The greatest challenge facing the future of public-sector fleet management is how we define ourselves as a profession. Are we administrators of a fleet or are we managers? Do we manage our fleet from a tactical level, putting out the day-to-day fires – or a strategic level, focusing on achieving specific long-term objectives? Do we practice strategic fleet management, which stresses the importance of achieving objectives and the use of metrics to benchmark progress? In the future, I believe a strategic focus will be crucial to succeed in public-sector fleet management; otherwise, you will run the risk of being relegated to mediocrity in the eyes of management.
Fleet managers who practice strategic fleet management strive to rise above the level of simply managing day-to-day work. Besides having fleet management expertise, these fleet managers are also intimately familiar with the workings of the user departments they serve and the needs of vehicle drivers and equipment operators. These fleet managers are proactive and anticipate changes that will impact the operation of user departments. These fleet managers not only manage the fleet, but strive to contribute to the achievement of overall user department goals.
A strategic fleet manager establishes a cooperative, working relationship with all internal functions within their political subdivision that are associated with fleet operations. Strategic fleet managers recognize they ultimately serve user departments as their primary internal customers. There is no better testimonial to the effectiveness of your fleet operations than when it is “talked up” to others by your internal customers. Also, satisfied user groups are powerful allies, should management ever consider privatization or engage in a managed competition. Strategic managers manage the fleet to support the objectives of their user department customers.
Management by Objective
The hallmark of a best-in-class fleet operation is excellent interdepartmental relationships. These are relationships cultivated over time. A strategic fleet manager listens to user departments. You need to know your customers’ objectives and concerns. It is important to regularly survey customers to determine the needs, wants, and expectations of their operations. If you are not meeting these needs and expectations, then you’ve failed as a fleet operation. You need to identify emerging end-user issues before they become major issues. You need to document downtime, cost issues, and customer-perceived lack of service performance. When collecting this information, ask the customer department to substantiate whatever they can in writing. Conduct a work-order analysis to determine the validity of these issues. Although it is mandatory for fleet operations to be cost-efficient and to temper unwarranted user department demands, an unhappy customer represents a deficiency in your department’s performance.
Unfortunately, internal customers are too often treated as captive customers to whom you can dictate terms and customer service expectations. Technicians must understand that internal customers aren’t their nemeses and remember that the reason fleet departments exist is to support and serve customer departments. This is often not the case; in fact, the majority of public sector fleets still do not employ service level agreements with their internal customer departments. Although service level agreements are relatively commonplace between commercial fleets and fleet service providers, it has been only in the past 15 years that they have begun to emerge in the public sector. One reason was a response to privatization initiatives, in which outsourcing companies made firm performance and cost guarantees to public officials. Fleet operations that instituted service level agreements for this reason are examples of reactive fleet administration. A strategic fleet manager will proactively employs service level agreements with user departments. In fact, the best fleet managers usually have multiple service level agreements with different user departments, most commonly with fire, solid waste, police, and public works or street maintenance departments.
Avoid Being Relegated to Mediocrity
The common denominator among the best fleet managers is excellent communication and people skills. How you deal with “people” issues influences not only user department relationships, but also shop morale and management’s opinion of your effectiveness as a fleet manager. The primary job of a fleet manager is managing assets and the services provided to user departments; however, as every fleet manager can attest, as much as 60% of the work week is consumed by personnel management. In many respects, people management (staff and interdepartmental) is harder than asset management. Successful people management translates into higher technician productivity, improved operational efficiencies, and improved customer service. This is the skill set that makes public sector fleet managers indispensable in the eyes of senior management and elected officials.
With the decline in tax revenues, public sector fleets are under increased scrutiny by management, politicians, and taxpayers, in addition to being constantly second-guessed by user departments on the efficacy of their policies. On top of this, fleet managers are constantly dealing with the newly elected “fleet expert” politician who assumes the fleet operation is not run efficiently or cost-effectively and they have the answers. Strategic fleet managers are not deferred by these distractions because they are goal setters managing the fleet by objective. They employ metrics to substantiate that they are operating a well-managed fleet and make the data available for all to see. They validate their importance day-in and day-out by cost-effectively managing millions of dollars of assets and controlling the expenses associated with operating these assets. Their goal is to reduce not only hard costs, but also soft costs. A good fleet manager can annually save a political subdivision hundreds of thousands of dollars by implementing effective fleet policies, selecting the right vehicles and equipment, decreasing equipment downtime, and increasing technician productivity.
However, the most difficult challenge facing a strategic fleet manager is effectively communicating to their management the complex issues facing fleet operations. Most fleet managers neglect this responsibility. In the final analysis, without the support of senior management, even the most strategic fleet manager will also find themselves relegated to realm of mediocrity.
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