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Project management: An ESCO's perspective

By changing its approach to project management, an energy service company improves on-time performance while lowering cost - seven during peak demand time.Preparing for peak summer loads was difficult, inefficient, and costly when TXU Electric & Gas scheduled jobs by hand. With more than nine million customers in the United States, Europe and Australia, TXU is the fourth-largest supplier of essential

By changing its approach to project management, an energy service company improves on-time performance while lowering cost - seven during peak demand time.

Preparing for peak summer loads was difficult, inefficient, and costly when TXU Electric & Gas scheduled jobs by hand. With more than nine million customers in the United States, Europe and Australia, TXU is the fourth-largest supplier of essential energy services in the United States and the world's ninth-largest energy service company. Imagine tracking 21,000MW of diversified generation capacity and electricity for 2.5 million customers and natural gas for 1.4 million customers manually. Obviously, switching to an automated project management system equaled big cost-savings for the company.

TXU especially benefited from the project management software's "enterprise-wide view." If you manage many projects, you can't treat each one as a fully resourced job. You only have so many resources to draw from to complete all projects, and that can mean resource timing problems. Because TXU lacked the tools to provide such a view before, projects often clashed with each other. This is not the case today.

The enterprise-wide view helps TXU predict workloads in each geographic area and realign crews accordingly. Increased efficiency in scheduling (combined with an interface to the work management and outage management system) slashed the time required to schedule and prioritize jobs. TXU now resolves resource clashes in the planning stage - where resolution costs are negligible. What are resource clashes? Think of what happens if you schedule specialized workers (Photo 1, below) or capital equipment (Photo 2, right) to be in two or three places at once.

PLANNING VERSUS WAITING TXU's crews handle new construction, scheduled maintenance, and emergency repairs. Previously, emergencies made it difficult to maintain progress on capital projects.

"Just as a crew was starting a planned job, something reactive would come up and we'd have to reassign them. "The materials for the planned work would often go to the reactive job instead," says Sue Jackman, project coordinator for TXU Electric, Construction Services. "There were so many changes that crews frequently arrived in the morning not knowing what they were going to do that day. They spent considerable time waiting for their assignment, and then locating needed materials, before actually reaching the job site."

Planners at local service centers faced a logistical nightmare in handling the paperwork for the 25,000 activities in process at any given time. The manual system made it hard to determine appropriate staffing levels and adjust them to meet requirements. As a result, crews rarely shared work between service centers. Crews in one region ran out of work, while others in adjacent areas missed schedule dates.

Several years ago, TXU began automating engineering design operations to deliver better customer service while reducing costs. It purchased a work management system to automate the engineering department's flow of work requests. The staff began a process improvement program to streamline processes and improve productivity. This program identified the need for improved job scheduling and resource management. The new scheduling process allows five construction analysts (schedulers) at multiple sites to manage 455 crews while maintaining an enterprise view of the system.

Along another path, a team formed to evaluate potential project management software vendors. The team selected one particular vendor because its wide range of capabilities met all requirements without customization. This saved time and money during implementation and allowed TXU to take full advantage of software upgrades, using the vendor's technical support and project management expertise.

Because the vendor's representatives were familiar with situations like TXU's, they discussed some extended benefits made possible by companion products from third-party developers. One product allowed TXU to build two major interfaces into the project management system. One interface is for the outage management system; the other is for the work management system. The two interfaces provide automatic updates to the project management system, allowing TXU to leverage their software investment even further.

The interfaces eliminated rekeying data from the outage management system or the engineering staff.

"This dramatically streamlines the task of the construction analysts (schedulers), previously buried in the paperwork required to monitor thousands of activities every week," says Jackman. "Now, they can assign activities by selecting them and clicking on the crew that they want to do the job. With activities automatically flowing through the system, analysts can focus their talents on real problems - ensuring we achieve customer-required dates."

The system for distributing information to the crews improved drastically. TXU set up the project management software to automatically post work schedules to its intranet. Material planners and managers can access these schedules from their desktops. They now order the required parts and equipment so crews have these items when they begin a job.

Crews proactively plan their entire week, promoting synergy between jobs. For example, they piggyback trips that share some common routes to eliminate retraveling that "first leg" to sites along the same trajectory. Crews can frequently move from one assignment to another without returning to the service center.

Field crews use the system's progress reporting feature to report activity status daily. The feature allows crews to view all projects or project components assigned to them. They can assign themselves to jobs without waiting for construction analysts - who sometimes can't process incoming jobs fast enough. This situation might occur when a storm creates a tidal wave of outage calls. The software also allows workers to view comments sent by the construction analyst and provide feedback.

Metroplex views. The software allows TXU to manage its resources within a single database. Thus, managers can view the entire metroplex from a workload and resource commitment standpoint. Managers spot an imbalance of work between different areas and reassign other crews and equipment to compensate. For example, a big wire pull creates a "bulge" in human resources requirements. Borrowing people from a project in a "slack" phase to assist with one in a "bulge" phase ultimately lowers overall costs to the company.

"The improved flow of scheduling information has substantially increased the efficiency of our crews," says Jackman. "In particular, we shrank the backlog of repair jobs that are not `lights-out.' Every year, we initiate a series of major projects to prepare for increased loads we expect to see during the hot Texas summer. Previously, we couldn't complete many of these jobs.

"This is the first year that all of these projects, with the exception of some with external permitting issues, are on track. We are better prepared than ever to meet our customers' electrical requirements."

Jackman explains the successful use of automated scheduling is seeding other applications throughout the company. TXU plans to incorporate about 200 engineers into the scheduling system, which will make it possible to more accurately plan all projects and prepare long-range construction forecasts.

"We are planning to bring other work groups online, such as gas construction, vegetation management and construction inspection," she says. "We have a nearly endless list of other process groups who want to use the tool to enhance their operations."

1. Establish your view. If you manage multiple projects, your software needs an "enterprise view." If you manage a single project or a few projects with no interdependencies, a simpler package may suffice.

2. Examine your resources. What resources are critical to each project, and how do all projects compete for those resources? What resource problems do you have, and what problems do you anticipate? Traditional project planning is weak on resource assessment, but today's tools can alleviate resource conflicts and timing problems.

3. Examine your work methods. Use the software to improve how you run jobs. With the ability to automate Critical Path Method (CPM) and easily adjust it with Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) and other tools, you can maximize project efficiency. That means delivering quality to your clients at less cost.

4. Embrace the marketplace. Projects are more demanding in shorter time-frames on thinner margins. To beat the com-petition, you must surpass clients' expectations. As you gain efficiencies through advanced planning techniques, invest some of that windfall into delighting customers. This alone can make the software investment pay for itself many times over.

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