Fleet management has become more like data science. Fleet managers need to successfully use the data they collect, which boils down to knowing what they should retain and why.
What, Why, and How Do You Retain Data?
Chuck Cramer, director of fleet services for the City of Lynchburg, Virginia, believes if there isn’t a solid, proven reason for having it, don’t collect it.
“We’ve learned over the years that accurate historical data is important. When we started using our new fleet management system, we could have started from square one, but we chose not to because the historical data is vital to inform future decisions,” he said.
His department has converted to the FASTER Web fleet management system, and he said the days of pen and pencil, and using Microsoft Excel, are gone. Having a dedicated system to help you stay organized is an absolute necessity.
To better inform those outside of the organization, Cramer plans to use the customer portal offered by the software, which allows departments to access their data. He believes having this layer of transparency will help fleet staff members receive feedback on how they can present data in an easily readable and understandable format, as well as what data is truly relevant to those looking at the reports. He suggested asking fleet software providers what kind of canned reporting abilities they may have, and to make sure they fit the fleet operation’s needs.
This also goes for those inside the organization as well, as different people are interested in different categories of data. In Cramer’s department, the operations supervisor runs reports to look at labor efficiencies and overall maintenance. The contract coordinator observes fuel and acquisition data, as well as information on regulatory compliance.
“We all run certain reports and share them so we can come to a consensus on various issues. We’ve recently asked for a data analyst position so we can designate someone to handle all of this information in a more effective manner,” he said.
Making more of an effort to narrow down the data collected has helped improve the efficiency of the fleet in various ways. Over the last few years, the city placed a greater focus on replacements and fuel economy. Cramer has started to focus in on the 15- to 20-year-old vehicles, including their fuel use and idle time. Before the data goes into a report, he drills down to only the essential information he needs to include about these vehicles.
“Each time we do that, we hope to learn more about the data we don’t need,” he explained.
When selecting a fleet management software, find one that allows you to extract information easily.
Cramer said it’s important for customers and managers to understand why tracking software is needed and how it’s used in regard to replacements, budgeting, and any other choices you make.
“Decisions that are data-driven create efficiencies. Don’t forget, even when you’re using a system, most of the data has to be input by a human. Review your data regularly, make course corrections when you find the mistakes, and never be complacent,” he said.
Get to Know Your Software
Setting up key performance indicators (KPIs) is an important place to start when determining what kind of information you need to be collecting. Think about the data you’ll actually be able to use to create more operational efficiencies.
As former fleet manager for the City of Omaha, Nebraska, for 29 years and now a transportation specialist for the Metropolitan Utilities District, Nebraska, Marc McCoy looked at cost per mile, vehicle usage, equipment availability, and technician productivity. He feels these are the best indicators that will also help him compare his fleet against others.
When working with the City of Omaha, he used FASTER and Crystal Reports to keep fleet information organized and ready to pull when needed.
“Technician productivity was very important to me because we used a chargeback system with a fully burdened labor rate. I had to balance my budget, and in order to do that, I had to make sure my technician productivity stayed at a certain point, so my billable hours would account for that and I didn’t have too much indirect labor. I created a dashboard and put up a few monitors in the shop and in my foreman’s office so the technicians could see it,” he explained.
He broke this data down by shop so staff members could compare themselves to others in a way that was quick and easy to understand.
No matter what fleet management system your operation uses, users need to take the time to familiarize themselves with the software. McCoy recommends taking courses if they are available to get the most out of the product and understand how to sort data more skillfully.
It also doesn’t hurt to foster a relationship with your vendor. See if the software provider offers site visits. Being able to pick up the phone and make a call to a specific person you’ve met with before will help save you time on troubleshooting.
Many municipalities are likely familiar with having to manage an aging fleet due to budget cuts. Proper data collection could help alleviate this issue by providing proof to those who don’t think updating a fleet is necessary. Managers should collect data that will help them quantify and show total cost of ownership for vehicles. They can also track trends and show decision makers what will happen if changes aren’t made.
“Our police fleet was aging and we weren’t buying enough vehicles to reduce the overall age of the fleet. We needed to be buying 40 cars a year and we were buying 10 or 20, so the overall age every year was increasing. I was able to take those numbers and break it down to cost per mile. If, for example, we know that cost per mile is 11 cents or, in our case, $1.50 per mile on some of these vehicles that were being driven 80,000 miles a year, anybody can understand what that’s going to cost,” McCoy said. “We could draw some trend lines to show every year what’s happening, how these maintenance and repair costs are increasing over the years, and where that optimal point of replacement is. We’re able to go to city council and justify replacements based on quantitative data.”
The bottom line is you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Without accurate data, you have no way of knowing if you’re improving or not. Think about whether the data you are taking time to collect has relevance when it comes to streamlining processes.
Too Much for a One-Person Approach
Taking a team approach to data management will help make it so not any one person gets too overwhelmed. Zac Haffner, maintenance and operations manager for the City of Reno, Nevada, works together with a part-time parts person, a full-time service writer, and a full-time program assistant who all help him parse through the data the department collects.
The City of Reno uses Assetworks’ FleetFocus as its fleet management system. It helps the fleet operation collect a variety of metrics like availability of equipment, downtime, billable hours, and individual work order costs. The fleet department then pulls that data and sorts through it with Google Sheets. This allows multiple people to access and work with the data in real time. If the team wants to conduct heavier analysis or calculations, staff members use Microsoft Excel.
If your software provider doesn’t provide a class or educational materials, consider designating someone to write down processes and procedures that will help current and future users adapt quickly, easily, and efficiently.
In terms of simplifying data and making it easier to digest, see if your fleet management software allows users to upload photos of equipment into the system.
“It’s amazing how helpful that is when you’re looking at a fleet with 750 pieces of equipment. It’s nice to be able to see a picture and visualize what the options are on it or what’s coming in next for service or repair,” Haffner said.
When determining what data is important, keep in mind who will be receiving it. Haffner provides the example of the city’s annual budget meeting. Presenting the data in a way that makes sense to viewers will help get the point across faster and enable people to come to a decision without more debate than necessary.
“We’ll adjust the data to accommodate who’s receiving it and what the intent of that data is. Are we trying to explain why we need more funds for replacement? Explain why maintenance and operations costs are what they are? Do we need it to look pretty?” he said.
It’s important to think about your audience. The presentation you might give to a finance team that needs to look at cold, hard numbers will likely not look as colorful as one you’d give to a city council member or your staff. Always keep the end user in mind.
“You can present all the right data to someone, but if they’re not open to receiving it the way you’re presenting it, it won’t work out,” Haffner explained.
When he first came on board, there was a disconnect in mechanics recording their hours worked. This can make justifying the need for more mechanics difficult. He now adds billable percentage of hours worked to mechanics’ evaluations.
“Once we were able to better gather that data, we were able to show that by adding a mechanic and bringing more work in-house, we would be able to expand what we did here in the shop. We now have tighter control on service improvements and can take on additional projects we didn’t have time for before creating that additional position,” Haffner said. “But had we not been able to capture those billable hours in the first place? We’d have never been able to make the case that we could use another equipment mechanic.”
Other Factors to Consider
Members of the Government Fleet advisory board weighed in on points to keep in mind when determining best practices for dealing with data.
Ron Lindsey, CAFS, fleet management director for San Bernardino County, California, said data management processes are going to differ for every fleet. What one might measure and consider to be meaningful will change based on fleet size, budget, etc. There’s no one right or wrong way to parse through data, but it helps to discuss your processes with other fleet managers to get an idea of what they measure that might also be beneficial to you. Unlike the private sector, your colleagues in different states and cities are more likely to help.
The immense amount of data you collect won’t do much if it doesn’t reach the people who need to make sense of it. Scott Edwards, CAFM, fleet administrator for the State of Colorado, stressed the importance of creating a clear chain of communication. Work with fleet coordinators and keep them informed. Consider developing a team of data administrators to help facilitate this effort.
Avoid becoming overwhelmed by an avalanche of data by creating a list of items you want to tackle in order of importance. Mark Stevens, fleet manager for the City of Sacramento, California, said writing goals down and tackling them one aspect at a time will help you see straighter and make progress in a measurable way.
Making sure your various systems, such as fuel, fleet management, and telematics systems, can interface with each other will save you a lot of headaches, said Daryl Greenlee, director of fleet management for Monroe County, Florida.