Professional Development: Leveraging The Aging Worker

By Bill Moylan
Published in the July 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Until recently, veteran facility technicians had to spend hours training rookies, since the history of an asset and the know-how to keep it performing were too often locked in their heads. Today, organizations use the latest tools to capture the step-by-step operations, the history of repairs, and the work completed on an asset. That information is then made available to the eager younger workforce by way of mobile devices. [For additional coverage of mobile applications, see “Pocket Sized Productivity.”]

Young technicians and engineers are already mobile technology savvy. They expect their employers to arm them with the latest mobile apps to manage this kind of work. And although veteran facility managers (fms) may have been skeptical about handheld computers, most senior engineers are now using mobiles devices regularly.

Recent advances in mobile applications for the workforce deliver user-friendly interfaces that mirror the devices everyone—regardless of age—uses every day. Putting the technician’s work orders, inspections, rounds, and inventory responsibilities on the now familiar smartphones makes learning and using the mobile application easier.

In fact, mobile work management was pioneered and refined in the facility management (FM) world. Over a decade ago, fms at hospitals, corporate headquarters, energy companies, and government entities embraced mobile management primarily as a way to increase productivity by eliminating paperwork and its associated theft of wrench time.

In a matter of months, they recognized that by delivering exponentially more data to technicians in the field they experienced improvements in first time fix rates, mean time to repair, mean down time, and travel costs. They also reduced foot traffic with better scheduling and routing. As innovators, fms moved from a reactive, break/fix work method of operation to one where planned and preventive maintenance (PM) extended asset life and reduced downtime. When an engineer was armed with step-by-step procedures to do the job properly and safely (and was able to view and use past work history), then best practices and procedures could be applied. This made cost controls more than possible—it made them real and tangible.

With today’s tools, engineers can achieve this kind of critical knowledge transfer and take it to new levels by sharing proven methods to complete more planned and preventive work.

With the rapid introduction and wide user acceptance of smarter mobile devices, fms have true, cost-effective ways to drive data to the point of performance. The latest generation of sophisticated software allows management to deploy the right device for the right job, immediately.

The growing workforce using mobile technology now serves to help developers build better, more user-friendly apps as they relate to a customer’s experience in the field. Mobile software providers recognizing the importance of this input have developed easy to configure products. Screens can be more intuitive or even personalized to suit a specific craft or location. Data can be presented in a variety of ways—from drop down menus to quick search features. Virtually any data available in the enterprise asset management (EAM) or computerized records management (CRM) system can be sent to the field and presented on the device of choice.

Short cycle work is especially suited for mobile tools. Push technology sends new work to the field as posted, while completed work is reported in real-time, and routes are adjusted for new levels of efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Mobile goes way beyond deciphering handwritten notes. Fms are eliminating data entry errors which happen when technicians complete forms at the end of shift and try to remember the work performed, the parts used, and how long it took to complete the task. By standardizing the data entry process for technicians who must input the information when and where the work is completed, fms have better information to assign crafts, schedule field work, and build long-term, money saving asset life cycle programs.

Issues can arise when one technician describes a problem as a leaking pipe while another sees it as a cracked valve. Standardizing failure codes and using available capabilities reduces the potential problems misidentification can cause.

One innovation that is reducing problems in the field is the use of high definition cameras built right into the newest generation of cell phones and tablets. Technicians are able to take pictures or videos of damaged assets and then send those images back to the shop (or even around the world) where an experienced supervisor can review it and assist in the diagnostic process. The technician can add the images to the file, verifying the damage as a matter of record for insurance claims or other revenue recovery from an outside vendor.

Barcode and RFID readers are available on many handheld computers or can be added to most devices. Their ability to capture asset information quickly with a simple scan can speed rounds, verify location, and track parts put into production. GPS and GIS tools are being used to serve up everything from data to schematics, providing best travel routing and verifying locations as well.

Wireless data network coverage is growing, and connectivity is more reliable than ever. Yet, dead spots are ever present, especially in the places where engineers do much of their work.

Mobile apps that are not tethered to an Internet connection allow out of coverage technicians to access their work order detail, capture work completed, and store and forward the data upon re-entry into coverage. The best mobile apps make this seamless by automating the data exchange.

Mobile apps built on a software platform have substantial advantages to FM organizations. The apps are easier to maintain, upgrades are smoother, and the application can be integrated into multiple systems.

Fms considering mobile apps should determine if the app supports a wide range of devices and operating systems. The products should be localized to the language of users without requiring the need to rewrite the software. Fms will want the app to work in and out of wireless coverage as well.

For fms, the current crop of mobile apps is mature and feature rich. Managers can pick from off the shelf software and be confident that worldwide deployments will deliver a substantial return on investment. A suite of apps that works together should make mobile asset management the norm.

Moylan is executive vice president for Hoffman Estates, IL-based Syclo.