A guide to automatic scheduling

A guide to automatic scheduling

There are many benefits to deploying an automated scheduling system, and from a software implementation point of view, it’s fairly simple. The change management process doesn’t end here, however.

Many organisations struggle to make the step changes needed to their working practices in line with the new scheduling method. This quick guide will walk through a series of steps that minimise the impact of implementation.

In today’s field service landscape, customers are more demanding of service delivery and company executives are pushing for greater productivity, increased customer satisfaction, lower costs, higher revenue and more service profitability.

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 through the day 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.

Your scheduling needs will depend on a number of variables:

  • The number of technicians.
  • The number of jobs each technician handles.
  • The degree of time sensitivity of each call.
  • The degree to which the schedule will change throughout the day.

It’s also important to consider that the demands placed on a field service application today may change quickly due to business growth, customer demands or competitive pressures. This quick guide explains the various scheduling strategies as steps, allowing you to select the stage that best describes your current operation and identify the goal for your future scheduling needs.

1. Paper and whiteboard

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, whiteboard 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. If the number of technicians out in the field increases, a dispatcher will quickly become overwhelmed and a company will be faced with hiring additional dispatchers or investing in some form of field service scheduling automation.

2. Manual drag and drop

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.

When you have to consider where the technicians are located geographically, the nature and scope of the work they are doing, what skills or certifications are required and which spare parts they may need, field service scheduling can become a multidimensional problem.

3. Intelligent advisor

Although not a common feature in many systems, a semiautomatic 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 — dispatchers will start to understand the algorithms, creating more trust in the system’s suggestions.

It also gives a company the ability to test its scheduling policy and the technical elements entwined in the system while still being in control of the overall decision. Having decision-making tools built in to a scheduler can also help to alleviate a lot of headaches experienced by a field service manager.

For large field operations, 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 derailing of a field service operation. Often known as a ‘what-if’ tool or an ‘Intelligent Advisor’, such a feature allows dispatchers to make quick, informed decisions to keep the best possible quality of the schedule.

4. Fully automatic

Some companies may not have the time or resources to drag and drop work orders into manual and semiautomatic 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 predefined 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.

Case study

Pacific Telemanagement Services (PTS) achieves 95% job completion rate and 75% productivity increase transitioning from manual to automated scheduling. PTS operates a fleet of 90 mobile workers who service pay phones and pay internet kiosks, as well as perform freezer cleaning and maintenance for their ice-cream distribution company, Arctic Express.

Until recently, it was using a manual scheduling process to assign tasks each day, which lacked efficiency and productivity suffered as a result.

“We used to just throw a group of tickets at our technicians in an assigned region to see what they could get done in a day. Each morning they would print out a list of their tasks, then spend a half hour planning routes based on their own knowledge of the area. We saw that this way was not always most efficient,” said Justin Keane, chief operating officer of PTS.

The company tried using a map feature to sequence the stops but this took an hour a day for each regional hub, and as they manage eight regional hubs, it took eight hours a day to build the routes. PTS implemented Trimble’s cloud-based scheduling solution to help it improve the efficiency of its scheduling process and raise the productivity level of its workers. By transitioning from manual to semiautomatic scheduling, PTS has been able to cut three hours a day spent on routing per dispatcher to about 45 minutes a day — a productivity saving of 75%, or about nine hours per week. Furthermore, technicians no longer have to plan their own routes, saving an additional 90 hours per week of their time so that they can spend it on completing more jobs per day.

Image credit: ©peshkova/Dollar Photo Club

Originally published here.

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