DRIVING FORCES in our industry are changing the way in which utility companies like Xcel Energy must compete with rivals, work with suppliers and offer services to customers in order to stay competitive. In many ways, the story of Xcel Energy (Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.) is a familiar one for utilities these days. It has experienced ongoing merger and acquisition activity and been faced with a number of business challenges — all the while doing more with less. Confronted in 1999-2000 with the operational and organizational challenges that a merger presents, Xcel brought together strategic partners and technologies to automate its business processes and integrate information flow across the enterprise.
Xcel Energy, formed by the merger of Denver, Colorado-based New Century Energies and Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Co. in 2000, is a combination natural gas and electric company with regulated operations in 10 Western and Midwestern states. As a result of merger and acquisition activity, the company expanded its geographic territory and increased its electric customer base to 3.3 million with several different existing work management and outage management solutions in place. Included in the mix were two separate outage management systems (OMSs), three separate mobile systems, and numerous regional customized, primarily paper-based business processes used by more than 2000 employees across 10 states. After an internal review process in 2002, the decision was made to implement a “best-of-breed” integrated OMS with the following project objectives:
Improve customer service: Reduce outage duration, improve on-time service, improve estimated time to restore and estimated time of arrival accuracy, and improve access to service order status and comment information.
Improve system performance: Improve system availability, reduce the number of repeat outages and improve the timeliness and completeness of data capture leading to better decision making.
Ensure regulatory compliance: Improve data capture, improve the accuracy of reporting and ensure all data contains a cradle-to-grave audit trail.
Reduce costs: Improve quality of service orders, improve service order and work force management, improve work force productivity and eliminate expensive legacy system costs.
Implementation efforts for the outage management project touched on every aspect of customer service from the customer call, to field assets, to reliability, to construction and maintenance planning, and to outage and emergency responsiveness. Further, the scope of the business processes being integrated and automated was quite complex and involved creating, dispatching and documenting service orders; handling escalated operations (storms); switching; scheduling and meeting appointments; crew and work management; management of system security; and event notification. Despite the complexity of the project, however, the transition has been relatively smooth and the results have been impressive to date — thanks in part to the extensive ongoing cooperation and support from the various vendors and the unwavering commitment of employees.
Between October 2004 and January 2005, SPL World Group's Centricity OMS and MDSI's Advantex enterprise-wide mobile work force management solution were rolled out to Xcel Energy's field service workers in the Denver/Boulder regions of Colorado and throughout the service territory in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota. The northern facility project went live on Oct. 17, 2004, replacing a mainframe OMS and a homegrown MD2 mobile system. The Denver/Boulder regional facility went live on Jan. 16, 2005, replacing older applications. The tight integration accomplished by the vendors enabled the company to automate the work for hundreds of field responders, dispatchers, managers and coordinators helping achieve improvements in customer service, operating performance and productivity.
To ensure full vendor cooperation with its integration requirements and aggressive schedule, Xcel Energy's CIO Ray Gogel hosted a Vendor Summit in July 2004. Vice presidents from each of the key vendor companies attended to facilitate cooperation at the highest levels. Key action items resulting from the summit were related to Xcel Energy's application testing process. Specifically, vendors were required to provide the resources necessary to address and fix any software defects resulting from testing in one week or less, and the testing window was 12 weeks long. Follow-up meetings were held weekly with vendor VPs to ensure the project was on track and the application testing requirements were being met. The key to gaining such excellent vendor support included having extremely clear deliverables and frequent interaction between key vendor personnel and key users. Vendor resources were committed to exceed the project requirements and timetables.
In order to get the staff up and running on the new system, customized Train-the-Trainer courses and course-ware from MDSI and other vendors were used to instruct more than 500 technicians. Given many technicians perform shift work and provide essential services such as emergency and power outage response, flexibility in the training regimen was important. Therefore, training was delivered in several formats, including computer-based training (CBT) and classroom-based training. This provided flexibility so that technicians were able to get the training they needed with only minimal interruption to their work responsibilities. Further, MDSI and SPL WorldGroup provided a joint two-week Train-the-Trainer course, helping to ensure that the two applications appeared seamless to the end user. The course documentation and job aids were also merged.
The overall implementation proceeded fairly smoothly. There were, however, numerous challenges along the way. Given the project's complexity, the number of vendors involved, and the number of employees impacted, these issues were not a surprise and included:
Change management challenges related to employee preference for and loyalty to their customized legacy systems and the long training periods required.
Technological challenges related to tightly integrating the software from a multitude of vendors to design, test and implement a system conforming to business requirements.
Project management and scheduling challenges related to the aggressive implementation time frame — a short three months separating the North and South implementations and the need not to disrupt vital outage management and emergency services during that implementation period.
Performance challenges where the new solution needed to be able to handle an average load of 30,000 calls per hour with no decline in outage management response time or other customer service indicators and no unanticipated system downtime.
To date, the most significant challenges have been overcome successfully. The quality shown in the delivery of this project was neither chance nor luck — it is the result of excellent planning, quality teamwork and hard work of all involved.
QUICK RESULTS PROVE BUSINESS VALUE
Overall, the comprehensive outage management and mobile work force management solution has increased operational effectiveness. Given the seasonal nature of Excel's business and considering the fact that the new OMS has been in service for less than one year, it is too early to identify overall response improvements. However, the company did see an immediate improvement in its estimated times for restoration.
Prior to implementation, the company was hitting the estimate between 75% and 85% of the time. Immediately after the implementation, the percent success rate increased to 85% to 90%. This change will directly impact customer satisfaction results. In addition, Excel can now easily track the various components of its response process. Knowing and managing time to dispatch, travel time and restoration time will provide the company with opportunities for operational improvement that it did not have prior to this implementation.
The outage management project is an important part of Xcel's corporate technology strategy to ensure that all different types of work being performed throughout the company are supported by one technical solution and one business process. Benefits are forthcoming or are already being realized in the areas of online time reporting, mobile maps, real-time outage and emergency information, and more accurate data collection. As it stands now, whether technicians are doing electrical or gas emergency work or routine nonemergency work, they are all tied to the same system and working the same process with consistent process and performance indicators. From a management standpoint, it's a huge advantage to be able to view, monitor, measure and track all the work being done across the enterprise.
Implementing an integrated work force management and outage management solution is enabling the organization to realize tangible benefits such as:
Data is verifiable and auditable due to enhanced tracking features.
Call takers can schedule appointments to smaller and more definitive time windows.
Call takers can respond to changing customer requirements and field conditions and provide updates in real time.
Field technicians are better equipped with information improving the capability to complete work on the first call.
Control center personnel can more effectively monitor the real-time situation and manage the work force and workload accordingly.
Data quality is improved, leading to better decision making.
Process management is more effective due to more timely access to process and performance indicator data.
Orders entered by call takers are delivered wirelessly to technicians' mobile computers. There is no need for manual printing, collation and distribution of orders at the start of the day.
Same-day orders are immediately delivered to the technician. Voice dispatching is not required. Time spent recording and reporting on voice-dispatched work orders is eliminated.
After just a few months of operation after rollout at both its north and south facilities, the company is delivering against the stated project objectives.
POSITIONED FOR THE FUTURE
Xcel Energy has successfully completed two major implementations as a result of outstanding partnerships with MDSI, SPL, IBM and other vendors. To date, the implementations and follow-up support have gone well, and the benefits are now expanding to other field technician work. Regardless of what the future holds, Xcel Energy's leading-edge work force and outage management solution will be up to the challenge. Empowered by the latest technology, it will continue to deliver the highest level of customer service.
Michael Lamb is the general manager Distribution Engineering and Emergency Response at Xcel Energy. In this capacity, he is responsible for gas and electric emergency response activities and supporting services in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Michigan. In addition, Lamb is the executive sponsor of Xcel Energy's OMS implementation. He earned BS degrees in economics and in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He also holds the MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School Executive Program.
System Architecture and Integration
Xcel Energy's outage management system (OMS) uses a distributed or client and server-based architecture. The OMS hardware utilizes IBM p670's and Power 570 Unix servers. All servers are located in the Denver metro area with client applications connecting through a wide area network (WAN) from the Colorado and Minnesota regions. To increase performance and client application response times over a WAN, it is using Exceed onDemand by Hummingbird Ltd. This product is an ultrathin connectivity solution delivering reliable, secure, cost-effective X11 protocol access for applications on Unix systems. Primary OMS client applications are ran on standard Microsoft Windows desktop systems configured with dual monitors. One monitor is used for displaying the SPL WorldGroup outage application and one for the MDSI Advantex Dispatch Application. In terms of system interfaces and overall system integration, Xcel Energy's OMS includes CES International's Centricity (now part of SPL WorldGroup) for outage management, MDSI's Advantex for enterprise-wide mobile workforce management, Indus International's Passport for work order management, Peace's Customer Information System (CIS) for recording outage and non outage customer calls, and IBM Global Services for systems integration and technology support.
Building for the future, Xcel is using IBM Wireless Anywhere for wireless communication allowing its mobile data terminals and the server application to transmit information back and forth seamlessly. In addition, field workers are equipped with ruggedized laptops to enable them to access or update information in real-time for increased productivity.