Talk to Me: How Operators Should Communicate with Fleet Managers

There it stands, untried, innocent of the ways of the world, your child, so to speak - a brand new refuse truck.

You sweated over its conception at numerous prebid meetings, paced anxiously awaiting its delivery and tenderly inspected its every inch to assure it was in the best possible shape. Now, you must open the door and offer it to strangers to use, possibly abuse and/or wreck. How do you feel?

If this seems a bit melodramatic, talk to a mechanic who has labored all night, knowing that the vehicle he has worked on is going into battle all over again come dawn.

The fleet manager, in consultation with the operations management, is responsible for the cradle-to-grave decisions regarding the purchase, maintenance and final disposition of the equipment, but only the operations manager can control proper equipment handling. It takes everyone, together, to ensure that the equipment delivers the potential built into it.

So, why, then is fleet management of-ten viewed as a tug-of-war where both the operations personnel and shop crew point fingers, blaming the other side's "ineptitude" as the cause for poor vehicle performance?

Let's look at the common complaints: Operators charge that fleet services fail to provide enough workable equipment in time for the shifts. Meanwhile, in the shop, mechanics tell tales of abused vehicles, indifferent operators, unmet maintenance schedules and coworkers injured by debris carelessly left in the truck cabs.

This type of antagonistic relationship is ingrained in the solid waste organization over the years due, in part, to the conflict between operators' demands and required maintenance.

The situation is exacerbated further when operators assume that the shop knowingly has returned some trucks in a state of disrepair, causing operators to feel they must overestimate their fleet needs.

Indeed, it can be a self-fulfilling prophesy: Assuming that some of the trucks won't work, operators demand more trucks than they need (even exceeding the number of drivers), encouraging the maintenance crew to make available trucks that are less than completely fixed.

As mechanics struggle to keep up the frenzied pace, they must deal with the hazards posed by drivers who salvage refuse items for personal use and then forget them in the vehicle when it is turned in for servicing. When the cab is lifted for engine inspection, these articles become missiles that can break windshields and cause injuries.

By taking a step back, you can see how such situations develop. For example, operators can estimate a daily workload, and the number of personnel, types of equipment and amount of time required on any given day. Although there will be surprises, it is possible to gauge how many employees will not report for work due to situations such as illness, jury duty or maternity leave.

Shop managers, too, can estimate personnel and equipment requirements, although the figure might be thrown off by unforeseeable state regulators' inspections, accidents, weather and strikes.

The real culprits are the things you cannot control or plan - shifting or slashed budgets, new customer demands, etc.

And once everyone falls behind, there is little opportunity to catch up. Operators complain to the shop. The shop, in turn, counters that the operators are being unrealistic in their needs assessment and that they abuse the equipment to the point where it needs excessive repair.

It's easy to see how antagonistic relationships can evolve where none need exist. As always, there are two sides to this story, and understanding both perspectives is the first step to effective communication.

Fleet management requires the cooperation of both the operators (the customers) and the shop crew (the suppliers). Operators should have realistic personnel and equipment assessments when reporting needs to the shop. Also, they should know the historical record of how well equipment stands up over the course of the day.

Their estimated equipment requirements and related needs will vary by day and season and by the estimator's abilities. Daily vehicle requirements can be estimated by taking into consideration the: * tonnages set out on a given day;

* collection vehicles' capacities;

* distances trucks must traverse; and

* number of trips each vehicle can make within an eight-hour period.

Add to this amount the variables of how many drivers will report for work and complete a full work day, the probability of accidents/equipment breakdowns and repair turnaround time.

Finally, the operators must attempt to understand the shop's perspective.

That Shop Crew's Duties The fleet services crew have a finite amount of equipment in inventory in various states of repair/disrepair:

* some are unsalvageable and earmarked for disposal;

* some awaiting the delivery of vital parts; and

* others being held for required maintenance checks that cannot be deferred.

To complicate matters, heavy use has created repair needs on the remainder of the fleet.

The maintenance crew is plagued with problems akin to those experienced by the operators: personnel availability, unexpected service demands and budget restraints. In addition, the shop must contend with parts availability, inventory/quality control, aging equipment, inventory reduction due to accidents and lemon purchases. All these factors reduce job performance.

Good mechanics, like good operators, take pride in their work, take proper care of tools, and respect the other's roles, abilities and professionalism. And, both mechanics and operators get upset when co-workers are lax in their job performance.

Torn between ensuring that the operators have sufficient, reliable equipment and meeting the routine maintenance requirements, fleet managers must play a Solomon-like role in divvying up resources. No one is paying a fleet manager to invent excuses for why he can't get the job done.

Ultimately, the best operators work closely with the mechanics, keeping the shop apprised of problems, seeking the mechanics' counsel in avoiding downtime, ensuring the vehicle is clean and reporting problems promptly and in detail. Shop personnel appreciate recognition of their skills and are pleased when operators make an attempt to understand their problems.

Operators should consider mechanics as partners and keep the lines of communication open. Talk with - not at - each other and never yell. Look at each other's tasks and priorities to determine how best to work together. Promise to discipline problem employees on your own staff. Remember, you are not choosing sides. You are working together.

In addition, operators should take a closer look at the number of vehicles really needed and not add allowances for vehicles that are assumed to be marginally functioning. This allows shop managers to target a smaller number of vehicles to work on more thoroughly.

Buying Vehicles When purchasing vehicles, operators should give the shop staff their requirements and reasons why this equipment is needed. Mechanics, in turn, should write the specifications for the entire vehicle. Then, discuss any questions or changes together in a joint meeting. Key fleet management staff members should sit in on operational staff meetings regarding equipment.

Both groups are strengthened by the other's expertise. As mutual understanding grows, mutual respect and responsibility grows, as well. Don't try to do the other guy's job, but take to heart the old adage about walking a mile in the other's shoes. This will allow both departments to focus on the next important goal, turning the equipment mishmash into a coherent, focused fleet.

The landfill crisis of more than a decade ago brought solid waste issues to public attention and added a serious new line of "must have" equipment to the fleet repertoire: recycling equipment, a necessity preceded by automated equipment.

Diagnostic equipment and mechanic skills have been upgraded accordingly, and some operations have found that renting/leasing equipment and contracting their repairs to specialists makes more sense than buying equipment and staffing maintenance personnel.

Regardless of the format, though, one essential remains constant: Unless the people who operate the equipment are partners with those who keep it running, good fleet management doesn't exist.