October 23, 2014

Field-based electronic solutions for snow and ice operations


Nobody, ever, has considered dumping their snow clearing equipment and going back to horses and shovels. But, if you look at the offices of many snow and ice operations, the information is processed using the equivalent of a hand shovel. Paperwork is issued to field staff. It comes back (sometimes it doesn’t even make it back!) with inconsistencies and errors. Office staff work hours trying to make it right, then even more hours are spent keying data in to multiple systems to ensure everything such as payroll, service tracking, liability protection, etc., is happening appropriately.

Here is a look at three of the biggest paperless technologies that our company relies on for efficient snow and ice operations.

Mobile crew logs: Timesheets on steroids
One of our biggest motivations to go paperless was to reduce time (and inaccuracies) in processing timesheets and payroll. Crews clocked in/out upon arrival and departure, but there were frequent gaps in punch clock times vs. shift log times. Hundreds of hours were spent transferring data from paper to spread sheet, and sorting out inconsistencies on the fly. A field-based tracking solution provides real-time reporting, requiring crew members to input data on their cell phones while at the job site. GPS location data helps with scheduling, and site-specific reminders can be added. Field service software has quickly become an essential management tool, as data can be connected to your accounting system for payroll and billing, and allows you to compare the job estimate with the actual cost. The frustration and inaccuracies associated with paper timesheets lead me to create my own field service software now available within the suite of LMN products. Other mobile tracking solutions to investigate include: Exak Time, Crew Tracker, Hindsite and TSheets. Our experience is that crews fill out the logs correctly because their paycheques depend on the data!    

Cloud drives: Accessible and current information
Years ago, all our snow trucks carried binders for information. In these binders we’d have street maps, site maps, phone numbers, checklists, maps to salt locations, maps to repair information, health and safety policies and much more. New maps, special notes and instructions, revisions etc. were issued, but only 50 per cent of that information ever seemed to find its right place back in the binder. Affordable “cloud” drives meant the end of our snow binders. Google Drive, Microsoft’s One Drive, Apple’s iCloud, and other offerings like Dropbox, Amazon’s EC2, and Box OneCloud all have easy to setup/use cloud storage that shares information, in real time, with field operations. Our cloud drives organize all our operations by type (snow, construction etc.), then by route, then by specific site. If a driver needs any information about a specific route or site, its all available via his smart phone. Cloud drives are especially handy for storing: Staff contact info; supplier addresses, phone numbers, hours of operation; site maps and images; quality control checklists (site checklists, end-of-shift checklists; equipment manuals; training videos; policies, procedures, safety information, MSDS sheets.

Online forms: Live, structured communication
One of the most useful features of Google Drive for our snow and ice operations has been the mobile forms. We easily created forms for  Equipment Repair Request, Damage Report, End of Shift Checklist and more. Staff complete the form on their phone, and answers are stored in a Google Drive spreadsheet. You can also enable email notifications when an important/time-sensitive form (such as a repair request) is submitted. photo here Example site map, easily accessed via a cloud drive, showing approved plowing locations (light blue), snow pile locations (dark blue), and approved walkways for clearing. Online forms: Live, structured field-to-office communications Forms and checklists are key to any systemized operation, but online forms make information available instantly, in real time, rather than hours later when paperwork gets handed in. Even more importantly, online forms use validation to prevent errors/missing information before they occur.

Paperwork is only as good as the person filling it out. Data can be left blank or filled out incorrectly. None of this is checked until the paperwork is turned in, then administrators spend hours sorting out the inconsistencies. This can be (largely) avoided with online forms. All information can be validated to ensure completeness/accuracy before its turned in.

Behind the scenes, online forms give you a permanent, written record of all the responses for every form. This can save hundreds of data entry hours. You can also get instant email notifications of important events sent to anyone who needs to know. Examples of online forms can be found at GoFormz, Google Forms, Wufoo, Formstack, Zoho Creator.  

Mark Bradley is president of TBG Landscape and the Landscape Management Network (LMN), based in Ontario.