BT is one of the world’s leading providers of communications solutions and services, operating in 170 countries. Its principal activities include networked IT services; local, national, and international telecommunications services; and higher-value broadband and internet products and services. In the UK, BT serves over 18 million business and residential customers through more than 30,000 field engineers, as well as providing network services to other licensed operators. Openreach is the BT Group organisation that supports the access network (often referred to as the “last mile”) on behalf of BT and other service providers.
In the early 1990s changes to the regulatory landscape meant that BT was facing ever-increasing competition in its home market and needed to deliver enhanced customer service while simultaneously reducing costs. Any company that manages a large mobile workforce will know that efficient workflow management can have a phenomenal impact on its performance but, back then, job allocation to its mobile technicians was largely a manual process carried out by teams of job controllers.
Dave Berrington, Senior Field Force Automation Manager at BT, recalls: “The controllers had limited data on the work stack and could be influenced by the engineers themselves – many of whom had preferences for particular work types or locations. Some would also be constrained by a parochial loyalty to their ‘patch.’ All this combined to affect decisions taken on the scheduling and allocation of work.” Information flow was also an issue, with jobs often failing due to inadequate work instructions or records.
BT decided that it needed to standardise working practices and introduce Field Force Automation (FFA). As well as enabling the automatic allocation of work to engineers the planned changes would seek to create a learning environment. In a virtuous circle, good quality automatically generated management information would be used to continuously improve decision-making and optimise performance.
BT adopted a dual pronged approach, using technology to underpin and support a far-reaching programme of process and cultural change. Paul Cleaver, General Manager of Field Force Automation at BT, says: “We started by issuing hand held communicators and mobile phones to our field engineers. The systems we use today have moved on considerably since then – we are now on our fourth generation of field technology – but the principles remain the same.”
The scheduling system, which receives information from a number of customer service databases as well as automated routines such as line test activity, is at the heart of the solution. It is also integrated with a resource management application that has access to, for example, the skill profile and availability of individual technicians.
Paul Hendron, Network Programme Director, at Openreach, comments: “Most of our field people now work from home so we always know their start location at the beginning of each day. The scheduling system allows us to build a tour of duty for the whole day for a majority of our people, with the aim of minimising ineffective time and improving productivity.” A separate pool of engineers provides flexibility by handling, for example, jeopardy management and unplanned work.
As well as mobile phones BT field technicians now have ruggedised laptop computers with inbuilt GSM/GPRS access. This enables the transmission of job data and allows the engineers to access BT central information databases as well as the company intranet, email, and internet services almost wherever they are.
But the transition was not just about the technology, as Paul Cleaver explains: “The cultural and people issues cannot be understated. For example, it is essential to make sure that the whole management team is on board with a common understanding of the objectives and the reasons for the changes.” Paul Hendron adds: “With engineers starting work from home there was a loss of social networking. In this respect, weekly calls to touch base, regular scheduled team meetings, and – more recently – blogs and bulletin boards have proved invaluable.”
The business results of the FFA implementation have been nothing short of remarkable. Improved productivity has led to a reduction in the engineering workforce of approaching 30 per cent. Over 80 per cent of all work is now scheduled and allocated automatically, which has enabled a 60 per cent decrease in the number of job controllers.
Paul Cleaver comments: “Fully automated allocation and despatch of work has become business as usual and we now have just seven job allocation centres providing full visibility of the work compared to over 100 in the past.” The management overhead has reduced as well with BT now operating with 30 per cent fewer field managers. Dave Berrington observes: “Because the quality and availability of job information and achievement is so much better our managers are now equipped to concentrate much more of their time developing team and individual performance.”
Customers have noticed the difference too. Service lead times have reduced, timed appointments are now commonplace, and responsiveness to faults has improved. Procedures have also been introduced to further enhance customer service with the policy to ring ahead, confirm expected arrival time, and call after completion of the job to double check customer satisfaction. As a result repeat work, at less than seven per cent, is now at an all-time low.
For the field engineers themselves, most feel more empowered to do their job, which has been a key contributor to a significant improvement in job satisfaction (as measured by the regular internal BT employee attitudes survey). There have been sustainability benefits too. A reduction in driven mileage from the optimisation of job allocation and the introduction of tours of duty has reduced diesel usage in the BT van fleet by around 15 per cent. Paul Cleaver concludes: “Field Force Automation is all about people and process. The software and the hardware are the relatively easy bits.”
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