Five Collection Challenges

COLLECTION FLEETS FACING CHALLENGES to operate more efficiently and offer high-end services can succeed despite today's economic downturn. Good operations information, accurate cost projections, customer and employee satisfaction, effective communications systems, and policies that support a business' goals are key. This includes addressing the following five challenges facing most collection managers.

  • Gathering reliable collection data. Often, collection operations lack necessary information to make sound business decisions. For example, a fleet manager may not have records to: determine costs for each collection service, such as refuse collection versus bulky waste collection; identify maintenance and performance data; form policies and enforce systems that affect costs; and maintain productivity on a route-by-route basis.

    Without this data, it is difficult to evaluate a collection program's productivity, policies and protocol. Pinpointing the location of crews and vehicles, and identifying public education problems, also can be challenging.

    To help fleets, several high-tech solutions can assist with data collection, such as cellular phones, global positioning systems (GPS) or Web-based software. Also, data can be collected through a vehicle-locator system or a vehicle- and/or driver-performance tracking system.

    Some fleets use collection models to perform “what-if” scenarios and estimate productivity gains if changes are made to routes, crew sizes, truck sizes, collection frequency or approaches (i.e. manual versus automated). Additionally, fleet managers should establish data-tracking procedures that do not involve the driver because:

    • Drivers are trained to drive and may lack the skills and tools necessary to accurately gather and report data.

    • Reports may be filled out quickly and inaccurately at the end of the day, or they may be fabricated.

    • Collecting data during a route can impede a driver's productivity.

  • Stopping driver versus mechanic arguments. Many mechanics contend that drivers abuse trucks, while drivers complain that mechanics cannot keep trucks on the road. The truth likely lies in the middle, but how do managers know for sure? By improving fleet systems information, managers can use concrete data to pinpoint problems concerning procurement, employee attitudes, driver training and to evaluate mechanics' productivity and performance.

    A comprehensive fleet management audit can valuable in evaluating drivers, mechanics, and operating and cost performance measures that are regularly used to effectively manage a fleet organization. Key performance measures include the unit cost to operate each piece of equipment, the ratio of preventive maintenance costs to total maintenance costs, vehicle availability, vehicle utilization, labor productivity and shop rate. Managers then can:

    • Identify and allocate costs;

    • Evaluate trucks' conditions;

    • Evaluate mechanic productivity and performance;

    • Examine management information systems — hardware and software;

    • Examine strategies for purchasing vehicles and parts;

    • Examine vehicle replacement programs; and

    • Compare operations to similar-sized fleets.

    Oklahoma City, Okla., audited its preventive maintenance expenses and other key information, such as per-vehicle costs, communications issues, to gather a complete system analysis of its fleet management system. This study identified a rift in the relationship between the fleet maintenance department and the solid waste department.

    The city had maintained a lean fleet size, keeping spare vehicles to a minimum. Preventive maintenance costs had been declining over the years, with more responsibility for daily inspections placed on solid waste equipment operators. Drivers initially reported minor problems requiring maintenance, but the turnaround time for repairs was slow. With the low number of spare vehicles, there were, at times, not enough solid waste vehicles to support daily routing requirements. To assure that trucks would be available each day, drivers stopped reporting minor maintenance issues, which over time, degraded the solid waste fleet.

    This study identified the breakdown in interdepartmental communication and operating practices, and led Oklahoma City to outsource selected fleet maintenance operations to assure repairs were made expeditiously and to restore confidence among the department that sufficient trucks would be available daily.

  • Managing bulky waste by monitoring set-out limits. Bulky waste is a big, ugly, time-consuming, complex, expensive and political “hot potato.” Mounds of bulky waste — including the proverbial bathroom sink — should be monitored and managed properly.

    To better accommodate bulky waste, consider tightening and enforcing its definition. Also, change or tighten the frequency and scheduling of pickups. Managers may decide to handle equipment and staffing differently or establish more appropriate rates, improve customer education or alert key decision-makers to the issues at hand.

  • Optimizing routes. If routes have not been revised since they were designed, investigate route optimization. For example, Hartford, Conn., used an old-school approach for its residential routes, relying on “gangs” of solid waste collections. Groups of five collection vehicles were assigned to a general region of the city, and drivers and route supervisors were allowed to determine the best collection strategy for collection from the entire region each day.

    While general routes had evolved over time based on trial and error, no true routes had been developed based on set-out rates, disposal rates, curb mileage and other factors that affect route balance and efficiency. This led to confusion, lack of productivity and dangerous working conditions.

    After designing new routes using geographic information system (GIS) technology, the city reduced it fleet by 30 percent and improved safety and productivity.

  • Evaluating workers pay. Look into “task pay” versus “pay options.” Municipal solid waste collection operations often define daily “tasks,” for which collection crews get paid a full day's pay. So-called task pay systems provide an incentive for collectors to collect efficiently and productively enough to complete a full-day task (e.g., eight hours' worth of work) in less than a full day's time (e.g., in 7.5 hours).

  • Tasks can be defined by tons collected, number of households collected or specific daily route. Alternatively, some systems pay straight hourly rates, which can lower collection productivity because crews have no incentive to finish early. When implemented correctly, a task pay system has many benefits. However, problems can and do arise. With an incentive to finish early each day, collection crews may abuse trucks and increase safety risks by operating vehicles unsafely or at excessive speeds to gain time.

    In some cities where significant growth or annexation has occurred, routes may have become unbalanced in such a way that some crews finish early, and some finish late, resulting in inequitable routes sizes and hence unbalanced tasks. In other cities, an appropriate definition of a task has never been established, causing an extremely low number of productive hours per day spent actually collecting solid waste. To make the right decision, analyze the options, consider private sector pay-incentive strategies and then revamp workloads, tasks and overtime to gain from the system.

    Ocala, Fla., has found that its task pay system resulted in each three-person collection crew working an average of 5.25 hours per eight-hour day. As the city has grown, solid waste managers have been successful at resisting the addition of new routes, instead of extending the duration of current routes closer to 6.5 hours per day. The combination of annexation and the threat of converting to automated collection — which would have resulted in a loss of collection jobs over time — has allowed Ocala to increase its crews' daily productive route time.

    To succeed, recognize that productivity and performance are system-wide goals that require system-wide solutions.