From the first lockdown to the present day, the pandemic and associated health measures are still causing upheaval to installation and maintenance operations on customer premises. Jean-Paul Canonne, Director of strategic projects in Mettler-Toledo’s Service business unit, and Patrick Hourqueig, Tools & Methods Manager at ENGIE Solutions, talk to us about what their organization has done to adapt to the situation, and enable their technicians to complete their assignments.
>> ENGIE Solutions encompasses the B2B energy activities of the ENGIE Group. Its technical teams install, maintain, and inspect very diverse installations – building boiler rooms, industrial site cooling towers, energy cogeneration systems, heating or refrigeration networks… – subject to operating and safety standards.
>> Mettler Toledo is one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of precision scales and weighing and analytical instruments for industry, research and production laboratories, and for business. Its specialist technicians carry out preventive maintenance, repairs and regulatory checks on equipment installed on customers’ premises.
Team safety is paramount
The general lockdown announced on 16 March 2020 took everyone by surprise:
“Nobody expected the lockdown to be on such a scale, said Patrick Hourqueig. The Group’s overriding watchword was to ensure its co-workers’ safety, and especially that of our 7,000 field technicians. That remains the number one priority throughout the company, moreover, and is reiterated every week during the briefings on this health crisis.”
Same priority at Mettler Toledo, which was quick to harness its workplace health and safety bodies and promptly set up a special COVID committee to provide information and answer questions from colleagues and customers alike.
Stocking up on masks and sanitizer
Nobody has forgotten that masks and hydroalcoholic gel, indispensable in combating the virus, were impossible to find in France when the pandemic broke. To find supplies and equip their personnel in this context of shortages, the two companies pulled out all the stops:
“Our operators were given priority treatment for the supply of gel, masks and gloves, with what could be found on the market at that time, said Patrick Hourqueig. The company then took action at national level and brought in a plane to equip us with masks, directly from the production sites.”
“Like everyone else, we experienced a bit of a difficult period, Jean-Paul Canonne recollects. Fortunately, we were able to turn to our factories around the world, especially China for the masks. Thanks to Mettler Toledo’s international network, this worry was soon allayed. Our primary concern regarding field operations when lockdown began was to equip our 180 technicians. All the same, that required us to know their whereabouts so we could send the equipment to them in the right place at a time when all the call-out schedules were topsy-turvy.”
Reorganizing work around customers and resources
At Mettler Toledo and ENGIE Solutions alike, activity planning had to be re-engineered from top to bottom to take account:
- of customers forced to shut down their sites/facilities or unable to receive technicians for planned inspection and maintenance operations. Not all sectors were in the same situation, nor are they still. For example, among the numerous sites where ENGIE Solutions manages the heating installations, schools have reopened, whereas swimming pools, gyms, theaters, and cinemas remain shut. With industrial clients, production was not halted, given that certain facilities need to continue operating regardless.
The food trade, in which Mettler Toledo has many customers, continued in operation, as did the agri-food industries. “But Jean-Paul Canonne explained, as this was a peak period for them, certain industrial concerns asked us to postpone our call-outs. We spent a great deal of time checking which customers we could call on and amending our resources’ schedules accordingly.”
- of technician unavailability, be it because of child-minding responsibilities during the first lockdown or now, because of a “close contact”, they have to isolate for a week. “Overall, I think we have operated with 60% of the usual headcount since the beginning of the crisis, Patrick Hourqueig said. That makes a big difference, and if we have coped, it is also because we had far fewer corrective call-outs to perform because of the number of our clients’ installations that have been shut down.”
The key role of planners and planning tools
Given these changing constraints, it is putting it mildly to say that the planning teams have been working flat out for almost a year to integrate these on-the-fly changes into the schedules, and maintain the highest possible level of activity.
“Fortunately, Jean-Paul Canonne said, the planners who usually work at the head office were immediately able to switch to remote working. Thanks to the Opti-Time Field Service solution, they can operate from home without any IT security problems. To ensure they enjoyed good working conditions, we simply provided them with large screen monitors and all the necessary equipment for video-conferencing meetings.
The ENGIE Solutions scheduling teams also switched to remote working from one day to the next, with secure access to their GEOCONCEPT tool. “The CIO did the necessary and although we encountered a VPN problem on the first day, Microsoft resolved it within half a day, Patrick Hourqueig recollects. At the end of this first day, our schedulers had returned to normal and this has been the same ever since. With remote assistance from the GEOCONCEPT teams, we even managed to run an Opti-Time version upgrade during this complicated period!”
Which activity maintenance strategies?
ENGIE Solutions’ first decision was to take advantage of the closure of certain sites (swimming pools, gyms, schools…) to the public to carry out major maintenance work, work that was running behind schedule, and everything that is difficult to do when these sites are open to the public. Prioritizing the planning of these operations at the beginning of the crisis not only enabled activity to be maintained but also reassured customers that their installations were still being maintained in an operating condition. “This point was very important, explains Patrick Hourqueig. Indeed, one of our fears was that customers whose facilities had been shut down would suspend their maintenance contract, with the consequences you can imagine for our turnover. The technicians really played along by agreeing to work outside their geographical boundaries and on sites that were not part of their typical portfolio. This is what enabled the technicians who were available to have an almost normal workload, and the agencies to continue operating.”
ENGIE Solutions also took advantage of the situation to push e-visits. “Many of our installations are equipped with remote surveillance and IoT. We set up e-visits enabling our technicians to remotely monitor the functioning of the installations for which they are responsible. These e-visits our integrated into their Opti-Time schedule. If we detect any variance from normal operating parameters, we trigger a corrective on-site call-out so that the installation is always maintained in a good operating condition. Customers have been very receptive to this method of 24×7 supervision and this is a favorable time for the system to be adopted by more customers.”
Mettler Toledo is also prioritizing this type of solution: “We have a specialist cell equipped with monitoring and remote-control tools. We have upgraded the security of these IT tools so that technicians can work from home. This activity has progressed significantly since the crisis began and, as it can be extended to other customers, it should continue to increase.”
However, Jean-Paul Canonne stresses that the company has experienced some real downturns in activity: “We have fallen to as low as 40% of our usual technician workforce. This has considerably reduced our call-out capacity, especially as our technicians are hyper specialized and find it hard to step into each other’s shoes. Given these specializations, there have been instances where we did not have enough work to give to certain technicians because their customers had shut. We have also experienced having too many technicians in certain specialties and not enough in others.”
So, has 2020 been a bad year?
In Jean-Paul Canonne’s estimation, when all is said and done, no. “By juggling with the constraints and with lots of goodwill by all concerned, we managed to make up some of the lost ground. Meaning that, once the surprise of the first lockdown had past, we were able to adapt.”
“The first lockdown was the tensest and most complicated period to manage, Patrick Hourqueig acknowledged. But very few customers suspended or cancelled their maintenance contracts. Our technicians have now returned to a virtually normal rhythm of activity: the industrial sites are open, educational establishments as well, unscheduled call-outs are picking up, which means that our scheduling cells are operating at full capacity.”
Both are pleased to have had very few cases of Covid-19 in their teams thanks to the measures taken, to strict compliance with social distancing in the field, and to constant communication with co-workers. While they also recognize that Teams meetings played an essential role throughout this period in organizing and coordinating operations and in staying in touch, neither of them want it to become the norm. “The Teams meetings will continue because they are efficient and save time. Similarly, remote working, which had never previously been considered, is now part of possible working practices for schedulers and other static co-workers. But, in the long run, doing everything remotely without ever meeting one another is not tenable for humans! We all feel the need to meet, concludes Patrick Hourqueig.