The DISH service fleet is a ubiquitous part of the telecommunication company’s brand. It is also a key component in the company’s corporate goals.
“We have the ability to be in any customer’s driveway today across the nation. In order to do that, we have to have a reliable fleet that is the right size and has the right resources,” said Brian Nickelson, director of operations, finance for DISH. “In a lot of ways, we look at what is the higher cost resource, and that’s labor. So, with labor as the higher cost resource, we put a little bit more flexibility in our fleet, so we can get our more expensive resource to the customer’s home at the right time and the right place.”
Standardizing the Fleet
To effectively manage the nationally dispersed fleet of 4,700 vehicles — from DISH headquarters in Englewood, Colo. — Nickelson said that every aspect of the fleet is standardized from the way vehicles are upfit to the uniforms the drivers wear.
“If I go to an office in New York, I can look in the back of the van and know where everything is supposed to be, and if it isn’t, what’s wrong. It comes down to the efficiency that comes from standardization,” he said.
Standardization is important in effectively running the nationally dispersed fleet. This is particularly true when dealing with unexpected variables, according to Fleet and Administration Manager Abe Stephenson, who pointed to the recent spate of bad weather on the East Coast as an example of the ease with which local managers benefited from standardized practices while also improvising when needed.
“If there’s bad weather or somebody can’t get into the office or somebody has to use a different vehicle, you’re not going to have to spend any additional time figuring out where something is in the vehicle. We give a lot of credit to our general managers out in the field and how they respond and react and manage their local processes accompanied by the input they receive from the corporate office, and we absolutely rely on our operations folks to be experts on the variables in their area” he said.
The fleet culture, particularly the focus on standardization, is driven from the top down, according to Stephenson. “Our focus on standardizing the DISH fleet, as with all the components of our business, is consistent with the vision of our executive vice president, Erik Carlson, for creating a common experience for both our customers and our employees,” he said.
DISH’s fleet is relatively standardized itself, made up primarily of GM cargo vans (85 percent) and pickups (15 percent). The latter are mainly 4x4 heavy-duty pickups used in off-road or heavy snow conditions.
The reason for GM fleet makeup is simple, according to Stephenson. “Typically, we look at fuel economy as the primary purchase reason. The primary budget line for us is fuel, so we’ll make decisions about vehicles based on small differences in fuel economy, which is usually the decision point,” he said. “Quite frankly, the OEMs historically have given us very similar choices. It is economics; we do look at maintenance and lifecycle cost, but it really has been fuel that has flipped the decision either way.”
However, this may change in the future due to improvements in fuel economy by other OEMs, particularly with the introduction of the new Euro-style vans.
DISH leases its vehicles through GE Capital Fleet Services. The FMC provides the fleet with a number of services, including fuel and maintenance management, and registration services.
In addition, Stephenson and Nickelson oversee a staff of six in-office fleet employees.
Preparing for Peak Efficiency
To be better prepared for peak demand, DISH strategically “overfleets.”
“The strategy behind that is customer focused. We know that there are certain times of the year or month, even days of the week that we’re going to have more demand from customers, so we’ve built our technician force to have some flexibility — to flex up in some of those times and flex down in others, and we work in partnership with our employees to get out during those times. When we ran tighter on our fleet , we looked at the cost-benefit of what should we have in our fleet in those times and how many extra vans we should have sitting around, so in those busy times we have enough vehicles to meet those demands,” Nickelson said.
The company averages about 30 vehicles per office, according to Stephenson. “It’s not a one-to-one match with drivers and vehicles. We have a small percentage of drivers who take their vehicles home at night. We’re very much a pooled fleet,” he explained. “That helps us keep our total fleet numbers lower, but you have to be careful about the calculations. We will staff vehicles to peak days of the week, but on Sunday, for instance, you’re not going to need all of your vehicles.”
Through its upfitter, Leggett & Platt, DISH maintains a bailment vehicle pool, which, Stephenson said, is a key part of the company’s day-to-day operations, and is currently the only way it onroad’s vehicles.
“We have the benefit that we only use a few vehicle types, so they all look the same, and have similar upfits. We’ll order them ahead of time, wrap them, upfit them, and stage them for when we need them. On a weekly basis, we’ll have offices that we need to push out one or two vehicles at a time,” said Stephenson. “Instead of having a four- to six-month vehicle ordering process, we’ll be getting vehicles out anywhere from two to six weeks, and that matches up very well when an office hires somebody and needs to train them; they’re ready when the technician is ready to go into the field. We order fluidly throughout the year. We don’t do batch ordering. We have a large enough fleet and a reasonable amount of vehicle turnover, so we can stock vans mid-stream.”
The bailment pool has also allowed DISH to respond to spikes in business in different regions, moving those vehicles to help cover the spike and then getting reabsorbed once it’s over.[PAGEBREAK]
Greening the Fleet
DISH’s fleet is also contributing to the company’s various sustainability goals and projects, providing branding for these projects internally and externally. The fleet has introduced propane-autogas vans to the vehicle mix. Currently, there are 200 propane autogas vans at 10 DISH offices in five major markets.
Stephenson said the company looked at a number of alternative-fuel options, including compressed natural gas (CNG), and hybrid- and battery-electric vehicles, but propane autogas proved to be the best option.
“Propane autogas rose to the top of the list as the best fit from a cost viewpoint, environmental sustainability, as well as operational impacts,” he said.
While the alt-fuel vehicles have a number of sustainability benefits, in certain markets, they have been a boon to efficiency and cost savings, because of state tax rebates and the ability to use high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, reducing time in traffic. Stephenson said, that he’s still doing analysis about the savings the fleet is seeing from using HOV lanes.
The offices that are running propane-autogas vans have onsite fueling, which allows the fleet to spend about one-twentieth of what it would for a comparable CNG fueling operation.
Another way the DISH fleet has both reduced its carbon footprint and improved its bottom line has been by carefully calibrating the fleet vehicles’ engines, reducing idling, and controlling fuel usage, which has saved the fleet $2 million in fuel spend or the equivalent of removing about 300 vans from the fleet.
One of the outside partners DISH has turned to help become sustainable is SCT Fleet Solutions, which has helped reduce fuel consumption and emissions. According to SCT, it has helped increase DISH’s fuel efficency by more than 7 percent.
“Our goal right now is to continue to understand what alternative fuel is best for our fleet. Every solution provides a benefit compared to traditional gasoline, so we’re continuing to look at our current options and future options and are certainly open to experimentation if it’s going to help us save us money and is environmentally friendly, and is good for how our customers and employees view us. A part of this is getting the kind of operational hindsight to determine what’s going to work best for us,” Stephenson said.
Technology, including GPS, is also being used by drivers to be more efficient and has also aided in the goal of operating a more sustainable fleet.
“We used to be a manual, paper-based dispatching company years ago, and now we’ve contracted with a number of software companies that not only help us efficiently route our jobs based on route miles or the most efficient mileage, but we also have a very integrated system that tracks the efficiency of each technician; how long it typically takes them to do their jobs based on their skillsets. Not only does that workforce system assign jobs on efficiency of routes, but actually what can optimize completing those jobs in the shortest period of time by allocating the right people to the right job. When we first instituted that program, in the first year or two we saw a 10 percent reduction in miles per job. That helps drive down fuel costs,” Stephenson explained.
The technicians are also outfitted with handheld computers that can help them complete job transactions.
Branding the Fleet
The DISH fleet is a big part of the company’s brand, and Stephenson and Nickelson work hard to make sure that it promotes and reflects the brand. In addition to overseeing branding on the vehicles, Stephenson and Nickelson also are responsible for the overall design of the technicians’ uniforms, including choosing the color schemes and design.
DISH worked closely with Leggett & Platt to develop a branded upfit.
“We spent at least a year doing a deep dive with our folks in the field getting a lot of feedback about how they work out of the vehicle, where should we be storing product that’s most easily accessible, that’s safe for them, and easy for them. For the last couple of years our vehicles have included this upfitting. We’ve included branding in the vehicles, so it’s DISH-specific red upfitting with some additional DISH logos, that really helps. It’s really nice, it helps promote the brand. It’s nicer than the standard gray,” Stephenson said. “We now have standardized layouts all across the country.”
The process also involved DISH technicians, warehouse personnel, regional directors, and top executives in an ultimately successful effort to create an upfit that reflected the real-world working conditions and needs of the technicians and those who supported them, e.g., the warehouse personnel who prepped the vehicles prior to the next day’s shifts.
The collaboration created a synergy that inspired the upfitter’s engineers.
“Leggett & Platt’s engineering team worked closely with us and they were getting very creative, even working in their own garages on their off-hours on our upfit. We were very happy and proud of the final result,” Stephenson said.
The brand may have to undergo a bit of a tweak due to the new generation of Euro-style vans that are currently rolling out on the U.S. market.
“We are working with Legett & Platt to get a spec in there. Some of those changes will include how can we work in and out of the van since we have some extra room. It’s a win for fleet management and a win for operations. For me that’s a big change for service fleets this year,” said Stephenson. “It’s pretty neat to see some new options.”[PAGEBREAK]
Collaborating with Stakeholders
Stephenson and Nickelson have developed strong ties with fleet stakeholders at every level. Stephenson serves on the GE Capital Fleet Services’ Client Advisory Board, Leggett & Platt has been a key partner in the company’s branding efforts, and SCT Fleet Solutions has helped the fleet realize some of its sustainability goals.
But, it’s not only looking to outside stakeholders and partners for help and support, Stephenson and Nickelson have also looked inside the company.
DISH has been operating a fleet council for the past three years consisting of DISH safety, warehouse, engineering, mobility, and fleet personnel.
The group, which also has representatives from each of the company’s six operational regions, meets every other week to discuss new processes and products.
“We use this team to define processes, and to test or pilot anything we’re doing that’s new. The guys in the field are really the customers for the vehicles and this allows them to get skin in the game and create input. We will then take their input and go through a series of reviews and approval processes up through executive management, so everyone is involved. We also integrate marketing and creative services with how we’re going to brand the vehicles and how we can promote our alternative fuel business. You can see over the past two years we’ve had a much higher brand awareness. Our vehicles are very much looked at as part of our branding strategy,” Stephenson said.
Developing a Safe Fleet
Safety is a top-of-mind priority for DISH’s fleet, which has seen a number of improvement over the years due to a series of initiatives.
“Our devices will auto shutoff when the vehicle is moving. You can’t be on the phone, taking calls or sending text messages,” Stephenson said. “We go through driver training programs, driver safety programs, we have a risk management team that does a good job delivering safety messages throughout the year, as well as initial training.”
Stephenson has looked more to technology to help underpin DISH’s safety efforts.
“I look at what has helped driver safety over the years, such as seat belts and air bags. They have done a lot more for driver safety than educating how to drive correctly,” Stephenson added. “We’ve put top speed limiters on our vehicles, we’re investigating right now pretty deep some collision avoidance systems, such as lane departure warnings and forward collision avoidance systems.”
While GPS is an integral part of the fleet’s efficiency initiatives, it’s set up in the vehicles so it won’t cause distractions with a heads up display. “Being able to give technicians a heads up display with audible directions has been a big benefit for us from a safety perspective,” Nickelson said.
In addition to limiting the number of potential injuries vehicle downtime has been significantly reduced.
Coping with Big Data
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing managers in and out of fleet today is the avalanche of data that is gathered day in and day out.
Stephenson admits that he and Nickelson are “flooded” with information daily, and fleet management today is about having data analysis and management skills.
“For us what we’ve been very careful about is how data helps us to understand the degree of issues,” Stephenson said. “One of the things you have to understand with information is how common a problem is this. We’ve seen some things pop up and it only happens to 2 percent or 5 percent of vehicles. We use data to understand what is a trend and not a trend. Data analysis and being really able to farm through data is a skill set companies and their fleets really need.”