How Your Mobile Solution Impacts Workflow

Or is it the other way around?

John Q. Todd, Total Resource Management, Inc. (TRM)

How Your Mobile Solution Impacts Workflow

We think that providing a mobile solution for our field staff will help them in some way. Whether it be through increased efficiency or better communication, we have this idea that adding a smart device to their toolbox is a good thing. It certainly can be, but there are several things to consider, such as:

  • How does this new tool fit into the team’s daily work patterns?
  • Will their workflow process change or remain the same?
  • Are you expecting the smart device to replace a desktop computer?
  • How will this impact the flow of data?

Finally, you must consider if it is possible to facilitate the tablet as the “go-to” technology versus the yellow legal pad and if it is a wise decision to do so.

The simple answer is yes — providing your workforce with mobile solutions is a good idea and a worthwhile investment for them and the business. The question is not whether to adopt smart devices but rather how best to implement them in the context of your business processes.

Data Flow

The visual below depicts the flow of data from the back end to the boots on the ground. The back end tells those in the field what work is needed, and as the work is completed, the team members report back any useful data to the back end to be analyzed and utilized for future business decisions. This may seem simplistic, but it is an important visual to ponder because it raises the question, “To what extent is this data interchange truly needed?”

For example, do we really need to include Operations and Maintenance manuals as attachments to field work orders? This unnecessary inclusion only serves to increase bandwidth demands, especially when the smart device has internet access and can perform a simple search for the information.

This line of questioning starts the critical first step of establishing a mobile solution for your team: defining (or agreeing on) what information needs to flow back and forth. The answer is not “everything.” We are not saying to keep the folks in the field in the dark, but we are saying you need to carefully consider what data is really benefiting them. Too little information leads to frustration and calls back to base; too much leads to excessive download times and mobile devices unceremoniously being tossed onto the dash of the work truck.

These simple questions about what data each party really needs may point to the need for process improvements to occur before deploying a mobile solution.

Examples Are Everywhere

When considering a mobile solution for your team, you also need to investigate how these mobile devices are used by others. This will determine which situations might benefit from a mobile device and which would only be hindered.

Some helpful tips to remember when beginning your research include:

  • Mobile solutions can come in the form of laptops, tablets, smartphones and smartphone applications.
  • Field users will have vastly different needs and requirements than workers sitting at a desk.
  • One quick assessment isn’t enough; you need to walk in their shoes for several days to fully understand their needs.
  • No one has a wrench in one hand and a tablet in the other.
  • Be mindful not to throw too many new work processes upon the employees, causing them to feel overwhelmed.
  • Understand the reservations your staff may have, perhaps based on a previous negative experience.

With this in mind, it’s time to look at some real-world examples of mobile-solution implementation.

Baggage loaders scan bags using handheld devices before placing them on conveyer belts to be transported to the plane. The process is simple: Scan, check, reset. This process is repeated countless times throughout their shift. The mobile solution handles the transfer of data between the team members and the central hub, and only the most necessary information is delivered, such as if the scan was accepted and what plane needs to be loaded next. In this scenario, the handheld mobile solution achieved its intended purpose of helping the baggage loader complete their work in a timely fashion while effectively communicating only the necessary information. While simple in nature, their implementation plan was a success.

Construction and insurance claims estimators present a more complex scenario. These folks require more sophisticated applications and access to a large supply of back-office information at a moment’s notice. Because they look at large amounts of data and images, they need to have more visual real estate, so they often use tablets in the field to accommodate their needs. Because of its generous size, they can also conduct business from the tablet, such as drafting and signing documents and reviewing evidence and images with greater ease than compared to a smartphone solution.

Did You Know?

Connected communication devices reduce downtime by up to 30%.
Source: motorolasolutions.com

In both examples, the company successfully identified what work needed to be completed, what information was necessary for the team members to know and what mobile solution would fit their needs the best without becoming a hindrance or nuisance. It’s about finding the right solutions for the needs of your team members while adding value to the work they are trying to complete. By evaluating your needs, you can create a mobile solution program designed to support the business and promote future growth.

Mobile Solution Benefits

You don’t have to go very far to find the benefits of a mobile solution. Reach over to your mobile phone and launch a few of your favorite apps. Even the games have mental health value! If you ponder what your apps deliver to you, their value will become evident.

  • Apps provide focused information to field staff, greatly reducing the amount of searching/browsing they need to do.
  • They also provide simplified data entry and logic that saves the user time and increases the quality of the data captured.
  • Apps also take advantage of device capabilities such as the camera, voice-to-text and location services to make it even easier for users to provide information from the field.
  • Mobile solutions rarely stand alone. They are connected to back-end Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS) or Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) systems that maintain data integrity and business logic.
  • Having apps in use out in the field brings quality field data into the decision-making process.
  • Having apps in the field can also reduce waiting time for answers to phone calls/voice mails. They facilitate “self-service” for field workers, getting them the information they need to move forward.

What Does Failure Look Like?

Not everything mobile is sparkles and unicorns. There are plenty of examples where mobile solution implementations have gone awry. In preparation for writing this article, I asked folks in the trenches if they could share some negative experiences they had with mobile solutions, and I was not surprised by what I heard. By understanding where roadblocks may lie in the process, we can better prepare our implementation strategies to overcome or avoid these obstacles.

Real Input from Real People

The first conversation I had was with a project manager who was involved with the implementation of a large mobile solution plan and took note of what he observed in his employees. He said, “The workforce was quite set in its ways and just wanted to carry around paper. The mobile devices and apps sat around unused. They could have saved a boatload of time and miscommunication, but didn’t. To them, ‘mobile’ was a novelty or buzzword rather than a useful tool.”

Next, I interviewed the employees who had boots on the concrete and were using mobile solutions to collect data. One employee said, “They try to take ‘the paper way’ of doing things and transfer it over to the mobile solution rather than trying to find a new, efficient way that helps us meet business goals. They talk about modernizing, but they don’t communicate clear goals, and they can’t explain to us what they want.”  

I even had a conversation with an industry-leading conference speaker who remarked, “The resistance to using mobile applications and devices isn’t because the technology doesn’t work or that there are problems with the apps themselves. Rather, businesses don’t support their mobile decisions well enough, and the employees simply choose not to use them; there is no other ‘real’ reason.”

Despite these observations, there is growing hope among businesses that mobile solutions will have a lasting positive impact on their facilities once they are fully adopted.

For instance, one project team member chimed in and said, “The use of mobile devices has had a lot of positive effects. Our office clerks no longer need to enter data since the mechanics enter the information themselves using the mobile application. This has led to less miscommunication and a more efficient work process.”

A project manager also spoke up, saying, “The mobile apps have had a positive impact since the field team members enter the data into the system immediately. They don’t need to carry around hard copy work orders or inspection forms anymore. This has really streamlined a large part of our operations.”

Questions to Ask the Workforce

Before you hand a bunch of maintenance workers a tablet, you need to get into their world. You need to ask the people who would ultimately be using the mobile solutions about how and why they might (or might not) use this new tool. Of course, the end goal of their use is to capture valuable field information, which is then translated and used for making maintenance and operations decisions.

Use this list of questions as a starting point to start a dialogue with your team members in the field. Feel free to add additional questions that are unique to the context of your field staff.

  1. While working in the field, what information is needed for you to know what work should be completed during the day?
    1. Example: Location, asset, task list, etc.
  2. What information do you need to enter while working in the field?
    1. Example: Materials used, time recording, work order status changes, etc.
  3. How do you use the mobile device?
    1. Does it sit in the truck in-between jobs, or is it on you and used/referenced during the job?
  4. What factors impact your use of the device?
    1. Example: Gloves, dirty hands, direct sunlight, extreme temperatures, battery life, etc.
  5. How often would the device being offline or out of range have an impact on your work? Have you had experiences in the past where an application was not useful to you while offline?
  6. What smart device features are most useful to you?
    1. Camera, voice-text entry, QR or bar code scanning, internet, etc.
  7. What negative experiences have you had with a mobile solution that might affect your willingness to transition to mobile applications?

Designing a Proof of Concept

After you’ve done your research and interviewed your team members, the next step is to design a pilot program or proof of concept (POC). Your approach doesn’t need to be overly detailed or complex, but you also don’t want your team members to feel like they’re having a tablet thrown at them without any direction.

Your pilot program, no matter how simplistic, will have some associated costs, which can be seen as an investment. This includes the cost of configuring your current CMMS or EAM system so it can support the use of mobile devices and applications that will transfer and receive crucial data.

You don’t need to spend a lot on your pilot; your goal isn’t to have a fully functioning system set up perfectly on the first try. Your goal is to see if you can prove that adding a mobile solution is going to be a benefit to the team members using them.

When designing and managing your POC, several steps should be taken:

  1. Determine the initial data sets that will be used and the scope of the POC. It’s important to understand the minimum amount of data needed for field workers and the back office to complete their jobs.
  2. Decide which mobile device best suits the needs of your team members in the field; this may differ from the corporate mobile standard. Will the company provide these devices? Will the devices be left at a centralized location each day, or can the workers take the devices home with them?
  3. Choose specific mobile applications that will be used by the field workers on their mobile devices.
  4. Provide an initial orientation and training session for key personnel on the mobile devices and applications you’ve chosen. Their understanding and buy-in are critical during this phase, so make sure they understand the scope of the POC program and what you expect from them.
  5. Have team members try every feature of the mobile device and application. As they use the device throughout their daily routines, have them estimate how much they used a particular function or feature. For example, how often did they use the internet or application function for research? This way, you can see how they’re using the mobile solution and if it’s enhancing their daily routines.  
  6. Survey your team regularly, not just at the end of the pilot program. Capture all input, including any issues, positive feedback or enhancement suggestions. Make sure to ask open-ended questions to get a more in-depth explanation of the way they feel.
  7. Report all issue cases or tickets to the mobile solution vendor for any issues that arose during the POC, no matter how small they might be.
  8. Formally end the POC program on a specific date of your choosing; this date should be far enough away that the team can get a solid feel for how the solution works, but not so far away as to create a habit with the device, especially if you decide not to choose that specific mobile solution. Make sure to gather all mobile devices and begin reviewing all the information collected during the pilot phase.  
  9. After reviewing all of the information, it’s time to make the final decision on whether this is the best mobile solution for your team. If it is, then you can begin a full-scale deployment project with your newly selected mobile solution.

Technical Thoughts

As with any technology, there are always several “platforms” to choose from. In the past, these platforms were mostly proprietary, locking you into a path. These days, the technologies you have available are largely “open,” giving you the option to move from one to another without much upheaval. It’s important to keep in mind that:

  • Most mobile solutions can be managed via Mobile Device Management (MDM) software.
  • Most mobile solutions use REST API for connections to and from servers.
  • Most mobile solution applications can be downloaded from a public application store, such as the Apple Store or the Google Play Store.
  • Most mobile operating systems, such as iOS or Android, generally have the same functionality, and other than corporate preference, there is no real difference.
  • Devices are everywhere — laptops, tablets, phones, hands-free, etc. — and some may have better functionality for certain situations. For example, you may want to consider hand scanners for bar or QR codes since phone cameras may need specific lighting and distance conditions to work properly.

Wrap Up

Let’s go back to the title and answer the question, “Does the mobile solution impact the workflow, or is it the other way around?” We can now clearly state that the answer is “both.”

A mobile solution can bring efficiency to your organization, but you must accommodate the nuances needed to truly support those who are using the devices. Proper planning and forethought must be used when deploying a mobile solution; otherwise, you can end up with applications and devices sitting unused or basking in the sunlight on the dash of a truck.

By letting the field team members drive the investigation into a mobile solution, they will end up with something truly useful to them and can help improve other business processes.

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About the Author

John is currently a Senior Business Consultant with Total Resource Management (TRM) and has nearly 30 years of business and technical experience in Project ...