By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
Milwaukee public works department can do more work with half the supervisors thanks to automated scheduling.
Like any major city, Milwaukee has a large Department of Public Works (DPW), with some 400 service employees attending to ongoing construction and maintenance projects as well as emergency assignments. And like many other organizations, until recently the DPW relied on manual processes to schedule its employees.
Paper-Based Scheduling Proves Inefficient
While manual processes sufficed for some time, the DPW eventually came to the conclusion that its paperbased scheduling processes were no longer going to cut it. The DPW receives work requests from various DPW operating divisions twice annually, in addition to multiple emergency requests throughout the year. With the manual scheduling processes in place, nine supervisors had to manage multiple paper schedules and spreadsheets for the mobile workers. The manual system was coming up short when it came to effectively scheduling employees, managing the requirements of the bargaining agreements in place with three separate city worker unions, preparing for emergency response situations, and providing the type of documentation required for employee records and grievance procedures.
“We had between 350 and 400 operators at any time, and they fell into three categories: drivers, tractor operators, and special equipment,” says Chuck Schumacher, operations manager at the Milwaukee Department of Public Works. “We’d have two big sheets of paper side by side, showing today’s jobs and the following day’s jobs. We knew there was a better, more automated way to be handling the scheduling — we just needed to find the right solution.”
All of this paper-based information was also manually typed into an Excel file, but the data entry and data management aspect of this process was tremendous. Not only did the DPW have to track which operators were in which union and in which job category they were assigned to each task, they also had to manage vacation, sick leave, injuries, training, and equipment the operators used. Any changes to the schedule had to be manually managed based on all of those inputs.
When the manual process finally became too cumbersome to handle, the department began evaluating scheduling solutions. After researching a number of solutions, the DPW ultimately chose a custom software solution developed for them by MSI Data. “The scheduling we do is fairly complex,” Schumacher says. “We looked at a few different out-of-the-box systems that didn’t really accommodate our needs, and MSI finally told us they could create a solution that would meet those needs.”
Process, Technology Changes Must Be Made In Tandem
The three unions each have different rules about how equipment can be staffed and when employees can be replaced on each piece of equipment. “It’s hard enough to manage those rules with one union, but when you have three of them, it can be very complicated to do something as simple as figure out who is going to work on a particular job the next day,” Schumacher says.
MSI wrote a software solution specific to the DPW’s scheduling requirements. The department began assigning job numbers to each individual task so the computerized system could track every assignment.
The other city departments (water/sewer, forestry, etc.) send a demand sheet to the DPW in the winter and in the summer, listing the jobs they need done, the equipment needed, and the dates by which the projects have to be completed. “It’s like a job forecast,” Schumacher says. “We use that to make sure we have the proper number of operators and right equipment available to meet that demand.”
Operators currently pick from the list of available jobs, and they stay with those assignments unless they are injured or take vacation time. Prior to the deployment of the scheduling solution, assignments were not standardized in this way. “Standardizing the assignments was the first step for us, and just keeping those operators on the same jobs helped us boost productivity,” Schumacher says. “Each job has a number, and that is matched with the driver number. If he’s unavailable, then the job goes to a replacement operator.”
The most senior drivers pick the bulk of the jobs, and less skilled or less senior employees are “floats” who pick up assignments when other operators are unavailable. “If someone goes on vacation, then that job goes into the unassigned pool,” Schumacher says. “We don’t have to retype the job into the system, so there’s no risk we’ll transpose the numbers or have to rewrite anything.” The automation the solution provides has eliminated errors common to paper-based processes.
The scheduling system knows when each operator is returning from vacation or sick leave, and job assignments are waiting for those employees when they return. “We can sort that data more efficiently, too,” Schumacher says. “The different city bureaus are also asking us who is on what job, and we can transfer that information to them electronically instead of consulting paper documents.”
Faster Scheduling With Fewer Supervisors
The DPW has drastically reduced the time required to prepare daily and emergency job schedules from half a day to just ninety minutes using the advanced scheduling solution. Instead of multiple supervisors preparing the daily schedule, just one supervisor can now complete the task. Not only has efficiency improved, but with more accurate scheduling documentation, the city has also reduced its grievance pay-outs by more than 50%.
Instead of nine total supervisors, the department is able to do the same amount of work with just four supervisors, since they no longer have to work on the schedules. Instead of being on duty seven days a week over multiple shifts, the supervisors are now able to complete their work during a regular work week.
“There’s no more pencil and paper; everything is electronic, and we can sort the job data any way we want,” Schumacher says. “It tracks all of our personnel, so we can generate daily manpower reports and let the other departments know who is coming to work on that job each day.” With the automated solution, the DPW has gained visibility it didn’t have before — or at least couldn’t easily compile or access — into the efficiency of its operation.
Automated Scheduling Solution Integrates With Fleet Management Application
The MSI scheduling system is integrated with the department’s Fleet Focus fleet management solution, so that when a piece of equipment goes out of service for maintenance, the scheduling system can alter the schedule to accommodate those changes. Eventually, automatic vehicle location hardware currently being installed on the trucks will also communicate location data, and that information will be fed into the scheduling system, too. “You wouldn’t believe what a hassle it is to keep track of our equipment in the field,” Schumacher says. “If we can get to the point where that is tracked automatically, it will make scheduling even easier than it has become.”
Although a supervisor still manages the schedule using the MSI system, Schumacher says that the DPW is working with MSI to allow the system to automatically fill job assignments using data on each operator and their skillset. The department will have to input data on each operator’s training in order to enable that last piece of automation.
“Eventually this system will do everything and eliminate the need for the supervisor intervention. That’s our end goal,” Schumacher says. “That’s the last leg of this, to have an automated system that can figure out who to assign to the vast majority of jobs that need to be filled.”
Once that next step to the system is in place, Schumacher says operators could be automatically paged or called to be notified of job changes, rather than having supervisors call each one individually. “That would also improve our documentation,” Schumacher says. “It would eliminate any disagreement between operator and management about who was called at what time, because techs would be notified automatically.”
That way, instead of dedicating one supervisor to manage the schedules, they can be reassigned to handle other duties. “If the computer can do most of that work, then they can go out and do safety checks, observe operators, and do more supervision other than organizing the schedule,” Schumacher says. “The schedule is complicated, but around 80% of the jobs that have to be filled are relatively routine. It’s the last 20% that requires some type of intervention to make a decision.”