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How an Inefficient Work Order Management Process Hurts Tenants, Operators, and Owners

– and what to do about it (Part 2)
Alex Ortiz,
Account Executive
McKinstry

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Control Solutions, Inc

Summary: Property managers and owners of large buildings can’t predict the future, but they are responsible for implementing a work order management process that efficiently addresses tenant needs and streamlines operations. When this process breaks down, the tenants, property managers, operators, and owners all pay a costly price – here’s what to do about it.

In the first of this two-part article, we discussed the impact on tenants, property managers, operators, and owners of a breakdown in a building’s work order management process. Here in Part 2, we explore five questions to answer when fixing or replacing your CMMS or work order management process.

What specific problem are we trying to solve?

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a potential customer and asked what his company’s motivation was for exploring a new work order solution. He responded that they wanted to improve operations, drive down costs, and modernize their facility management. I thought it might be helpful to get more specific, so I gave a few examples.

Sometimes customers describe a problem of communication and labor: a big chunk of their in-house engineering labor force will retire in the next 5-10 years, yet the number of new technicians entering the job market is low, creating pressure on the company to improve knowledge transfer from more experienced to less experienced staff and make leaders out of them. A work order system that captures building knowledge allows for some of that transfer to happen, lowering the risk that if a technician or engineer retires early, the owner won’t know their own building.

There’s also a labor question: if you have 25 in-house building engineers and by improving your work order process you save each of them three hours per week, that turns into real savings over the course of a year: nearly 4000 labor hours annually that can now be reallocated to preventative maintenance activities or to provide additional training to junior staff. This also gives the owner or property management company more flexibility: the option to hire two additional full-time engineers or simply get two engineers’ worth of time (4,000 hours) out of the existing team without burning them out. Communication and labor problem solved.

Now let’s discuss a very different problem. Imagine that your company – the owner or the property management team – has little visibility into what’s getting fixed, how long it’s taking, how many corrective and preventative maintenance tasks are done quarterly, how vendors are performing, and what the status of the buildings and the equipment in it is. Maybe this is due to staff not using the work order system consistently or deeply enough for the Chief Engineer or Property Manager to get meaningful data out of it. Maybe the building equipment is not tied to the work orders, so you can’t compare the condition to work being done so you can plan capital projects. Or maybe not every work order starts with a cost, making it harder to bill tenants for things like overtime air. This is a visibility and workflow problem. Very different.

When I presented my customer with these examples over the phone, he located his own company’s primary areas of need as closer to visibility and workflow, changing which work order vendors he will consider in the next phase of his search. Clarity about what problem(s) your team wants to solve with an improved work order process or system will help you map your business needs to the strengths of the work order vendor and select the best path forward.

Are we trying to make our people more efficient…or more effective?

Work order software implementations sometimes fail to address the business challenges they were meant to solve, which is a real bummer since companies spend many months to several years vetting, buying, and implementing these solutions. If you have an asset management company that operates over a thousand buildings in the country for several REITs and real estate operating companies, and you spent a year shopping for a portfolio-wide work order software, a year to implement it, and another year to evaluate its success, the last thing you need is for that system to fail. Success happens when that system allows more work to get done efficiently and the work to get done effectively.

But what leads to failure? Consider this: a typical commercial office building half a million square feet in size probably sees more than 100 different types of issues per year: HVAC, temperature control, keys and access cards, lobby spills, plumbing issues, A/V problems in conference rooms, light bulbs, windows, and numerous other things that need to be dealt with.

Each of these has a person or persons assigned to fix the problems as they happen. Some of the staff work in the building; others are external contractors. Some issues can be fixed right away; others need parts to be ordered first. Some of the issues need to be escalated to a supervisor for approval. And different issues happen at different times of the day and sometimes on the weekends. This creates a nightmare of coordination for the property management team, but the tenant doesn’t care about any of this – they just want the problem fixed as soon as possible so they can resume their work.

Work order systems fail when people, processes, and technologies necessary to resolve building issues don’t combine in the right way for a particular building’s purpose. Work order failure can also happen when tenants aren’t given an efficient way to report problems and communicate effectively with the people doing the fixing.

But failure can also occur when a system is put in place without choosing an ideal outcome: making staff more efficient (getting more work done faster), more effective (getting work done well consistently and with fewer errors or communication gaps), or both. This is important because some work order systems automatically dispatch technicians and vendors once a tenant reports an issue, creating efficiency but potentially setting technicians up for failure if they don’t have all the information they need to be effective. Sometimes vendors and engineers arrive on site but because the tenant gave insufficient information time is wasted looking for the actual location of the problem or leaving and returning a second time with the right tools and parts to fix it. Conversely, some customers have buildings with very strict time requirements on the resolution of issues, so efficiency takes priority. This might even vary building to building if you manage a portfolio. So be sure to clarify which outcome – efficiency, effectiveness, or a combination of both – best solves the current business challenges you identified in the first question. Then set up the work order system to support that outcome.

What can be automated, and what needs a human touch?

This brings me to the next piece of advice. We are in the midst of a massive transformation in how people work. Tools, technologies, applications, and businesses conspire to automate as much as possible in the name of convenience, efficiency, and cost reduction. But before you automate too many workflows, pause to consider if a given problem should be solved by tools and technology or if people and new behaviors are a better fit. It’s one thing to automate time-consuming, repetitive, low-risk tasks. If a tenant reports that an office is too hot after requesting weekend overtime air they’ll be paying for it probably doesn’t hurt to automatically alert the property manager and building controls technician on call to look at the automation system. It’s another thing entirely to automate processes that require a human touch for additional information and follow-up or where a high level of service is a concern. Tenants pay a lot of money in rent per square foot, and owners spend a lot of money per square foot to replace those tenants when they leave, so a work order system should meet tenant expectations of service and help the operators and owners retain those tenants longer. Consider which service procedures don’t require any human intervention to complete (with no loss in perception of service quality) and which service procedures benefit from a person speaking to a tenant either to gather additional information before dispatching a technician or vendor or to improve communication with the tenant, so they know their needs are being or were taken care of. Not all work order systems are created equal in this regard, so identify how flexible the new system will be in balancing automation with human intervention.

Does this solution address the needs of tenants and facility teams with multiple preferences?

Speaking of technology and humanity, how people report issues and how people go about addressing them in buildings varies: some of us prefer to submit a ticket to another person, something tenant service coordinators and property managers with a front desk know all too well. Others don’t mind, or even prefer, tapping away on a screen or in an email. This isn’t a baby boomer, Gen Xer, and millennials thing, it’s a human behavior and preferences thing. So a work order system should allow for all modes of input.

I can relate to this: I’ve had a live issue in my apartment for months that I haven’t reported to my building’s property management team because they prefer not to receive emails and I prefer to send emails, and the tenant request app they use is clunky, so I don’t use it. The issue is not high enough of a priority for me, but if it was easy to report it, I would have done so long ago and be more satisfied overall.

The other point to consider here relates to communication and workflow within your team of operators, especially if in the first question these two factors came up for you. Regardless of age, some employees don’t want machines telling them what to do or apps forcing them to close out work orders. It creeps them out or removes their autonomy. This creates adoption headaches where staff underutilizes the system or doesn’t close out work orders in near real-time, creating gaps in your ability as an owner or operator to know how and when maintenance work is getting done thereby hampering decision-making. How often do we hear in the industry that employees wait until Friday or end-of-month to enter or close out work orders? So consider whether or not the new work order system allows your vendors and staff to communicate and complete their work in multiple ways. This should improve adoption and reporting.

How will we know we’re performing better?

Control Solutions, Inc If you’ve recently implemented a work order system, you know how much work goes into the process, and you probably want to measure your progress. Years ago I heard the phrase, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” and it stuck. Measuring how your work order process or system is impacting your operations and what return you’re getting in real dollars saved, costs reduced, or hours gained is the key to justifying your purchase to management or evaluating when you need a new solution. To do that, you need solid data on performance, which is more than just what reports you can run in the work order system (if you even have the time to run reports yourself). To track performance, you should define success three, six, and twelve months into your new work order system implementation before you implement it. Some customers like to track their average time-to-acknowledgement and average time-to-response because this helps them improve tenant satisfaction, hold fact-based lease renewal conversations with tenants, or hold their vendors accountable to their service level agreements, and if that will be important to you, then you need to ensure the work order system and the people and processes supporting it are all aligned. What’s the process after a tenant enters a request? How quickly do you change the work order status to Acknowledged? What happens if a technician is out to lunch; does that stop the clock or do you escalate the work order to Technician #2? And so forth.

Here’s another example of performance tracking: if in a year you want to be able to make capital planning decisions based on volume of preventative maintenance tasks, then you’ll want to start tracking today how many preventative maintenance tasks (PMs) your team is getting done on time or within a certain amount of time so that you can staff up appropriately to extend the life of equipment. Come capital planning time, the work order data will reflect actual work done, and you’ll be able to trust the data. Also, consider how you can use work order data to measure tenant and staff satisfaction. If you know how long it took you to fix issues a year ago, you could aim to respond and fix problems an average of ten minutes faster this year and agree to use this metric as a measure of progress in tenant satisfaction surveys, for example.

The point is that if you’re proactive about defining success, then your work order system will answer – clearly and unambiguously – how much better your team is operating. If your work order system is not giving you that information, maybe it should be. On that last note, be sure to ask if a given system will track and give you that kind of data and answer the questions you need to be answered without charging you additional consulting fees.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, you found these questions helpful in assessing if your current approach to work orders and whether your existing system is right for your building(s). By becoming clear on what your business challenges are and what combination of tools, technologies, and behaviors will help you address the problem and measure the success of the solution, you’ll be able to implement something better. This will benefit your tenants, property managers, operators, and ownership to make everyone’s lives a bit easier, your staff more productive, and your buildings more profitable.


About the Author

Alex Ortiz is an Account Executive at McKinstry. He sells the work order management solution InfoCentre, which combines a work order software with a 24x7x365 call center that supports the entire lifecycle of your work orders. Building operators and property managers can then focus on what they do best: take care of their customers. For information about InfoCentre, contact us here.

About McKinstry: Established in 1960, McKinstry is a full-service design, build, operate and maintain (DBOM) firm with over 1,800 employees and approximately $500 million in annual revenue. McKinstry’s professional staff and trades people deliver consulting, construction, energy, and facility services. As an early adopter of the DBOM process, the company advocates collaborative and sustainable solutions that are designed to ensure occupant comfort, improve systems efficiency, reduce facility operational costs, and ultimately optimize client profitability for the life of their building. For information about McKinstry’s full range of services, contact us here.

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