Avista Finds Success with Vegetation Management Software

Avista Finds Success with Vegetation Management Software

By Larry Lee, Avista Utilities; Iban Ocampolucero, CN Utility Consulting; Travis Yordi, Terra Spectrum Technologies; and Jenna Mushro, Wright Service Corp.

CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) Lead Consulting Utility Forester Iban Ocampolucero’s co-authored article titled Going Digital: Avista Utilities Finds Success with Vegetation Management Software and Contractor Partnerships was published in the January/February issue of Utility Arborist Association Newsline.

The article explores how software programs from sister company Terra Spectrum Technologies (TST) are used to streamline utility vegetation management operations at Avista Utilities. Iban, along with TST Manager of Application Architecture Travis Yordi, and Avista Utilities Vegetation Manager Larry Lee also explain the teamwork needed to make the smooth transition to a paperless planning system.

For Larry Lee, vegetation manager for Avista Utilities’ electric distribution and high pressure gas pipeline systems, the transition from a paper-based workflow to vegetation management software couldn’t come soon enough. When Larry was hired in September 2011, he made it a priority to implement change. “When I came onboard with Avista, I thought, ‘I can’t believe we take so much time to do these processes. There must be an easier and more efficient way.’”

Avista made an industry wide call for proposals for transitioning from a time and material (T&M) contract to unit price and adding consulting utility foresters (CUFs) to plan the line clearance work using a vegetation management database. In its bid to provide planning services, CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) proposed to transform Avista’s UVM program from a paper driven T&M system to an electronic, enterprise UVM program management system in partnership with sister company Terra Spectrum TechnologiesSM (TST).

While working to create a completely digital “loop” of vegetation management planning and execution, teamwork among the three organizations and the line clearance contractor, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., allowed Avista to transition from time and material to unit pricing and gather an abundance of data for additional analysis. CNUC, TST, and Avista also worked together to develop a new quality control tool, and CNUC came up with the idea to supplement the suite of software with use of Google Maps functionality.

The Transition

Transitioning to software isn’t always easy; in fact, it can be quite a challenge. “The process of acquiring and then training staff and contractors to use vegetation management software requires a strong commitment, good communication, and a lot of patience,” said Larry.

In January 2012, TST Product Manager Travis Yordi, CNUC Lead Consulting Utility Forester, Iban Ocampolucero, and Vice President of Operations, Derek Vannice, began training CNUC foresters and the line clearance contractor to use the PlannerVM® and InsightVM® portions of TST’s VMSuite® series of software.

PlannerVM’s easy, touch-based navigation and wizard-driven data collection functionality were well received by CNUC foresters. Work orders could be generated quickly, along with spreadsheets, route maps and site maps. The application also provided a summary of work that could be emailed to property owners.

“Teamwork is one of the biggest elements to successfully implementing software as complete as VMSuite. During training, it’s important to be patient and put yourself in the shoes of the employees who are learning,” said Iban. “You have to think about the fact that everyone has very diverse backgrounds.”

Software Training

Larry, Travis, Iban, and Derek held a large training seminar for all Asplundh foremen and general foremen to learn how to use InsightVM to access the planning maps generated from PlannerVM. InsightVM is a web-based portal where different user views can be set up to access maps as well as real-time crew locations, cost estimates and hourly crew costs, circuit snapshots, and various reports.

Following the initial training sessions, Avista, CNUC, and TST had weekly calls to discuss any feedback and review system updates. “We learned quickly that communication between all parties was key,” said Travis. “We worked together to overcome any obstacles along the way, which led to overall success.”

In January 2013, the companies decided to integrate the final product of the VMSuite series, RealTimeVM.® Similar to how they launched PlannerVM and InsightVM, there were onsite training sessions with the line clearance contractor. Ocampolucero and Lee visited each crew to teach foremen how to use the new system.

The foremen can now enter employee, equipment, and production information into RealTimeVM, and at the end of the week send a summary report to be processed. Some line clearance foremen filled out the electronic timesheet with ease the first week and never looked back. Others, however, took a little longer to adjust. “Some would tell me, ‘I used paper timesheets for 20 years. How do you expect me to pick this up?’” said Larry. A self-described “technology challenged tree trimmer” himself, Larry encouraged crews to learn one new “trick” each day and be persistent. “After six months, no one even wanted to think about a paper timesheet,” he said. “It empowered them.”

While the software proved efficient, Asplundh, CNUC, TST, and Avista continued to make it a priority to keep in constant communication and develop strong relationships with each other. “Larry and I visit crews often. A simple handshake leads to good conversation and ideas for improvement,” said Iban. “Getting everyone comfortable and building trust was a big part of the process.”

Efficiency and Ease

Historically and still today, many utilities and contractors rely on paper maps to complete work planning and mail services to send in paper timesheets. In 2014, CNUC found that 60 percent of utilities are still using paper mapping (CN Utility Consulting Vegetation Management Benchmark & Intelligence, 2014).

“Before we incorporated VMSuite, at the end of each week the foremen would drive to FedEx to mail their crews’ timesheets to the corporate offices,” said Iban. “This process took significant crew time every Friday, and as we all know, time is money!” Legibility, standardization, and organization also tend to improve when switching from paper timesheets to software thus reducing invoicing errors resulting from hard to read timesheets.

With VMSuite, Avista and its contractors have the ability to provide more detail when planning, and create more efficient routes, which provide efficiencies in addition to time saved by not distributing paper maps and timesheets.

Through InsightVM, general foremen assign crews to work orders that CNUC foresters generate using PlannerVM. Crews access these work orders with RealTimeVM. Crews enter time associated with each work order, which enables Avista to review estimated versus actual time spent and track crews’ progress. This use of all three applications in the VMSuite series of software gave Avista the data it needed to transition from time and material to unit pricing.

Utilizing Google Maps

While PlannerVM and InsightVM are used to manage planned work, another tool outside of TST’s suite of software is used to manage customer requests that need to be investigated. Iban came up with the idea to use a tool that is available to everyone, for free: Google Maps.

A CNUC vegetation management support technician monitors Avista’s internal system to identify new customer work requests. The technician logs in to Google Maps and creates an icon to indicate the location where the investigation needs to be done, includes relevant information from the request, and contacts a CNUC forester. After investigating the request, the forester adjusts the icon to show whether or not a work order needs to be created. Then, the line clearance foremen are able to log in to Google Maps and see the work orders that CNUC assigned their crews, in addition to any notes from Avista or CNUC.

Google Maps eliminates hours spent transporting customer-generated “tickets” from Avista’s main office to foresters and crews.

Process Control Chart

CNUC and TST also worked with the utility to build a new tool: a process control chart. According to Nina Cohn, CNUC senior analyst, the charts are used to monitor, control, and improve performance over time by studying variation and its source, and overall, track what creates production inefficiencies. InsightVM and PlannerVM capture the data, and then statistical analysis is used to create the chart. “This is just the beginning. So far we have put in the foundation of creating a quality control tool, but there is much more data analysis to incorporate,” said CNUC Director of Consulting Services, Will Porter.

According to the CN Utility Consulting benchmark survey, in 2009, 29 percent of utilities said that their electronic utility vegetation management system was top-notch. This measurement dropped to zero percent in 2012. “Often, utilities realize that just because they have paperless workflow doesn’t mean the data is always being used to its full extent,” said Will.

Avista’s transition to software shows that it takes patience, dedication, and partnerships to successfully implement a full set of vegetation management software, but the end result is worth the time put in. “We built a team atmosphere,” said Larry. “We saw the new technology as an opportunity to separate our program from the herd and improve our processes…and that it did.”

To view the published article, visit pages 26 and 28 here.

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