Little Boxes – a blog of two halves

The boxes you see below were a feature of all repairs services throughout the country in the last decade. As it happens, the photo was taken earlier this year, proving that they are alive and well in many services.

resource scheduler

Each operative in the repairs service had a box. Inside each box you would find the job sheets batched together, to make a day’s work for that person. Each repair was a nice, neat box too. Each one allocated an hour of time to fit nicely into the 9 hour day our operatives worked. 9 hours, 9 standard, job-shaped boxes.

Except in times of high demand, where we would cram 12 of the hour-size boxes into the 9 hour framework, somehow expecting our people to speed up by one third, or hoping that we would turn up at a time that was sufficiently inconvenient, so as to miss the customer and fast-forward to the next job.

Apart from the obvious stupidity, there is one, blinding problem with this type of system. The company needs repairs to be nice, standard, box-shaped jobs that fit perfectly into their capacity for work. How else could you plan the day?

The trouble is, the actual repair work is decidedly not box-shaped. It is nobbly, irregular and spiky. It doesn’t fit neatly into the regular boxes because, guess what, repairs contain many variables that mean they don’t all take an hour. The very same task will take significantly different amounts of time in different properties, because joints are too tight; leaks are difficult to trace; furniture needs to be moved; the boiler was fitted in a location that doesn’t allow easy access; the root cause can only be arrived at by discounting several other options; changing one part means that another then needs replacing; the customer is lonely and wants to chat; we need to go shopping for parts that aren’t in our van stock.

Variation in repairs work is endless, but that really does not suit the repairs company. If we stay and trace the leak properly at job one, then jobs 2 to 9 already allocated to that operative are suddenly under pressure. So what happens? We make excuses to put the job off. We say we need parts or a second operative with specialist skills. We deliberately miss later jobs to make up time on our schedule. We work too fast and make do rather than repair properly.

We let the customer down.


Repairs operatives in the social housing sector leave “sorry we missed you” cards in up to a 1/3 of jobs attended. Really.

Good news then, this low-tech solution has been largely superseded by shiny new IT systems that schedule jobs for us. That must be way better, mustn’t it? Sophisticated mapping techniques plan the work so that each operative has a much better travel schedule between jobs and a circular route means they end up near home.

But hold on a minute. The new technology optimises routes to help who? In theory, the trades person is rewarded with a better route and a swift return home and the company wins by having the operative spend more time fixing and less time driving.

Just a small point, but what has this actually done to improve the service for the customer?

The inherent problem is that the new planning systems have virtualised the old boxes. The systems still plan out work based on standard repair times and guess what? The actual repairs still don’t fit the straitjacket. The same excuses still have to be made, to put the job off to a second visit and avoid disrupting the day’s schedule. The customer still doesn’t get what they want; a first time fix at a time convenient to them.

In fact, the new wave of repairs scheduling software has simply ensured that tradespeople get to each “no access” visit more quickly and efficiently. In my experience, they have done nothing to meet the actual purpose of the service; a first time fix at a convenient time. What an advance!

As things stand, too many repairs services rely on the flexibility of the customer to fit in with the standard boxes, whereas the customer wants flexible appointments to fit in with their lives. This actively brings the repairs provider into conflict with their customers.

So what’s the answer? There is a better way to schedule repairs that actually takes account of what the customer wants and allows them to book an exact appointment time of their own choosing. It also absorbs variety in scheduling and allows the operative as much time as they need to complete the right repair. I’ll explain how in part 2 of this blog, to follow shortly.


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