The high wire that professional fleet managers walk every day is stretched tight between two poles. At one end is the necessity of serving customers well. At the other end is the need to do so at a competitive cost.
One of the most effective tools in helping fleet professionals keep their balance between the two is equipment-management information systems, a big-ticket item on the budget page that requires time, commitment and investment to implement.
"You cannot run a competitive fleet organization unless you have a really robust system," says Pamela J. Nelson, CEO of CCG/FASTER, Inc., whose customer base is comprised of 95 percent public sector fleets.
But not any management software will do, says Sidney B. Nice, sales and marketing director at Arsemault Associates. "If you're using an accounting system, it falls short in being able to give you the level of detail that is needed at an operational level," he says. Nice points to one multibillion-dollar customer that replaced its fleet vehicles based on accounting system data. When the system said the units were depreciated fully to zero value, the vehicles were replaced.
"The company [then] implemented a system called Dossier," says Nice, "and a year and a half later the data was analyzed. They found that they had been retiring vehicles about three years too early. The units that were the least costly to operate were the older units they had been retiring. In the first year after that, they didn't spend that $2,000,000 in capital investment that they would have if they had used their accounting system to make that decision."
Brad Kelley, vice president of information technology at Mercury Associates, says, "An equipment management system is definitely one of the factors fleet operators should use to make sure vehicles are available, safe and replaced on a cost-effective time measure. Yet for a lot of organizations, it's one of those misunderstood things. All they see is a large line item in their budget."
But an equipment management information system means different things to different organizations, Kelley says. "Some large state agencies tend to use them as data repositories to manage their inventory from a vehicle count and for costing-type situations; for instance, in cases where they want to know how much fuel they've bought or how much they have spent on repairs. They don't necessarily use the system for its work order capabilities."
Other organizations, he says, do use EMIS as a work order system as well as for scheduling vehicles for maintenance, parts inventory control, and vehicle replacement planning.
Regardless of how such a system is used, however, the first step in selecting the right one is a self-analysis of your operation. You have to determine the role of the fleet within the organization, Kelley says, and decide if it is a mission-critical part of developing service.
"Certainly, a fleet is much more important to a delivery-service operation than to a company where the fleet is not mission-critical but is only a second- or third-tier requirement," he says.
Another step in the self-analysis process, says Kelley, is to network with your counterparts in the industry to see what they are doing. Also look at some of the industry's best practices, he says.
"But, because somebody else is doing it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do for you," he cautions. "You need to understand what your internal needs are, create a functional matrix to put the needs on paper, and flesh them out. Highlight the ones that would be nice to have, but aren't necessarily mission-critical in your evaluation, find out what your industry counterparts are doing, and review industry best practices."
CCG's Nelson says to use experience when it comes to identifying needs. "A lot of times fleet managers are educated a great deal through interfacing with some of the best fleet-information systems. They have been learning that from all of their customers for years."
The most important thing, she says, is to make sure of your objectives and identify your greatest opportunity to achieve results. "You don't know unless you go in and spend a great deal of time in determining needs and result opportunities," she says.
Once you identify your needs, Nice says, be prepared to properly fund the system. "In the equipment-maintenance arena today, you have organizations that are still utilizing filing cabinets full of papers, and either they use a white board or a green board to keep track of their equipment," he says. "That's like using a yellow pad and a calculator rather than a computer to run your business. Management would never imagine doing something like that at the business level, yet they are underfunding the maintenance organization. Because of that, they're still using antiquated methodologies that are very burdensome and ill-equipped to run a business sufficiently."
When it comes to actually selecting an equipment management information system, the world can be a confusing place. However, say the experts, there are certain guidelines you can follow to avoid costly mistakes.
First of all, select the members of the team who will help in the decision-making process. "Don't make the mistake of considering position only," Nelson says. "You want the most experienced people and you want someone with the right attitude. Don't select a negative person, but someone who is innovative and open to change."
In addition to people knowledgeable about fleet operations, maintenance, and parts inventory, also include someone from the IT department to make sure the system interfaces with existing systems. Also include someone from finance, since they will be paying the bill.
"Be sure you get the best people on the team to select this tool," Nelson says, "because this is the most critical tool you have."
Arsemault's Nice says team members typically will be the people who are responsible for operating the fleet — vice president of operations, fleet director or manager — as well as people who are responsible for making sure the equipment is operating — shop foreman and head mechanic, for instance.
When the team meets to consider how to go about selecting the right system, they need to understand what it is they expect to get out of the system, Mercury's Kelley says. "Are they going to use it as a work-order system? What kind of reports do they expect to get out of the system? The type of information they need from the system should be outlined first," he says. "There are different levels of need. Large state organizations may not need work order modules, but they need strong reporting for vehicle-replacement planning. That eliminates a lot of unnecessary expense."
Kelley recommends that the company go through a "fix gap" analysis and look at standard fleet-information system functionality. "Check off the items they need and the items that would be nice to have," he says. "The final matrix defines what their needs are, so when they go out and look at an information system, they can use the matrix as a kind of report card to go through the selection process. They can also make it part of the request for proposal and show it to vendors who want to respond to the RFP."
"The thing that has made the greatest difference in how you utilize a system is how much support comes with it," Nelson says. "Does the vendor give you a system and say, 'Here's the manual. Go to it.' Or does the vendor offer not only fleet support, but technical support?"
Fleet professionals need to look for a company that offers intensive support to start up, she says. "Too often customers will say, 'we don't want to track that' only to find when they're using the software that, yes, they do need it. Then they have to retrofit. Go ahead and put those codes in. Although you may not use them now, you will later."
Also look for a company who's system interfaces with existing systems, she says. "There is no single fleet system. If a vendor says they can develop every single thing themselves, or if they tell you implementing a system doesn't require a lot of effort and is a piece of cake, run the other way."
The selection of hardware for an equipment-management information system isn't difficult, according to Nice. "Today's hardware, more or less, is a commodity. The computing environment is pretty static — standard PCs, standard Windows operating environment, and standard network environment. As long as you pick a good vendor, in the first tier of hardware providers, you should be fine."
Selecting software, however, is another scenario. First and foremost, Nice says, choose a company that has the wherewithal to support you, a company that is in the business, has been in the business, and understands the business that equipment maintenance demands.
"The software must be able to be used by multiple people within your organization," Nice says. "If the system is too complex or complicated, the typical front-end people won't use it, so money is wasted. A critical aspect is that the lesser-experienced people need to be presented with a system that is easy to use. Otherwise, they won't use it."
One of the biggest mistakes fleet professionals make, he says, is not investing in service support training and getting the system up and running with trained personnel. "Very often the IT organization spends money on the software and then either underfunds or doesn't fund training services at all. Ultimately what you get is shelf ware. The system is not being used."
Kelley concurs. "You have pre-production training and post-production training and support," he says. "Make sure all this is well defined and broken out. Make sure there are dollars in there for project management. Be sure you have a project manager from the vendor side as well as a project manager counterpart within your organization. They are going to have to be able to work together."
Be sure you understand how the vendor will deliver these services, Kelley says. "Understand what you get for your dollar. Some vendors say they will give you 'X' number of training hours and then they'll do it remotely, such as through a conference call or a video session. If you look at their contract, they are perfectly within the scope of the contract. Spell out that you expect the training to be done on-site, for example. These are the kind of details that can wind up being the stick in the wheel."
Nelson also suggests equipment managers check references. "You have to know what questions to ask and you have to document claims," she says. "Many times you'll hear, yes, we do that and we do this and, yes, we can do that. What you need to ask is, 'Show me how you do this.'
"And," she says, "don't let the vendor come in and show you what they think is wonderful about their system. You need to be in control of the process. You need to spend time saying show me exactly how you do that. Leaving it up to the vendor is a real pitfall."
And finally, Nelson says she doesn't know of any fleet manager "in the entire world who says an enterprise system is better than a stand-alone system." Company-wide systems, shared by all departments, do not meet fleet-maintenance needs, she says.
"How important do they treat you now?" she says. "Are you really No. 1 on anybody's list? Do you really think you're going to be No. 1 over finance or human resources?"
Although she admits there are times when fleet managers are mandated to use corporate-wide systems, "you should document what the system does not do and be strong enough to say, 'I've done what you told me to do, but now you want this information, but I absolutely can't get that out of the system.'"
Enterprise or stand alone, EMIS is a critical management tool, critical in some ways management might not realize. Nice says it plays an important role in keeping good people. "Very often the ability to retain some of your best people has to do with giving them the right tools to do their jobs in the most professional way possible."
EMIS, he says, is one of those "right tools."