Utilities 4.0: the role of digital in operational excellence

Rob Borley
by
on 06 December 2018

 

 

“Operational excellence is no longer an option—it’s a must for utility companies. Developing a strategy that aligns people, processes and assets will make sure you have a clear understanding of your organisation’s goals and the confidence to get there fast, creating an accelerated path to turning your company’s operational vision into a reality.”
Helen Bremner, Partner, PwC

The utilities sector is on the edge of a fascinating period of change and is ripe for disruption. We recently discussed the potential for digital technology in the utilities customer experience, but what about operations?

When we discuss operational excellence we are talking about organisations having the systems and tools in place to empower the business to meet and exceed the experience expectations of customers and employees. To deliver the commercial requirements of the business, whilst holding to the cultural ideals at the heart of the organisation. These three pillars are essential to any business operating in today’s public environment. This is especially true of companies delivering essential services that are considered to be a basic, universal right such as utilities.

 

The operational challenge

The world has changed. The evolution of technology over the last decade presents a huge opportunity for businesses to adopt new and emerging technologies in order to differentiate the products, services and experiences they create. It has changed the way that organisations connect with customers and their employees.

Users, be they customers or employees now expect the very best experiences. They expect software tools to be intuitive and accessible, but that’s a given. The most successful products are tapping into real value through customer centricity, relevancy, ease and fulfilment but by also being loveable – ensuring apps are well crafted, natural, delightful and adaptive. They’re combining functional with experiential to drive performance.

As we recently discussed, if the most positive interaction that a customer has with a utility company is the monthly bill then there may be problems ahead.

 

Delivering the right tools for the job: user-centric technology

Understanding what customers and employees want whilst driving internal efficiencies to meet those expectations requires organisational transformation built upon the foundation of operational excellence. This is fundamentally why user centricity is key to realising the opportunities that are available to a rapidly changing utilities sector.

An experience first approach should be applied to the tools that we use. We don’t just want applications to be functional we want them to be a delight to use, not only in a test lab or focus group but also in their real-world context. Take the example of the mobile application for a field engineer. The physical environment in which they work is fundamental to the experience of using the tools. Can they use it efficiently? Do they enjoy using the tool or is it cumbersome leading to mistakes or carelessness.

 

Intelligent cloud

In a contractor based environment that is facilitated by daily work packages and timesheet submission, do we really want field workers manually entering timesheets or members of the back office team having to decipher ambiguity and errors in the entry? With Cloud based Cognitive Systems now available timesheet entry and validation automation makes the whole process more efficient, more accurate, and increasing ease for all involved.

The flow of money from contracts, service providers and field workers are what keeps the industry moving and is fundamental the operational health of the organisation. Driving up the efficiency and accuracy of the data collection that drives this system is vital.

As well as this the infrastructure upon which this, indeed all digital products and services, resides should now be fault tolerant, auto-scaling, auto-healing and dynamically secure reducing risk and improving reliability for both customers and employees.

Digital technology promotes operational excellence by enabling an experience for both customers and employees that exceeds expectations. A great product or application refines the complexities of business to deliver a clear, coherent and satisfying experience from start to finish. The very best products succeed because they have purpose; because they want to change something and they are designed and developed with that purpose at its centre.

 

Holding cultural ideals

The second pillar of operational excellence is making sure that everyone within the organisation is aware of, and actively able to work towards the activation and enhancement of its cultural ideals. Digital technology can and should have a major role to play in this. These ideals will vary from organisation to organisation and can include things as varied such as investing in the development of the local community to ensuring that employees families have an enhanced life experience as result of their association with the organisations. Two core ideals that have come up within the organisations that we work with in the utilities sector are promoting the overall sustainability of the environment and taking care of societies vulnerable people.

There are some obvious ways where technology can have a significant impact on these examples. When it comes to environmental sustainability there are some big-ticket items such as green power generation and large-scale water usage reduction but there are also a number of other ways that technology can be used.

 

Machine learning, cognitive services and IoT

Cognitive services in the cloud can be used to improve the inherently inefficient, often organically grown, day to day tasks in the utilities sector. Largely mobile workforces are travelling great distances to collect equipment and other supplies that are required for the day’s jobs. The jobs themselves can be distributed over a vast area and so the potential impact on both environmental sustainability and underlying costs are huge.

The use of sophisticated job scheduling and route planning technology, powered by the intelligent cloud services direct field workers to travel from job to job in the most fuel efficient way. While ensuring that tools, plant machinery and supplies are available in convenient locations just in time.

Machine Learning technology is now available enabling proactive maintenance of the network; empowering skilled workers with the information required to make decisions as to when and where to prioritise resources. For example, the ability to accurately predict when water pipes in a distribution network need maintenance or are going to fail. This technology is also useful in understanding the most appropriate materials to use when reinstating or for new installations. Providing the data to balance the cost of the material, the cost of maintenance and the potential failure in given conditions.

The implementation of IoT through the use of smart sensors, IoT Hub, Edge computing and cloud technology to upgrade existing networks to smart networks thus facilitating real-time usage economies across the network. This technology not only empowers field engineers to make appropriate decisions but also can reduce the number of field visits by providing data to office-based engineers to optimise the network, diagnose and even resolve issues completely remotely.

Also, consider the need to protect the most vulnerable members of society. The nature of the services provided utilities sector mean that any issues can have a disproportionate effect on people with the most needs. By appropriately and securely connecting customer data to maintenance job distribution, field teams can be deployed to make sure that temporary and planned reductions in service are not disproportionately impacting vulnerable members of the community in the affected area. Or should an unexpected incident occur response teams be targeted to those in most need providing information or assistance as required?

While the underlying ideals that drive the culture of an organisation are born of the people involved, the deployment of digital technology can enable the effective execution of new ways to see those ideals respected and delivered.

 

Delivering commercial success

All organisations have a commercial reality that underpins their existence. Business need to deliver value to the shareholders, public sector organisations need to deliver value to the taxpayer and charities need to deliver on the pledges of their supporters.

The environment in which we all operate is changing ever more rapidly. The role of digital technology is to enable an organisation to deliver on its promise despite the often hostile direction of change.

The power of a DevOps culture

The maturation of Cloud Technology facilitates something often referred to as the DevOps culture. This combination of Development and Operations highlights the need to be constantly working and improving on the way an organisation operates day-to-day. Cloud enables this, not because is quicker to design, setup and deploy (sometimes true) or because it’s cheaper (sometimes true) than traditional IT infrastructure but because once it is deployed it reduces the friction of change. It’s not cheaper. It’s not quicker. But it is adaptable and facilities change.

The world is changing quickly. Even within sectors which traditionally have been considered to be slower moving the pace of change is accelerating. As the world changes around you the ability to react quickly and proactively plan are major drivers for commercial success. A DevOps culture enables constant refinement and iteration driving efficiencies. It also means that when something changes, and it will, you do not have to tear it all down to start again. You no longer have to reinvent the wheel every time you turn onto a new stretch of road.

This is only more evident in a regulated space such as Utilities. A good example is some of the changes coming in from Ofwat as they take the water industry through the PR19 process.

The ongoing PR19 process is baking customer satisfaction into the economics of service delivery. It is no longer enough to efficiently deliver water into peoples homes. Customers have to be satisfied with how this process is undertaken and the overall engagement with the organisation. This is a challenge when, as one leading industry figure pointed out, swaths of the general public only care about water when if they turn on their tap and it appears brown or is not there at all.

Again, we know there is a problem in an increasingly competitive space if the only interaction a customer has with the organisation is the monthly bill. Digital technology deployed to engage customers and educate them around the role that utilities play in all our day to day lives will continue to play an increasing role in the commercial success and thus the operational excellence of companies in the utilities sector.

 

AR and mixed reality

One of the major issues to impact the operational efficiency of organisations in the utilities sector is the fact that assets are often hidden and in very inconvenient places. Delivering and maintaining the cables and pipes that make up the core network infrastructure is cumbersome, expensive and disruptive. Closing roads, blocking rights of way, causing disruption and inconvenience to local communities. There are also safety concerns when accesses underground networks. Minimising this kind of activity is always in mind and then, for when intervention is required, minimising the time and the risk involved is very important.

One technology-based approach using mixed reality facilitated by Azure Cloud and Hololens or even mobile phones allows field workers to visualise the location of underground assets not only ensuring that they are accessing the correct area but also seeing other network assets thus reducing the risk of ‘strike’ events causing additional disruption and health and safety concerns.

There is continuing development in this space improving the hands free options with goggles, smart glasses, headsets and helmets able to overlay images, product information or other work package specific instructions into the worker’s vision. Early reports from rollouts suggest a 20% improvement in work package completion efficiency on top of savings from reducing the risk of a utility ‘strike’.

This is a really exciting area of with huge potential. In 2017 Forrester predicted that the number of workers in the US using smart glasses will increase from around 400,000 to 14.5 million by 2025.

 

Enabling success

Digital technology has a powerful role to play in enabling an organisation to fulfil its vision and purpose. Not IT for its own sake but with a goal and purpose. Operational Excellence made up of exceeding employee and customer experience expectations, delivering commercial success while holding to key cultural ideals and will drive this achievement.

Exciting new technology; no longer science fiction but that is actively being rolled out today, is available to enable the people within an organisation like never before. Machine Learning, intelligent mobile applications, cognitive cloud services and IoT wrapped up in a DevOps culture that embraces and maximises change are revolutionising the way utilities sector operates.

Technology is available to empower the mobilisation of people with automated work processing and scheduling, real time-notifications to workers in the field as well as adjustments and completion updates back to the HQ keeping the status of work packages up to date all the time.

Accurate data capture facilitating improved ongoing maintenance and all-round better customer satisfaction driving up customer experience scores. Ultimately resulting in improved workflow, improved data security, accuracy and timeliness, reduced in-service cycle time and improved safety. Digital empowers people to drive operational excellence.

 

 

Want to understand how an app from Dootrix could transform your operations? Ask us how at hello@dootrix.com. 

 

 

 

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