Earlier (How to Reduce Electric Utility Outages), I promised to provide a short engineering specification of how a utility might better inform the public of repair progress during an outage. What I describe following will not only inform the public but could also help solidify good management practices within the utility. Improvement in management practices seems likely to translate directly into better customer service through more rapid repairs.
As an experienced engineering manager I know you can’t always predict how long work will take. However, my direct engineering experience has been that predictions become MUCH more reliable if the work is broken down into discrete and well-defined steps. Even more important is to then arrange the steps into a sequence that builds on intermediate results and optimizes usage of the available resources. In short, success comes more readily with a complete and detailed plan.
My experience has also been that making the detailed plan available for review, critique, and comment often results in an even better and more highly optimized plan. Such review allows for the inclusion of missed steps and for correction of operational sequences that had not been fully considered.
It is without question that ad hoc direction of maintenance crews is far less efficient than having a comprehensive multi-step plan with a well-defined series of steps and an estimate of the time to complete each of these steps.
The utility must have such a plan. If they have no such plan – they should and must be required to produce one for each significant outage. Managers must either be trained or replaced until such an obviously needed basic component of good service is instinctively created and used for every major outage. Note: Inexperienced managers sometimes argue against taking the time to produce a detailed plan. They may say it is only delaying the start of repairs. Wrong. It has been proven over and over that, for major work, a good plan more than repays the time invested in producing it.
Good Management Practices:
- It is good management and a demonstration of foresight to produce a couple of plans in advance of the emergency.
- When the emergency occurs, it should only take minutes to select a relevant preexisting plan and “tweak” it for the current circumstances.
- There is no reason the plan produced in the first half hour has to be the final plan. Don’t be afraid to enhance it as the emergency progresses and more facts are learned.
- Make use of the experience gained during each emergency and adjust the preexisting plans to be even better for the next emergency.
Since it is the job of the Public Utility Commission to oversee the utilities, they would be negligent if they did not insist on reviewing the preexisting plans. They should also insist on participating in post-emergency plan reviews.
It is incontrovertible that a plan must exist to guide repairs for every major outage. The question becomes how should this plan be made available to the public. I believe a spreadsheet or Gantt chart would be highly inappropriate. Instead, I proposed a graphic web page.
- The basic web page shall be a map of the region.
- It shall be possible to zoom the map from a high-level view of the entire region to individual street level.
- The utility grid shall be superimposed on the map.
- The utility grid shall be color coded as follows:
- Green – Represents the portions of the utility grid known to be working correctly.
- Gray – Indicates sections of the grid that have an unknown state.
- Yellow – These sections are not functioning correctly but are currently under repair.
- Orange – These sections are not functioning correctly and are next in line for repair.
- Red – Represents the sections of the utility grid not working and not scheduled for repair in the immediate future.
- The current time of day shall be presented.
- The time of day the page data was last updated shall be presented.
- The page data shall be updated AT LEAST once an hour (update every 15 minutes is preferred).
- The average time in minutes that trucks/crews have been on their current assignments shall be presented.
- The number of currently working trucks/crews shall be presented.
- The number of trucks/crews on break or pending assignment shall be presented.
- In a major outage, a number of trucks/crews will likely be requested from neighboring jurisdictions. Each group of requested trucks/crews shall be treated as a discrete block. For each such block:
- The source shall be named and the number of trucks/crews requested shall be indicated.
- The expected arrival time shall be indicated along with the number of hours since the request was issued.
- For all the blocks in #11, the total number of all trucks/crews that have been requested from neighboring jurisdictions but have not yet arrived shall be presented.
- It shall be possible for the public to provide feedback on the emergency plan and its implementation. This feedback shall be archived and made available to the Public Utilities Commission upon demand.
Over my two blogs on public utilities I’ve described a three-step process for improving the reliability and accountability of the system:
- Stop blaming your outages on Acts of God and start doing regular preventive maintenance and infrastructure improvements. If you claim you have already been doing so, clearly your efforts have been inadequate and need to be improved.
- Prepare emergency plans and post these for review and comment.
- Create a regularly updated (perhaps as often as every 15 minutes) web site that shows the current state of repairs. This is certainly needed during an emergency – but why not do it every day?
Maybe we can finally stop hearing promises and actually have utility company executives earn their bonuses not by “saving money” but by providing the reliable service implied by their social contract with the community.