Voices: Asset Manager

David Berger, P.Eng. has been a contributing editor since 1992, providing advice to management from Maintenance, Engineering and Operations on how to manage assets more efficiently and effectively. His monthly column, Asset Manager, covers a broad range of topics including asset management strategy, CMMS/EAM, asset management best practices, and organizational design issues.

The upside of CMMS mobile solutions

David Berger says interface, function, running clock, GPS, and change management lead to increased productivity.

By David Berger

The biggest breakthrough in the CMMS software industry over the past decade is the mobile solution. Implemented properly, companies have achieved an astounding 15-35% improvement in productivity. On the other hand, poor design, planning, or execution can lead to deterioration in labor relations and, ultimately, a significant drop in efficiency and effectiveness.

User interface

One of the most critical elements required for a successful launch of your mobile solution is a user interface that is intuitive. This means the software and hardware must be appropriate for the intended users and their business requirements. The mobile application should be easy to navigate and use, with the work environment and size of the device considered in its design. The number of keystrokes necessary to perform each function should be kept to an absolute minimum, by ensuring a logical workflow and screen layout, the use of pre-defined coded fields instead of free-form text, and plenty of navigation aids such as hyperlinks, bread crumbs, and tabs.

One of the biggest mistakes made by mobile solution designers over the past decade is the assumption that, what is good for the desktop version of the CMMS, must also be good for a mobile device. The smaller the device, the further this statement is from the truth. This tendency to port old thinking to new technology is reminiscent of when computers were first deployed commercially. Manual reports were simply mimicked on-screen, forcing users to scroll horizontally and vertically to view all of the data. Mobile solutions must be rendered properly on-screen such that users can view, enter and edit data quickly. As well, the user should have some level of control to easily tailor screens for the mobile device, for example, selecting fields for display, length of field visible, location of fields and field labels, and color options.

Another key feature of the mobile solution to improve its usability is store and forward capability, allowing users to continue working on their devices even when the telecommunications link has been dropped. This is especially important for maintainers who spend the majority of their time on the road or in remote locations.

Full function by role

Mobile CMMS solution designers have a difficult task. There are so many different device make and model types available from different manufacturers, using different operating systems, running multiple apps and Internet browsers, all with many versions. Moreover, the technology and marketplace are changing very rapidly. To be sure, it is impossible to satisfy the needs and preferences of individual users for all of the possible mobile technology permutations and combinations.

To facilitate matters, mobile apps can be designed for a given device, function, and role. For example, a mobile app can be written for maintainers in a refinery using BlackBerry smartphones to enter their time data or for field technicians using iPads to optimize their routes. Each app can be available as part of the CMMS vendor offering, or downloadable for a price or for free on the Internet. The CMMS should also provide browser access to the application on a browser-enabled mobile device.

There are many functions that are desirable with any mobile solutions such as:

  • download work orders to the mobile device
  • upload from mobile device hours worked and work done
  • download parts required
  • download other inventory information
  • upload parts used
  • download tools required
  • use built-in scanner for barcode on assets, parts, and badges
  • enter and upload measures, readings, and inspection results
  • enter and upload work requests (for example, upon inspection)
  • download full work history onto your mobile device
  • download schematic or maps onto the mobile device
  • capture electronic and actual signatures (for example, third-party approval on a work order)
  • capture photos and append to documents (for example, work orders).

The mobile device should also be capable of displaying simple reports such as a summary of master data, relevant job plans, and the work history for a given asset. Analysis tools, such as a troubleshooting database that looks for patterns in problem, cause, and action codes for a given asset or component, are also very useful. This kind of diagnostic tool can help maintainers recognize recurring problems, their root causes, and the most effective actions.

Running clock

One feature that lends itself well to the mobile environment is known as a running clock. Instead of relying on each user to determine, at the end of the shift, an accurate allocation of the time, the running clock records the time automatically. There are many variations on this theme. One method used by CMMS vendors is to have a start and stop button that can be pressed at the beginning and end of a job or whenever the job is interrupted. Another method is to automatically accumulate time when you select a given work order or, alternatively, codes for travel, safety meetings, cleanup, and other non-value-added time. When you change to another work order or code, the software stops accumulating time on the previous job/code and starts or continues accumulating on the current selection.

GPS

Another popular function on a mobile device is the ability to track GPS coordinates at any point in time. Knowing where a maintainer is located can be helpful from a safety perspective, especially for those who are constantly on the road. As well, knowing maintainer whereabouts can be helpful for schedulers who are trying to dispatch emergency work to the closest resource or for reallocating work assignments when jobs take longer or shorter than planned. Finally, route optimization capability offered by the more advanced CMMS packages allows schedulers to more closely track variances to the optimized route and resultant schedule. Tweaks can be made as day-to-day realities unfold that affect the optimization, such as weather, traffic, and unexpected delays that cause maintainers to be in a different location than expected.

Change management

Implementing a mobile CMMS solution can be an incredibly positive experience for all stakeholders. There is a compelling business case with enormous savings potential, especially from the items mentioned above, namely:

David Berger, a Certified Management Consultant (C.M.C.) registered in Ontario, Canada, is a Principal of Western Management Consultants, based in the Toronto officeDavid Berger, a Certified Management Consultant (C.M.C.) registered in Ontario, Canada, is a Principal of Western Management Consultants, based in the Toronto office. David has written more than 200 articles on a variety of topics such as maintenance management, operations management, information technology, e-commerce, organizational design, and strategy. In Plant Services magazine, he has written a monthly column on maintenance management in the United States, as well as three very extensive reviews of maintenance management systems available in North America. David has done extensive work in the areas of strategy, information technology and business process re-engineering. He can be reached at david@wmc.on.ca.
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  • the increased productivity and quality of work from the improved functionality in the hands of the front line
  • greater accuracy and timeliness of time entry and tracking of labor variances from the running clock feature
  • improved scheduling and routing accuracy, which in turn leads to significantly better wrench time and capacity utilization.

However, companies will only see huge gains in productivity with mobile devices if they design applications to encourage the right behaviors, if they avoid the perception of Big Brother, and if they promote the benefits as a win-win in terms of what’s in it for each stakeholder, especially the front line. For example, to minimize the big-brother perception when introducing the concept of the running clock to maintainers, the emphasis must be on reduced administrative headaches; no need to enter your time manually any more based on memory. Similarly, GPS tracking is not about Big Brother and should not be used directly for discipline purposes. GPS should be sold to the frontline on the basis of improved safety, minimal impact of frustrating delays, and ability to gather useful statistics for developing more realistic job plans and standards.

If implemented properly, users quickly fall in love with their personal devices. Just look around at the popularity of smartphones and tablets. If basic change management principles are ignored, labor relations will suffer dramatically, and it will be years before a level of trust is reestablished between workers and management.

Read David Berger's monthly column, Asset Manager.

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