Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Model (DLO) Workers

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What a housing world we might have if it were filled with model workers? Perhaps a utopia for managers and residents/customers alike, particularly where repairs are involved.

We have gone through a transition where local authority housing departments have been RSVT’d to Housing Associations and many DLO’s, internal contractors, contract services dealing with housing maintenance have been discarded. Some which have retained their DLO could now be patting themselves on the back, saving 20% in VAT on most repairs. Many that have been through that process (or some that never did), have now got that back on the table for consideration and why not? Maybe even one day networks of peer RSL's could benefit from the VAT benefits, where facilities can be shared.

Technology is now available to come to the aid of the humble internal contractor. This helps to tackle areas that formed the often unfair stereotype of ‘Direct Works’. That image of a van of council workers eating breakfast toast on the corner of the estate, not appearing to be very productive. Many years ago I was on the receiving end of a plumbing foreigner from a ‘DLO’ operative. It took four attempts and given the choice, for many reasons, I would not choose to go down that road again!

IT and system assistance, to help them run on a commercial footing comes in a number of forms. The major ones are:

  • Dedicated contractor modules (with varying degrees of integration to any main HMS or asset management system/module)
  • Diagnosis and scripting tools (to determine SORs generally)
  • Stock links to building supplier / impressed stock support
  • Workforce scheduling
  • Mobile working and location tracking

Of course, running your own internal contractor involves the management and operational overhead of these system costs. This needs to be carefully factored in to any estimates of costs, when setting up. One other benefit is often involvement of local residents in the enterprise, for example through trade and apprenticeship schemes. Very important in my opinion and something that to me seems to have only recently trickled down from the more savvy national contractors, such as Morrisons and the like. Possibly we are only just starting to hear about it.

There are a number of areas to be aware of when looking at the application of IT to an internal workforce. Suitability of the contractors module is one key area. In my opinion, probably twelve operatives or greater, makes use of a module worth considering. Ensure it is fit for purpose. Particularly look at how it handles multi-day and multi-visit jobs, particularly voids and planned work. Strange as it may seem, some solutions out there appear to struggle with these very common housing requirements.

In addition to servicing your own stock, if you have an efficient workforce, have you ambitions to do work for other RSL’s, homeowners or other organisations (eg NHS trusts) in your locality? If so, ensure your chosen solution can handle flexible costing, billing, reporting etc matching your prospective external customer requirements. To bolt this on later might be costly or impossible later, even in a system that works well just for your own housing stock. The main independent solutions in no particular order are Task Total from Consilium, Servitor from Civica, OpenContractor (ex-IBS) from Capita and Uniclass from ROCC.

Good proven (ask to see it) integration between systems will reduce admin costs and can then be expected to provide a unified view of property condition to asset teams and housing staff on the ground. This can also be used to make some diagnosis software work better too, obviously ask what capabilities are. Do not assume that scripting and diagnosis software can interrogate current repair or asset state of the property, see this in practice to your satisfaction.

The other hot potato these days is ‘Scheduling’. This requires some looking outside the jacket. I have met many DLO managers, mainly large stocky chaps, who generally for me have fallen into two distinct camps; lovers of it and haters of it. The former have used it before and seen or perceived benefits. They are generally evangelists in terms of getting scheduling into the internal workforce, to drive efficiency. Few would dispute that scheduling software can reduce travel time and increase efficiencies.

While it is quite true that most scheduling systems can be easily installed in six to eight weeks, integrating and configuring them properly to your environment takes much, much longer. In some cases I have heard stories of between 18-24 months to tune for best efficiency. When depot managers join an organisation and champion scheduling as a silver bullet, they can have short memories of the final benefits, rather than the long period of growing pains to get scheduling embedded and accepted by the workforce. So it is vital to be realistic, your organisation will not be receiving maximum ROI from a basic shell of a scheduler.

The final elephant in the room is also culture. How closely tied or insulated the internal contractor team is from the main housing functions and how well developed processes are within it, will often determine if IT improvements will bring maximum benefits. I would suggest that thorough mapping and analysis of current (paper/manual) procedures, precedes IT selection and implementation.

Importantly, these days, it is a buyers market and most suppliers have woken up to that. Ensure you negotiate the best contract with your preferred supplier, keeping re-occurring costs as low as practical, reducing internal contractor overheads, still further.

Read on to banning internal email, less Outlook, more Yammer

Model Workers are not a new thing, one of my favourite bands explored it in early 1980. Why not click here and check it out.

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting

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