The Art of the Entry

By G.C. Skipper, Contributing Editor | September 28, 2010

The first two times Sam Houston, CEM, division chief, field management for the City of Jacksonville, Fla., entered the Fleet Masters award competition, he knew beyond a doubt that the data, benchmarks and measurable improvements he had gathered would be hard to beat.

"We were as good as anybody in the country," Houston says. "I didn't see how we could lose."

On both occasions, however, Houston came in second. Baffled, and even more determined to win, his first thought was, "Hey, we're doing something wrong here." He looked again at his most recent entry, which totaled about four or five pages, and again reviewed the process of pulling together the necessary numbers to accurately convey just how much the municipal fleet operation had improved since he had taken over as division chief.

During his reevaluation of what he had submitted, he realized that entry forms alone did not really show what was happening. Like any other competition, entries had to be prepared in such a way as to be judged. They had to be gussied-up a bit. "The judges go through several applications, so I figured our entry had to be displayed in a manner that would be presentable and eye-catching," Houston says.

The basic message Houston wanted to deliver, he said, was, "Here's what happened, and this is dynamite."

Houston entered the Fleet Masters award competition for a third time, but he made some changes. He livened up his entry with bar charts and graphs and visual treatments that demanded the attention of the judges through sheer professional, attractive and in-depth presentation.

"We ended up with a booklet that was at least half an inch thick," he said. "It totaled 50 to 60 pages bound in a ring binder as opposed to the four or five pages we had submitted in previous years."

The third time was a charm. Houston won the Fleet Masters award, an accomplishment, he said, that "recognizes the best practices of fleet operations. You are judged against other fleets, and the award says you've come out on top.

"It's not good enough to say I saved so much money here and so much money there," he says. "You have to go one step further and present it in a professional manner. You have to document everything you submit."

For example, Houston showed how he had reduced, over a two-year period, the budget allocated for sublet repairs, that is repair work sent outside to be done. The budget amount spent dropped from $3.2 million to less than $1 million, he says.

He used bar charts to show each year's decline. "For instance, heavy-duty brakes started out at $77,000 a year for outside repairs. We broke that down again and it went from $77,000 to $1,000 a year.

"By using bar charts, we showed that the budget went down to one level the first year, down to a lower level the second year, and so forth," he says. "You can read numbers, but it doesn't show what's really happening. The bar charts showed that."

When it came to showing measurable improvements, he zeroed in on turn-around time for vehicle repair, that is, how long the vehicles were out of service.

"We have 5,400 pieces of equipment, so that at any given time we have several hundred units in the shop that we are working on," Houston says. He decided to schedule all repairs, in addition to PMs, rather than have people come in, drop off the equipment and wait for it. "When you do that," he says, "you're overbooked one day and have no work the next. When a unit comes in here, and all we have to do is a safety inspection, we turn it around in two hours."

Scheduling has allowed him to reduce repair time for heavy equipment and everything else, he says. "A vehicle gets repaired, and then it goes to our quality control area. There it is inspected and if something is wrong, it's returned. We measure that. We're measuring efficiency." Since returns are costly and waste time, Houston set out to reduce that number as well. It dropped from a six-day turn-around to less than three days.

As impressive as fleet operation numbers may be, Houston again emphasized, if you're going after a Fleet Masters award, you shouldn't present only the information as called for by the application.

"Our presentation was killing us and I knew we had to beef it up," he says. "Although there's nothing in the rules to keep you from going outside and having the presentation done, we put ours together ourselves. I have an assistant who is really good on the computer, and he went to work on it. Every area on the application was documented with back-up materials. All the charts and graphs were done in color."

Houston encourages any fleet manager to enter the Fleet Masters because, "it makes you analyze your operation. When you go in and look at what you are going to put on the application, you discover areas where you need to improve," he says. "It actually gets you to evaluate your business internally and makes you do a self-analysis of your own outfit."

He offered these guidelines for fleet professionals who want to become Fleet Masters. First, take the application and look it over to see what's required. Then look at your own operation and ask, am I competitive here? Have I made that much improvement in the past three or four years? What can I show that I've done in the past three or four years that has me moving in the right direction?

"You have to have mechanisms in place to judge and evaluate yourself every few months," Houston says. "If you don't have those types of things, you're not going to look like you've improved — and that's the key. You have to make constant improvement."

Every time he tries something new that will improve his fleet operation, Houston says, it creates more work for his personnel. "They keep saying, why don't you sit back and not do anything?"

But that's not Sam Houston's way. "When you sit here and look at your business and run it like a business, you're always looking for ways to improve it," he says. "Every dollar you cut off expenses is a dollar earned."

And then he said what his staff probably did not want to hear. "The next thing I'm looking at is manufacturing my own biodiesel," he says. "I already have the only ethanol station in northeast Florida, so I'm using that. With biodiesel I can save the city about $1.50 a gallon, and I can buy a processing plant that already exists for $10,000. So that's what I'm looking at right now — collecting used cooking oil (used in the process), buying the plant, and starting my own biodiesel manufacturing."

But that's another article.