we do an opinion column with an engineer explaining the benefits he or she gets out of Tableau.

As a result of the education and engagement programme, adoption has since risen to 70% of users. Linnett said:

That’s fantastic really, when you consider that our customers are engineers and they’re more likely to be out fixing gas turbines, rather than looking at data.

However, Linnett did have one other word of warning for organisations undertaking a similar project. He said that if National Grid were to have its time again, it would approach the rollout more thoughtfully, engaging with users to find out what they actually wanted out of the dashboards, rather than replacing like for like. He said:

One of the massive takeaways from it would be not to replace like for like. We had a number of Excel reports and then once we bought Tableau in, our focus was kind of to replace those with Tableau quickly and get self service out in the open. We missed opportunities in that fact, by not asking questions about whether all those reports were still relevant, or if there was anything additional we could add to it.

Don’t be focused on rushing it out, otherwise you have opportunities that you miss, like we did. And it takes more time in the long-run, because you then have to go back to reports and dashboards.

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