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Don’t Let Your Field Operations Turn Into a Rube Goldberg Machine

Arka Dhar

COVID-19 has revealed a lot about the way we live and work.

Some of these lessons (“washing hands actually works!”) are obvious. Others are a bit more surprising, like our ability to become Zoom experts overnight.

And some – like our sudden appetite for Rube Goldberg machines – are completely out of left field.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell, Rube Goldberg was a wildly popular cartoonist from a century ago who is best remembered for his drawings of absurdly complicated machines that made simple, everyday tasks incredibly complex.

If you ever played the game Mousetrap as a kid, you know the quirky appeal and frequent frustration of a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption.

Why the sudden interest?

Hop on any social media platform today and you’ll notice a surprising number of videos featuring Rube Goldberg machines.

There’s something charming and a little bit nerve-wracking about watching these machines in action. On the one hand, you know it’s going to work — the video wouldn’t have almost a million views if it sputtered out after three steps. But still … you can’t help the flicker of doubt that creeps in each time a ball slowly meanders toward its target, or a garden tool just clips the edge of a domino and sets off the next chain of events.

As a shelter-in-place activity, Rube Goldberg machines are a wonderful diversion. But if you start to recognize their fragile, overly complex nature in your own field operations, it’s time to make some changes.

Building a better mousetrap

COVID-19 has thrown everyone a little off-kilter. But it’s also created an opportunity for us to take a step back and examine whether “the way we’ve always done things” is still the best way.

The very things that make Rube Goldberg machines so much fun – they’re complicated and they fail all the time – also make them a terrible model for any field operation. And yet, we see those same traits all the time in field service. Just look at how teams used to manage spare parts requests — and in some cases, still do.

Not that long ago, most field service organizations used “runners” (namely, high school kids with trucks) to bring spare parts to technicians in the field.

It wasn’t all that efficient, but it was cheap. Unfortunately, it also meant that technicians spent a lot of time waiting around for equipment to arrive.

That mentality of solving every problem with more people is hard to shake, and it’s helped create a service delivery chain that’s bloated, inefficient, and prone to breaking down.

What are the warning signs?

Ask any project manager and they’ll tell you that slow, inefficient processes are the root of all evil.

That’s especially true today, with time and resources at a premium. Fixing problems the first time matters. Minimizing the amount of time technicians spend in the field matters. Eliminating unplanned downtime – especially for services that feel more essential than ever – matters.

Here are two signs that your field operations are in need of an update:

1. It’s too easy for things to grind to a halt

When it comes to field service, your operations should be streamlined and repeatable, not multi-layered and prone to failure.

Take a fairly common task, like swapping out a broken part. In theory, this should only require a few steps:

  • The problem would be flagged.
  • The right technician with the right part would be dispatched in a timely manner.
  • The problem would be resolved.

 
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Unfortunately, repairs like this are rarely as easy as 1-2-3. Especially when your organization still relies on slow, manual processes.

Just look at how quickly that same task can snowball into something much larger:

  • You need to identify that something has gone wrong. Usually, this only happens after an asset breaks down or a customer complains.
  • You need to dispatch an available technician to diagnose the issue and (hopefully) deliver a spot fix.
  • If they don’t have the right parts, experience, or bandwidth to fix the issue, you need to shift schedules around to get the right technician on site.
  • You also need to make sure they have the right part. Sometimes that means tracking it down at a reasonably close warehouse. Other times it means rerouting a technician from another job site. Either way, it requires multiple calls and clicks.
  • If it’s a customer-facing issue, you also need to communicate any delays or interruptions in service.

 
That’s a lot of work for one small fix. And if one of those steps doesn’t go as planned, it can cause widespread delays across your operations.

2. It’s hard to standardize processes — or costs

Most analysts estimate the cost of an average truck roll to be anywhere from $250 to $500, depending on the location, task, and technician salary.

But those estimates don’t always capture the hidden cost of getting that truck on site. Mostly because organizations have no real way of quantifying how much ‘waste’ is behind each truck roll.

Did a coordinator spend half an hour combing through schedules and calling technicians to find someone who was available? Did they have to reroute a technician who was 40 miles from the job site? Did multiple people touch the same process or function, in the back office or out in the field?

All of these small delays and extra efforts add up to a whole lot of wasted time and money. Eliminating them – whether it’s through smarter scheduling or simply better visibility into your operations – is the best way to control costs and drive efficiency.

What would Rube think?

Rube Goldberg used his cartoons as a lighthearted critique of our growing reliance on technology.

But if he were to look at field service today, he might be just as bemused by our continued reliance on slow, manual processes.

He might ask why we still send technicians on routine site visits when IoT devices and historical data can tell us everything we need to know about the health of an asset.

Or he might question the wisdom of having coordinators manually review each close-out package when AI and machine learning can automatically scan each one and flag any that require further review.

Or maybe he’d simply smile, shake his head, and start drawing.


 
Got your own Rube Goldberg-style field service contraption that you’d like to streamline? Schedule a free 15-minute consultation with one of our field service automation experts to see if we can help. Of course, we suspect that our field service automation platform can help you out, but if there’s another approach – we’re happy to discuss that as well.