Picking out pearls

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Updated Jan 6, 2010

Fleet executives and managers seldom complain about having too much information about their operation. What does concern them, however, is having multiple interpretations from the same set of data, or when it takes hours to build reports and spreadsheets. Waiting hours or even days to find a “single version of the truth” will erode business leaders’ confidence in their information systems and decision-making abilities.

To address these common frustrations, many fleets are using various performance management systems and business intelligence tools. Demand for these applications continues to grow, prompting some technology providers to offer scalable applications and services with little or no upfront investment.

Choosing metrics
Dashboards and exception management systems are perhaps the most popular tools for executives and managers to monitor key metrics and trends in their organization. Dashboards automatically capture, calculate, display and refresh key performance indicators (KPIs) throughout the workday. Exception management systems complement dashboards by sending immediate alerts to decision makers throughout the day whenever key metrics exceed the established thresholds.

Fleets typically use dashboards and exception management tools to monitor two types of metrics — operational and analytical. Operational metrics track results from daily business activities. Analytical metrics give insight into the overall health of a business and help managers stay on top of trends.

Prescott, Ontario-based Kriska Transportation processes more than 6,500 customer orders per month via its TMWSuite dispatch and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, says Paul Dean, chief operating officer. To manage the many possible exceptions based on the information attached to each order, the 400-truck carrier uses an exception management tool by TMW Systems called The Dawg.

Kriska uses The Dawg to monitor 25 different exceptions on a real-time basis, including the number of loads, revenue per mile, empty miles, unassigned trucks and orders without assigned rates, Dean says. The latest version of The Dawg can monitor information from data sources other than TMWSuite, says Steve Pembridge, project manager for TMW Systems.

O&S Trucking, a Springfield, Mo.-based refrigerated carrier, develops its own in-house software for operations and performance management. Chief Executive Officer David Corsaut uses a dashboard on a daily basis to monitor cash, on-time deliveries, days in accounts receivable, and the volume of business by customer.

Every morning, O&S Trucking’s dashboard refreshes these metrics with the results from the previous day and week to date; each of these metrics is shown in comparison to the same timeframe from the previous year. In addition to using the dashboard to monitor and analyze key metrics, Corsaut assigns each senior manager in the company three key metrics — called imperatives — for their respective areas of responsibility.

“The intent is to sort out all of the stuff that you are inundated with as a business person,” Corsaut says. “The imperative method allows me to gauge how all of the managers are doing in terms of moving the company toward the larger goals for the company to prosper.”
O&S Trucking holds weekly senior staff meetings to report on the imperatives. The company also has a weekly “Huddle” meeting in which managers review the company’s financial and operational performance in detail, month to date. “The goal is to be able to turn the ship if you need to,” Corsaut says.

Most people probably think of exception management in terms of expense, revenue or operational efficiency metrics. But carriers can apply the concept throughout their operation, and some use it in other important areas, such as safety and risk management.

Since 2005, Phoenix-based Knight Transportation has used a product from Innovative Computing Corp. called IES Aware to monitor vehicle position data for its 3,700-plus tractors in order to detect instances of possible driver fatigue. IES Aware instantly reports the exceptions where drivers violate company policies for continuous driving.

“We wanted to know when that happened in real time rather than deal with logs and log auditing,” says Brett Sant, vice president of safety and risk management. Without using the IES Aware system, driver managers would have to analyze a tremendous amount of data or rely on feedback to manage fatigue, Sant says.

Knight Transportation uses information from IES Aware as part of an overall driver profile to analyze behavior of individual drivers.

“We also aggregate all information by fleet and operating center to determine how effectively we are managing overall performance,” Sant says.

Evolving technology
For more than a decade, fleets have used onboard computing platforms to gather detailed and targeted data on their drivers and vehicles. Technology providers continue to develop new tools to help fleets efficiently manage the ever-increasing amount and speed of data these systems capture.

C&S Wholesale Grocers uses the Xatanet fleet management software to capture and manage information for its 700-truck fleet. The Keene, N.H.-based operation uses Xatanet’s dashboard feature to provide managers a quick view of mpg and driver idle time. The dashboard is used to foster healthy competition among different locations. “Everybody is fighting to get better fuel mileage and idle time,” says Dan Daley, systems analyst for C&S Wholesale.

In addition to using the dashboard, C&S Wholesale uses Xata’s Self Service Reporting (SSR) to selectively choose what information to report and disseminate to fleet managers. SSR is an analytics product that gives users access to the data elements in Xatanet. With a simple-to-use interface, users can arrange the data elements in a format that is most meaningful to their business, says Angela Shue, Xata’s director of client management.

“We pull mpg on drivers, by drivers and by vehicle,” Daley says. “We also pull cruise percentages and torque bands drivers are operating in to get optimal fuel mileage.” Daley set up the fuel reports in SSR to run automatically on a weekly basis. Since zeroing in on these metrics, the fleet has saved about $250,000 in fuel year over year, he says.

Earlier this year, PeopleNet launched an integrated reporting tool for its Web-based interface, the PeopleNet Fleet Manager. Its Logistics Intelligence tool, built on the Business Objects framework by SAP, lays the framework for customers to collect large volumes of data to monitor and watch for trends, says Bridget Wahlstrom, PeopleNet’s Logistics Intelligence product manager.

Earlier this year, PeopleNet released a graphical dashboard to manage fuel efficiency and fuel economy. Users can customize the dashboard to compare and rank terminals, drivers and vehicles for seven different KPIs, Wahlstrom says.

PeopleNet also is in the process of sculpting a safety dashboard for Logistics Intelligence. The safety dashboard will include information such as speeding, hard braking and log violations. Logistics Intelligence is available to all PeopleNet Fleet Manager customers for no additional cost.

More than a year ago, Qualcomm Enterprise Services released a Web-based analytics tool called Fuel Manager as part of its OmniVision suite of services. Since releasing Fuel Manager, Qualcomm has added more “canned” reports for customers to use along with a more flexible platform to create custom views of data, says Chris Silver, senior product marketing manager.

Fuel Manager lets fleets set the targets they want to measure based on 14 different metrics such as mpg, idle percentages and rpm. The targets can be set by driver, type of vehicle and engine. Data can be analyzed by timeframes, by fleet and driver type, and by driver manager. Qualcomm also is continuing to enhance analytical and exception management tools for safety and maintenance. Fuel Manager and the other analytical tools are included as part of the monthly subscription for Qualcomm’s Ultimate Value Plan.

Warehousing data
The need to access information from onboard computers, dispatch, accounting and various other sources across an enterprise often leads businesses to start a data warehouse initiative, says Ben Becker, a former chief information officer of a trucking company who now works for OpenBI, an open source business intelligence consultancy.
The term “data warehouse” describes a system where information from all of a company’s operational systems comes together into a centralized location.

“A data warehouse naturally becomes your single version of the truth,” Becker says. “Reports and ad-hoc analysis are generated from a single consistent source that represents all other sources.” Data warehouses are designed to not “bog down” operational systems with queries and reports, Becker says — an important attribute as data volume and analysis complexity grows with time.

Building a data warehouse doesn’t require expensive software or highly trained software programmers and consultants. McLeod Software now offers classes for clients to learn how to implement data warehouses and other elements of a business intelligence framework, and how to write SQL queries.

“Customers want to be in control of their information delivery mechanisms,” says Don Prentice, database administrator for McLeod Software and course instructor. The purpose of the classes is to empower the user through education and targeted mentoring, Prentice says. “The end game is for you to own it and do reports when and how you want them.”

ThoughtDrivers offers CubeIT, a business intelligence tool developed for trucking operations. As part of the implementation process, ThoughtDrivers works with customers to standardize or “cleanse” the data they wish to extract from multiple sources and pull into a data warehouse.

For instance, a carrier may use six different names for the same customer or have legacy systems that require expert-level knowledge to pull data from them. However, CubeIT doesn’t require users to write SQL queries and other software code to extract data from existing systems. “We do a lot of that work for them,” says Sam Liberto, chief executive officer.

The user interface is a “rich Internet application” that has the same look and feel as a desktop application but operates within a browser, says Tom Gruber, business development manager for ThoughtDrivers. The application uses a multidimensional model called a “cube” to analyze data.

On the left-hand side of the cube is a menu of different fields or measures from which to select. If a user wants to know what states have the best operating ratio, he would begin by dragging and dropping the measures of “operating ratio” and “states” into the center screen, and then refining the cube however he chooses.

Companies can lock down access to specific measures based on users’ access levels. CubeIT was designed to be offered to fleets for a low investment in startup costs and a monthly subscription fee, Liberto says.

One of the strongest advantages of using cubes and other business intelligence tools to analyze data is that fleet managers and executives can get the answers they want by themselves. Rather than waiting for others to write reports based on the questions they asked yesterday or last week, they can obtain answers immediately. By slicing, dicing and pivoting the data, the user can even answer questions he didn’t know he wanted to ask.