BUSRide Fleet Management Systems Roundtable: Part II
In October, BUSRide convened with a select group of fleet management specialists and software providers during the American Public Transportation Association EXPO in Houston, TX.
The second installment of the conversation focuses on guidelines for prospective software users and implementation challenges.
The panelists at the table were:
Kevin McKay – Vice President, Programs Development, Avail Technologies
Bill McFarland – Director, Technical Services, Business Development, INIT
Bill Collins – Vice President and COO, Quester Tangent
Curtiss Routh – Vice President of Sales, Radio Engineering Industries (REI)
Richard Goodrich – Marketing, Ron Turley & Associates
Lori Jetha – Marketing Communications Manager, Seon Design
Jordan Brock – Vice President, Global Sales, Strategic Mapping
Brett Koenig – Industry Solutions Manager, EAM, Trapeze Group
Dylan Saloner – CEO, Via Analytics
What guidelines can you offer for a transit agency assessing its needs for fleet management programs and technology?
Kevin McKay: ITS technology has advanced tremendously in the past 20 years to the point where the technology is proven and reliable. The key is not the technology but how this technology can be used to provide “real” and quantifiable improvements to your operations such as improvements in the efficiency of delivering your service or in making it easier for your managers to get information. Oftentimes a technical specification has very specific details on the technology to be deployed or specific solutions to problems. The result is a focus on the technology and not the best solution.
The key is to state the problems that need to be solved and create functional specifications that provide vendors with the opportunity to provide creative ways to solve a problem, rather than a list of very specific technical requirements. My recommendation is to focus on the desired result and not the method or technology that is utilized.
Brett Koenig: My advice for any agency considering a new enterprise asset management (EAM) system is to demand transit-specific technologies and services. There are so many vendors and products out there, but the transit industry has very specific needs. If you look at the largest multimodal properties, EAM and maintenance management software aren’t just dealing with buses. They’re dealing with other types of assets (railcar rolling stock, facilities etc.), and those maintenance divisions have their own specific requirements. That would be my main feedback – to demand transit-specific technologies. It can mean the difference between success and failure.
Dylan Saloner: If I were an independent consultant, I would advise transit providers to demand free, comprehensive APIs from their vendors. For those unfamiliar with the term, an API is just technology jargon to describe an open, transparent interface for customers and third parties to read data and interact with applications cleanly.
If you look at technology stacks in tech sectors outside of transit, you’ll see that savvy customers are demanding clean access to their data and services through APIs. It’s essential for allowing different pieces of software to communicate.
A lot of agencies today feel locked in to their current software vendor because their data is constrained. These vendors make it really difficult for agencies to interact with third party applications — that’s restricting for everyone. If a software vendor tells you, “We don’t offer an API,” or “We charge extra to provide an API,” what they’re really saying is, “We don’t have enough confidence in the standalone value of the service we provide to expose it to the world. We need to lock you in to our platform.”
Not only is it good practice to make sure your data and software services are delivered through an open API, it’s also good practice use open-source software when possible. This allows for greater transparency — for example, in writing reports. Open-source also supports a collaborative network between transit agencies.
Bill Collins: Fleet management programs are perhaps better served by looking at maintenance, not as a cost of repair or replacement of faulty or failing materials, but as a value for properly working equipment. I use the analogy of the QT manufacturing process that was formally perceived (and set up as) tracking cost of labor and materials on a per unit basis. A lean manufacturing technique called “value stream mapping” grouped the various build activities into definable operations to which a value can be ascribed. By analyzing those activities that bring the highest value to the build, it is possible to reduce waste and thus cost.
The same model can be considered for fleet management. By analyzing fleet maintenance activities in terms of value to revenue service availability, it may identify labor and materials that provide less value and can perhaps be reduced or eliminated. Technologies that align with best practices such as value stream mapping may support more efficient operations.
Curtiss Routh: It is very important for the agencies to recognize the incredible wealth of resources available to them in the marketplace, and it is exciting that agency executives are very astute in this regard. Certainly, the representatives of this roundtable are examples of the wisdom which is available. Of course, there are great consultants and firms available to do studies and assessments – but it is amazing to see how well agency professionals network with each other, and find useful benchmarks in transit operations.
REI has the experience of working with hundreds of transit properties and the flexibility to consider the specific and unique concerns of each agency. Our clients find our approach very refreshing. We have an extensive evaluation protocol which we incorporate throughout the process. And, almost invariably, this process results in the need to be flexible and innovative in the problem solving approach. Often, our competitors will come into the agency with a set agenda and objective to “sell” their program or technology, with little regard for the true needs of the agency. We believe the “best practice” is to find the most effective program now, and to build and grow that program down the road. Our approach has been very successful.
Richard Goodrich: We’ve seen a big swing one way and then the other over the last 28 years or so. It used to be that users wanted a single consolidated software product, but preferences have kind of swung away from that. That’s because users didn’t get to choose the pieces – maybe they got a really good account package, but with a pitiful maintenance package. If software is easier to integrate and more standardized, it opens up a wider choice for the end-users.
In order to meet those changing customer needs, we’ve added the capability to communicate with other systems.
Lori Jetha: When we look at the implementations we’ve done, it helps to really look at what an agency’s objectives are with our technology. Having those clear objectives can really change what technology you think is going to solve your problem.
I’d also recommend having a diverse project team because that’s where a lot of projects get tripped up. IT has a certain set of needs for network access. The maintenance team has to be involved because they’re going to continue supporting the product. You also have to have executive support and funding, because nothing goes ahead without those.
A third recommendation for transit agencies is to be future-thinking. I see a lot of agencies focused on the initial cost of technology without looking at the total cost of ownership. Agencies must consider all of the labor needed to support those products and use them to their full potential.
Jordan Brock: We always suggest that agencies identify the data and information they would require from the system. These include but are not limited to NTD/Governmental reporting, reports and performance indicators for management and customer information requirements.
What do transit operators find most difficult as they implement a new program?
McKay: Our desire is to have an in-depth understanding of how the agency operates and the problems they are trying to solve both now and in the future. The challenge that often occurs at the beginning of a project is to get the software or hardware deployed and fielded as soon as possible. However a key step in this process is taking the time up front to make sure the potential solution is really going to address the “core” problem and also work cooperatively with the customer to thoroughly understand the problem and the approach to resolve it. We refer to this as partnering with our customers to make sure they are successful. When an agency makes an investment in technology, it is a long term commitment and therefore taking the time for both parties to thoroughly understand the problem and the agency’s operation results in a superior solution and truly meets the needs of the agency.
Koenig: When a large agency rolls out an enterprise asset management system like Trapeze EAM, potentially the system will be used by hundreds of end-users. These systems are vital for day-to-day asset, work and material management workflows. To avoid, difficulties, I would advise agencies to involve key stakeholders in the project, even in the RFP requirements and vendor selection. Get those people to stay involved over the course of implementation, because early buy-in from key stakeholders is a key to success. Otherwise, you may end up with a situation where end users are very resistant to any workflow adjustments (even if it’s for the best of the agency).
A second key aspect is a comprehensive training program. A third is one of the key drivers for Trapeze, which is ease-of-use. The system you choose must be very simple for end users or they’re going to resist change.
Saloner: Transit agencies are cautious customers, and with good reason. Transit systems have enormous social and economic impacts, and so it’s important to proceed with deliberation when adopting new technologies.
To deal with this challenge, it’s important to get feedback from everyone early on. It’s important to gather data from drivers, management and other stakeholders into the planning process for new programs.
Collins: It is imperative that new technologies being introduced to support fleet management be intuitive and easy to use. They must also have a level of configurability to adapt to the “sweet spot” of a work force tasked with looking after these new technologies.
Routh: Of course, finding dollars is always challenging when working with a transit agency. And sometimes, there can be risk aversion and hesitancy for change. But that is generally noticed at the outset of our relationship. Funding issues will always be an opportunity for innovation, and it is counterintuitive to think that lack of funding and risk aversion can actually be “advantages” for us…but they are.
Our experience has been that, as we work with agencies who lack funding and/or have operations issues, together we find operational dollars and cost justification through our program implementation. In addition, our technologies can be evaluated and adjusted without large costs or time allocation. So our agencies are seeing positive results and improved process in a very short time. When things like that happen, the difficulties go away. And, of course, they tell their friends. That is always a nice thing too!
Goodrich: I agree with Brett to a huge degree. You have to get enough people involved in the decision making so that they’re getting the right solutions at their level. It won’t work if you try to force the ground-level employees to enter meaningless data just because management wants it. It’s important to make sure your solution is the solution that everyone’s looking for.
Brock: Our greatest challenge is helping the agency understand the impact of disseminating large amounts of real-time information and how this puts more scrutiny on the transit. Transit operators are often challenged with the transparency this technology provides to both management and the public.