Everyone likes to quote availability percentages, but what happens when your numbers aren’t as good as other fleets? As a fleet manager, your natural tendency would be to turn your attention to the technicians. While technician productivity and efficiency may be partially to blame, look beyond the obvious and focus your attention on the other potential factors involved. Let’s look into equipment availability and analyze what possible variables can affect your availability benchmark numbers. While some of the factors listed below may seem singularly insignificant, their combined effects can have a dramatic impact on your overall ratio.

Designing Metrics

At a Glance

Some factors that affect availability include:

  • Management policies
  • Staff and driver morale
  • Correct matching of technician skills with their responsibilities
  • Correct data entry and system setup
  • Shop organization
  • Organized and easily accessible service manuals

Knowing what your performance limitations are, and how to accurately design your benchmarks around them, will make the difference between achieving your goals and never reaching them at all. For some, designing a proper benchmark can be a daunting task. Remember that benchmarks not only represent a specific quantitative goal, but also provide the means in which to analyze and identify critical bottle­necks that prevent you from achieving it. Knowing the industry standard on how to compute the benchmark is a good place to start.

Let’s look at the basic benchmark of equipment availability. The method of counting the number of vehicles on the deadline at a specific point in time and calculating that number as a ratio to the overall fleet size will not give you an accurate result. This will only provide availability at that specific point in time, and not one minute after. Most fleet management information systems (FMIS) are designed to accurately report availability, provided the setup parameters are correct. Do some research and learn how to do it properly.

Those who are woefully understaffed may wish to design their benchmark around the number of required vehicles by operational category and needed by customers at a given time, rather than an overall benchmark by class category. For example, promising to meet the daily availability requirement of five garbage trucks (plus one reserve) out of a fleet of 10 is more appropriate than promising to have 90% of the fleet available at all times. You can still measure the ability to meet customer demands while improving the capacity to manage workload. Only you can assess your ability to meet your benchmark.

Overreach is one of the worst things you can do to the reputation of your fleet department. Setting an unrealistic benchmark and never being able to achieve it will make fleet management and staff appear incompetent. Start by setting a realistic number based on your unique circumstances. Set the benchmark with the intention to increase the percentage as you identify the key performance issues hampering the increase. To do this, develop an analytical and systems-driven approach to correct the core performance issues. In a systems-­driven approach, utilize the FMIS to create the necessary coding structure and reporting parameters that will allow staff to drill down to the fine details by measuring the critical variables. If you can’t accurately identify the problem, you will never be able to fix it.

Fleet Management Information System (FMIS) Setup

The method in which the FMIS is set up will determine the accuracy of the reporting and the fleet’s ability to analyze, identify, and correct the processes that lead to inefficiency. Improper equipment classifications, wrong fleet operating hours, insufficient repair code structure, and incorrect equipment availability requirements are just a few items that have direct impact on availability reporting.

A limited or vague list of repair task codes may hamper the ability to accurately assess a problem and determine an appropriate course of action. If you cannot establish which specific repair tasks are taking too long to complete, you cannot direct your budget dollars to correct the training deficiency. This is especially true when designating specific performance time frames to targeted repair tasks. With a fleet replaced within an appropriate lifecycle range, targeted repair tasks should account for the majority of overall labor requirements. Many fleets will assign flat rate repair times to those maintenance tasks that can be uniformly defined and measured. If the fleet’s code structure is not detailed enough to support this type of performance measurement, you will be unable to assess overall efficiency.

In addition, inadequate or improper use of repair reason and process delay codes will affect availability reporting. Employees failing to use appropriate repair reason codes will negate the ability to accurately segregate the availability downtimes associated with unanticipated external factors. It would be much easier to tell the city manager that 30% of overall downtime is credited directly to, for example, accident repairs.

Improperly assigned equipment class codes and availability requirements may artificially alter availability ratings. Take, for example, police administrative units versus police patrol cars. Both may be from the same department, but their operational requirements may be completely different. Combining cars that only require a 5/8 availability with patrol cars that require 24/7 availability will impact the accuracy of the benchmark. Improper equipment setup can also cause significant delays in repair times. Omitting major subcomponent information (engine/transmission make, model, and serial numbers, etc.) in the equipment setup page will cause a delay in acquiring the parts because the technician or parts staff must physically locate the information before the correct parts can be obtained. In some instances, the data plates will be missing, thereby causing more process delays.

Lack of sufficient technician workstations — and the required FMIS training that goes along with it — increases delays in status updates. Since most FMIS systems measure availability in a real-time environment, any delays encountered in entering the data into the system adds to downtime. If technicians need to stand in line waiting to use the work station, it not only compounds the problem, but also interrupts the productivity of the technician because he or she cannot quickly return to the work bay. While each occurrence may seem insignificant, a calculation of the effect of total possible yearly occurrences may be shocking.

Employee Morale

Employee morale is rarely talked about in discussions of fleet availability. Its impact has varying degrees of intensity that are extremely difficult to measure and quantify. Employees who harbor a feeling of insignificance or believe they are in a thankless job will obviously perform poorly. Lack of recognition and participation in the departmental decision-making process only compounds the issue. 

There may also be several underlying factors that attribute to low morale, such as low pay, threat of reductions in force (RIFs) and layoffs, poor working conditions, lack of a formal career path, no promotion potential, rumors, and conspiracy theories. Remember, it only takes one instigator to pull down the morale and productivity of an entire department.

In addition to technician morale, the morale of employees from other departments can also affect the fleet. Fleet operators with low morale may abuse their equipment. Clearly define the conditions that warrant the classification of a repair as “operator abuse” and provide that criteria to technicians and user department managers. Use an appropriate repair reason code to segregate operator abuse from normal repairs.

Technician Performance & Knowledge Base

One principle always holds true: The less knowledge and experience a technician has, the lower the level of output he or she will produce. Some may require minimal training to improve performance, while others may lack the attitude, aptitude, and ability to perform certain tasks. While most of the effects of this category can be directly attributed to the technician, management and line supervisors may also compound the problem with irresponsible policy- and decision-making. These include improper assignment of work based upon the technician’s experience level, no defined methodology of measuring technician competency, and lack of a technician training program or proactive training assessments that anticipate changes in new equipment systems diagnosis and repair, or the application of refresher training as needed.

Supervisor Performance & Knowledge Base

Front-line supervisors can make the difference between success and failure. It is important for supervisors to display a superior level of technical knowledge compared to the employees they manage. Technicians who sense their supervisors have an inferior knowledge compared to theirs may have less respect for them.

In addition to their technical skills, supervisors must always conduct themselves with integrity and professionalism at all times. Supervisors who tend to favor certain employees, attempt to lead behind the desk, or create an atmosphere of negativity will inevitably lower morale, productivity, and availability.

Management Performance & Knowledge Base

Weak or incompetent management staff will have department-wide implications that extend well beyond the technician work bay. A failure of leadership not only hampers success, but also magnifies the issues tenfold. The inability of management to correlate performance issues with supporting benchmarks is a key component in overall failure. Management must be able to identify the problem, evaluate and modify the process, and measure for changes in efficiency. Great fleet managers should possess refined leadership and analytical skills, as well as an exceptional knowledge of performance management.

Poor general management skills facilitate confusion and turmoil within an organization. Lack of defined goals, vision, and direction will cause an organization to become fractured and disorganized. Nonexistent or inadequate policies/­procedures promote non-standardized maintenance practices and hamper the ability to measure a process. When writing policies, find a balance between process standardization and over-regulation. Poorly written policies can be both overly restrictive and vague. Overly restrictive policies that require too many redundant or useless procedures can cause unanticipated process delays that minimize efficiency. Vague policies that lack clarity can be interpreted in different ways, thereby promoting confusion and causing a breakdown in process standardization. 

Even the best written policies are subject to compromise by employees from outside the fleet department. The service request form is a prime example of this. Customers not accurately defining the problem, symptoms, or operating parameters on the service request will cause significant delays in the diagnostic process. Vague or generic statements written on service requests should be questioned and clarified before the repair process has begun.

An effective fleet manager meets with administrative and technician staff on a frequent basis. Managers who lead from the perch will lose the respect of their employees and squander the opportunity to get valuable input and suggestions for improvement. Meeting with employees on a regular basis to solicit their ideas will make them feel they are part of the process and increase both morale and productivity.

Preventive Maintenance Program

For most, the implications of a poorly defined and managed preventive maintenance (PM) program are well known. Inadequately spaced PM intervals may increase the possibility of unscheduled repairs and prolong the downtime of the equipment. During the PM, improperly crafted inspection criteria and forms may hinder the potential of catching future repair issues.

As part of an ongoing quality control program, evaluate each vehicle being brought in for repairs and determine if the lapsed time between the PM and the repair was sufficient enough to establish that the fault should have been caught during the PM. For example, if a vehicle returns a few days after a PM because of deteriorated control arm bushings, determine if failure to catch the fault was due to technician neglect or because that part was not added to the inspection checklist. Use the number of occurrences of “repairs found at PM” as an indicator to determine if implemented changes to the PM program are working.

User departments may also affect downtime through noncompliance with the PM schedule. Lack of inadequate enforcement and reporting of overdue PMs will lead to increased downtime. Clearly define what the parameters are for an on-time PM (normally + or -10% of the target goal) and recommend appropriate disciplinary measures to user department managers.

Parts Management

Parts management is much more than simply purchase, inventory, and organization. Many of the administrative tasks related to the parts operation can also significantly delay the acquisition process. Parts managers should make sure they keep an up-to-date library of current parts manuals. They should develop a continuity folder that contains a consolidated listing of all vendors from which they currently purchase parts. The listing should contain the contact information, the manufacturer or brand they represent, a brief list of parts they provide, and a copy of the current contract or purchase agreement. Lack of such documentation may cause confusion and delays in acquiring parts should parts personnel be absent for a period of time.

Shop Organization 

Poorly chosen or unorganized equipment storage areas promote the scattering of shop tools throughout the facility. This will cause technicians to walk back and forth as they hunt for the equipment they need to do their jobs. If there is space available, allocate specific parts of the shop floors for shop equipment parking and mark the floor as to what belongs there. Enforce a policy to return the tools to where they belong after use. 

Unorganized areas also extend beyond the shop floor. Improperly laid-out ready and deadline parking areas increase the time it takes technicians to locate the equipment and increases the possibility that deadlined vehicles will be parked in the wrong area and forgotten.

Even insufficient or disorganized hardware areas (bolts, nuts, fasteners, electrical connectors, etc.) will consume valuable technician time as he or she hunts for the right bolt and nut. In some cases, fleet managers aggravate this situation by writing overly restrictive policies for the issuance of expendable shop supplies, such as hardware. Most fleet agencies account for these types of expendable supplies as a service fee added to each work order. Once again, although these types of occurrences may only take away a few minutes of repair time, you need to assess the overall impact of all possible occurrences within a one-year period.

Most FMIS systems have standard delay codes such as awaiting labor and parts. However, what happens if you are encountering significant delays that are not accurately reflected by the available codes? An example of this would be insufficient bay space or vehicle lifts. If you feel that the number of occurrences for these types of delays significantly impacts your productivity, consider creating a code to measure when equipment service is delayed because there aren’t bays or lifts available. This will help quantify the impact on productivity and may help get funding for a building expansion or additional lifts.

Service Literature

Consider consolidating service manuals in an easily accessible common area and organize the library in a logical manner.

Consider consolidating service manuals in an easily accessible common area and organize the library in a logical manner.

Not being able to find the right service manual when it is needed complicates and extends the repair process. Consider consolidating service manuals in an easily accessible common area and organize the library in a logical manner that facilitates technicians’ ability to rapidly find the right manual. The most appropriate method is to organize the service manuals based on their equipment category, then by manufacturer and model year. In order to maintain a current reference library, add the requirement to provide one complete set of manuals into equipment specifications. Additionally, develop a policy to sign out and return manuals to the library after use to prevent them from being left throughout the work bays.

These days, paper manuals are becoming a thing of the past as shops switch to digital books and forms. But automation comes with advantages and disadvantages. Electronic service manuals not only can increase efficiency but also could add an additional level of complexity if they cannot be easily found on the server. If possible, upload all maintenance manuals to your server and make sure they are accessible in technician work stations. Place the files in a logical order and rename the service manual’s file name to accurately reflect the equipment to which it pertains. For small fleets, consider including the equipment number in the file name. Once all the files are appropriately renamed, create a folder hierarchy that simplifies the file locations.

Here is one example of a proper file folder hierarchy:

  • Fire Apparatus
    • Aerial Platform Truck (no subfolders if you have only one)
    • Pumpers (add subfolders for multiple manufacturers & model/years)
      • Manufacturer Name (if more than one)
      • Model & Year Manufactured (if more than one year model)  

If the fleet facility has a dedicated PC to view service literature, make sure the monitor is of sufficient size to appropriately view wiring diagrams without having to resort to very high magnification levels. Smaller screens will make following the wiring diagrams much more difficult. Connect the PC to an office color copier in order to print color-coded wiring and hose diagrams.

Lastly, keep in mind the factors discussed here are in the not-so-obvious category. The obvious factors of fleet condition and replacement, budget, facility design, parts availability, and procurement policies have been well analyzed and discussed throughout the fleet industry.

About the Author: Steve Riley is automotive director at the City of Coral Gables, Fla.