The days of the 9-5 workday are gone. Cell phones and the Internet have made fleet management a 24/7 job.
Today's fleet managers are told to do more with less, and to do it more quickly and accurately. The pressure can become nearly unbearable. More than ever before, managing precious work hours can help those 24-hour workdays shrink enough to allow more time with friends, family, and pastimes.
Fleet management is not a structured discipline. Yes, there is planning, forecasting, and other regularly scheduled requirements, but much of the daily activity of the fleet manager is reactive. Once logged onto e-mail, once the phones begin to ring, the fleet manager's day is one of "putting out fires," reacting to crises, and responding to inquiries.
This kind of unscheduled activity can make the day fly by with the fleet manager feeling as though little or nothing has been accomplished. Fortunately, tools are available today that can go a long way toward replacing that lost staff and helping fleet managers keep tabs on their activities.
The first thing any good manager does in managing the day's allotment of working hours is to prioritize activities, beginning at the top. Activity that requires interaction, including reporting, meetings, communications, follow-ups, and approvals, with senior management should come first on the list. Senior managers are vital to a fleet manager in getting things done and approved, and obtaining support to properly manage the fleet. Any activity involving them must be given top priority.
Every driver who calls or e-mails with a problem believes their message is the most critical. The fleet manager must determine which get immediate attention, which can wait for later in the day, and which can be handled another day.
The first question in prioritizing driver requests should be, "If I don't respond immediately, will the driver be unable to conduct company business?"
Breakdowns, expired registrations (which can result in citations, expense, and downtime), accidents, and other true emergencies require immediate attention. A driver with a policy question or one looking for help in selecting a new vehicle can wait until immediate driver needs are met. Overall, creating and sticking to priorities can help keep the day flowing smoothly.
Finally, make certain stakeholders are aware of the priority of various events.
Don't Put it Off
Some things are more difficult, unpleasant, or complex than others. Procrastination is a time killer. Use developed priorities to allot time for important activities, difficult as they may be.
Unfortunately, senior managers can be well known for sending e-mails off-the-cuff, based on something read or heard, and demanding to know how it might apply to the fleet. One fleet manager tells of a supervisor who, upon viewing a televised story about a vehicle's replacement value — the total cost of replacing every individual part in a car — far exceeding the vehicle's original value. The supervisor asked the fleet manager why the company, rather than disposing of vehicles on the used-car market, wasn't selling the units to junkyards, which would pay far more for the amalgam of individual parts.
A ridiculous question? Of course. But once asked, an answer is required, and putting it off isn't an option. When faced with such inquiries, or other equally odd questions or requests for information, get to it, compose an answer, and dispatch it.
Every fleet manager has dealt with the IT department and knows IT staff has its project "queue" into which all requests must go. This is a good way not only to help create priorities, but track progress and assign responsibilities and follow-up.
This process can be applied not only to specific projects, but other activities as well. The point is a more structured day is a more productive one, provided a level of flexibility exists to handle emergencies, those "fires" that fleet managers must put out every day.
Write it Down (Or Key it In)
Whether using a datebook, PDA, cell phone, or computer, fleet managers can help organize their records by writing down (or keying in) communication that occurs every day. For example, a driver calls in. The call is not a priority, but one that requires follow-up. In the sometimes unorganized chaos of a fleet manager's day, neglecting to write a record of the phone call virtually assures it will be forgotten.
Although more and more communications today are electronic, the telephone is still the primary conduit for communication. E-mail leaves a record, but telephone calls do not, unless the recipient creates one. A telephone log kept next to the phone can be a real timesaver. The date and time of the call is logged, as well as the caller's name and return number. Notes on the subject provide easily accessible information for follow-up. The same holds true for other conversations and communications. [PAGEBREAK]
Keep a Formal Schedule
Whether written in a date book or keyed into a computer or PDA, keeping a formal schedule — and sticking to it — improves productivity immensely. Naturally, events arise to disrupt a formal schedule; however, not keeping one ensures a fleet manager will be scrambling for time to accomplish what's needed. An old-fashioned weekly datebook with time slots can be maintained easily, providing a means to note future follow-ups.
Yes, many fleet managers have no staff at all, but for those who do, delegating authority and tasks might be the best available time management tool. Too many managers feel the need to do everything themselves and loathe to delegate responsibilities to staff. This is a sure-fire way to ensure many late nights and weekends are consumed trying to catch up. The easiest task to delegate is follow-up on inquiries and assisting drivers. Staff should be familiar with fleet policy and procedure. There is no reason the manager needs to be involved in a driver call regarding an expired registration or even a flat tire. E-mails sent directly to the fleet manager can be forwarded to staff who can provide the necessary action. Even those pesky management requests, or at least the "legwork," can be delegated, with the fleet manager reviewing the response and sending it out.
Come in Early, Don't Stay Late
Without a doubt, early morning is the best time complete mundane tasks and work on projects requiring research and concentration. The fleet manager is refreshed, phones aren't ringing yet, and fewer distractions arise. The quiet of early morning is the best work environment, and savvy managers use it to manage priorities and tasks.
Staying late in the office can be counterproductive. Tired after a long day, stressed at the crises that inevitably erupt, and anxious to get home to family or simply to relax, evenings in the office are not conducive to excellent work or to the concentration and focus necessary to productivity.
Get in early, make some coffee or tea, and get to those tasks that the interruptions of normal business hours can make so difficult. You'll be surprised at how effective it is.
Track What is Important
The "80-20" rule is used in many disciplines, from inventory management to managing cash flow and sales. Put simply, 20 percent of some items contain 80 percent of what is important.
Take fleet expense as a good example. The standard categories of fleet expense are fixed expense, which include depreciation, insurance, and lease or finance cost, and variable expenses, including fuel, maintenance/repair, tires, and oil. Fuel (variable) and depreciation (fixed) expense easily make up the vast bulk, likely more than 80 percent, of total fleet costs.
It does not make sense to focus on all categories equally. When a fleet manager's time is full, managing only depreciation and fuel will pay off in the long run.
Of course, expenses such as maintenance and repair are not simply ignored. However, the majority of a fleet manager's cost control efforts should be focused on where they'll reap the greatest benefit. Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is," and fleet managers should take note.
Time spent on managing and reducing fuel or depreciation costs will reap the greatest rewards and fleet managers for whom time is precious should focus accordingly. Manage by exception — it isn't important what's going well, but it is critical to know the problem issues.
Today's technology provides time management tools largely unavailable for fleet managers of the past. Using e-mail rather than written correspondence or even the telephone helps not only to keep communications focused, but also to create a concurrent record unavailable with a phone call.
E-mail systems such as Lotus Notes can be used in scheduling, and "alarms" can be set as reminders as tasks come due. Conference calling and Web casting can bring together in a virtual controlled setting large numbers of people in different locations and time zones. These meetings can be kept on subject with distractions minimized.
Fleet policy can be posted on the company Web site, where drivers can access it quickly and easily for answers that otherwise would trigger e-mails and telephone calls.
Outsourcing can be a frightening word to some fleet managers, but it can help relieve a manager of tasks not requiring direct control. Outsourcing simple, mundane clerical tasks such as order placement, registration renewal, and parking ticket payment can free up valuable time for more important tasks.
A simple rule that can help a fleet manager determine what can, or should, be outsourced: if the task involves allocation of company resources, it is a management responsibility and kept in-house. If the task is repetitive and clerical, pay someone else to do it.