Managing the Financial Side of Commercial Fleets

Become a More Strategic, Less Operational, Fleet Manager

Ringing phones, pages of e-mails, one crisis after another. It’s easy to see how a fleet manager can get bogged down in day-to-day detail. Here are some tips on how to become more strategic-planning and forward-thinking.

January 2010, by Staff

It has been said fleet managers are like the local fireman - spending their days reactively, putting out fires, dealing with crises. The branch manager's registration just expired. A service van just broke down on the way to an important customer. Those 15 new-vehicle orders are pushed ahead to the next model-year. The CEO's replacement vehicle order for a silver exterior with gray interior just arrived in blue with beige seats. All day long, the telephone rings, e-mails pile up, and it seems every moment is spent reacting to a new crisis.

The important fleet management work - strategic planning, forward thinking - is lost. But it doesn't have to be this way. Fleet managers can learn to become less operational and more strategic in both thought and action, and they, as well as the company, will benefit.

How Strategy Differs from Operations

The difference between strategic and operational thinking is similar to the military concepts of strategy and tactics. Senior officers think strategically; they determine the ultimate goals, the "what" rather than the "how." As one moves down the chain of command, the "how" becomes more prevalent.

A similar description can be applied to the difference between thinking and acting strategically versus operationally in a business setting. The primary difference is fleet managers cannot avoid doing both, more so today than ever before. With resources at an extreme premium, the fleet manager with staff is the exception rather than the rule; 25 years ago the reverse was true.

What, then, can be defined as strategic as pertains to fleet management? A decision to downsize the fleet is strategic; choosing which vehicles will accomplish the goal is operational. A plan to "go green" is strategic; how to do so is operational.

Any decision a fleet manager faces regarding the direction the fleet operation will take is strategic, while decisions on how to implement the direction are operational.

This is not to say fleet managers only have time to manage operationally; indeed, with resources and staff at a premium, often they are forced to act as both general and foot soldier. Keep in mind, however, performance generally is based on the "what," and managing strategically is a must.

Managing Time First Step in Working Strategically

The single most important resource any manager has is time. Budgets come and go, staff is provided or taken away, but a manager has only so much time to do the job.

Time management may have become a cliché; however, it is the biggest first step a fleet manager can take toward strategic management. Getting bogged down among the trees is easy, while behind you, the forest is burning. To put it more specifically, become more productive:

  • Come in early, don't stay late. By the end of the day, few employees want anything other than to go home, have dinner, and unwind. Whatever task needs to be done, your full attention won't really be in it after the workday ends. Arrive at the office a few hours early, before the phones start ringing, e-mails start rolling in, and the interruptions of a normal working day begin. The kind of focused, analytical work that is the hallmark of strategic management is done far better in a quiet office early in the morning.
  • Track your activities. For few days, keep a detailed log of exactly what you do, when you do it, and how long it takes. Inevitably, you'll be surprised at how much of the day is wasted by needless, unimportant activity.
  • Set aside time. Schedule a meeting with yourself. You do it for others, why not plan a formal, scheduled time during the day to work on projects and other strategic activities? Knowing exactly what you do each day is the first step toward managing the time to accomplish it. By logging a few days during the week, you'll discover much time is wasted dealing with matters that can better be handled differently or by others.

Delegate Repetitive, Clerical, or Administrative Tasks

Not every fleet manager, particularly today, enjoys the luxury of staff. For those who do, however, delegating authority and responsibility can keep the focus on the strategic. But what tasks to delegate? How can a fleet manager determine what to trust to a subordinate? Here is a start:

  • Is the activity repetitive? A task performed on a regular schedule? If so, it is a good candidate for delegation. Running monthly vehicle cost reports, for example, can be scheduled, automated, and run by anyone in the department.
  • Is the task administrative or clerical in nature? Assisting a driver in renewing a registration, paying a parking ticket, or transferring a vehicle tag aren't strategic processes and can be easily handled by staff.
  • Does the activity involve making a decision? This is a grayer area, since a manager's basic duty is to make decisions. Some decisions should not be delegated, e.g., a driver requests a vehicle or equipment outside of policy or incurs a moving violation and his manager has asked for forbearance from the consequences outlined in fleet policy. If decisions are involved, it is best to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, delegating some to staff, maintaining authority on others.

Clearly, there are tasks and decisions a good manager must not delegate. Most involve decision making, particularly concerning allocating company resources of time, people, and money.

Define your job carefully and delegate any task that does not fit this decision-making description.

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