Features: December 2nd, 2016

Service organisations with relatively few field staff can work efficiently with a paper based system for allocating tasks. In this feature John Cameron explains how semi and fully automatic scheduling systems can help the larger organizations to cope with the complexities.

For field service delivery managers, the pressure to deliver the most efficient and productive service operation has never been higher. Yet, deciding which technicians to assign to tasks, and when to schedule and dispatch them can be a tricky and complicated process. When you are managing a large number of technicians that complete multiple jobs per day, staying on top of the schedule as changes happen and emergency work comes in can seem like an impossible task.

The benefits realised by fully automatic scheduling and optimisation tools are undeniable; allowing the scheduling algorithms to manage resources in the most efficient way not only improves productivity enormously but allows the dispatcher to concentrate on other, more valuable tasks. A ‘hands-off’ approach is particularly beneficial for enterprise organisations that are managing a large mobile workforce that is carrying out varied and very complex work in the field.

However, the change from paper to automatic scheduling is a jump too far for many. A stepped approach or journey is a more sustainable way to manage the business change and ensure that you achieve your primary objective – getting the right technician to the right place at the right time with the tools to do the job, first time.

A best practice approach would be to adopt a stepped approached to scheduling, allowing you to select the stage that best describes your current operation and identify the goal for your future scheduling needs.

Step One: Paper/Whiteboard Scheduling

If you have a small service organisation with relatively few field service technicians undertaking just a few jobs a day, it is possible to adopt a paper-based scheduling system and not rely on software tools at all. These systems could be as simple as a paper-based chart, white board, or excel spreadsheet to keep track of service calls and technician assignments.

While many service organisations use paper-based processes today, this is field service scheduling at the simplest level and it can quickly start to fail when volume, complexity or volatility increases. Indeed, often a day’s schedule is forced to change, due to such circumstances as a new high priority service request comes in, a job overruns or a technician gets caught in traffic and arrives late. When circumstances like this happen it becomes very difficult to reconfigure the schedule for the rest of the day, given the number of dependencies, geographic distances and demands of each individual piece of work. A dispatcher can typically manage 15-20 technicians via a paper- based system.

Step Two: Manual Scheduling

Manual scheduling is characterised by ‘drag and drop’ features whereby a dispatcher can easily drag and drop work orders and tasks onto technicians’ calendars and dispatch work out to them electronically. Typically the system will do some automatic checks once the task is dropped. For example, to check if the technician allocated to a job has the skills to complete it. Manual scheduling offers a more automated and predictive solution to a paper-based system, helping businesses to save time and improve accuracy. However, as human intervention is heavily involved, it can prove difficult to manage more advanced scheduling processes via this system.

Step Three: Semi-Automatic Scheduling

Although not a common feature in many systems, a semi-automatic method can be very compelling for organisations wanting to move from a manual to fully automated approach.

The Semi-Automatic scheduling method/service is invoked by a user (through manually pressing a button) to start an automated process. Although this scheduling system is automatic, it still requires some level of human interaction, which is something few vendors provide yet many businesses prefer as it allows them to maintain some level of control and trust. This helps with the organisational change management- your dispatchers will start to understand the algorithms, creating more trust in the systems suggestions. Furthermore, emergency jobs often come in that need to be added to the day’s schedule so having a tool that advises on the impact of what adding this job in will have before it is assigned can help to prevent the de-railing of a field service operation.

Step Four: Fully Automatic Scheduling

Some organisations may not have the time or resources to drag and drop work orders into manual and semi-automatic systems and check all the details. It can also prove difficult to keep on top of scheduling all of the in-day emergency tasks. Fully automatic scheduling takes the intuitive nature of automated scheduling even further. Such a tool quickly and easily builds schedules automatically and dispatches work to technicians out in the field based on pre-defined parameters. The process completely eliminates manual intervention. Today’s software technology provides a wide range of features that optimise and update field service technician schedules automatically and in real time as service conditions and requirements change.

John Cameron is general manager at Trimble Field Service Management (FSM)

For more information on how to successfully transition from manual to automatic scheduling, watch the following webcast http://hubs.ly/H05dDV70