During the 1960s, British Airways' predecessor, BOAC, could fly you London to New York economy for £140. Adjusted to today's values that equates to a ticket cost of £884. Today, BA will fly you on the same journey for £388. The accident rate for air travel represents one fatality per million flights. Despite the rapid and constant growth in air traffic, accident rates have been reduced by over 50 per cent during the past 20 years.1 Quality doubled, price halved.
We are all familiar with such quality and cost of service economic trends. Whether seeking medical aid, hiring a car or using a public washroom, we regularly expect an improving service at a lower cost.
Very few service providers have been able to avoid the contemporary demand for a heavily customer-focused approach to service delivery. Those that have succeeded in resisting the market trend have tended to possess some sort of business 'mystique'. This mystique is a powerful tool for maintaining high service charges. It is founded on a perception of the provider knowing much more than the customer, a situation where the customer finds it almost impossible to write their own service specification or service level agreement (SLA). The SLA knowledge gap between, say, a lawyer or undertaker and a customer is usually large - and easily capable of being exploitatively widened.
A common perception of property owners is that maintenance costs are constantly rising. This is a difficult belief to refute as the industry's own records for comparative 'apples for apples' benchmark costings are relatively short-lived and inconsistent. The technology of property construction and building services design has, over the last 20 years, leapt forward. This has provided plenty of justification for those who would argue that historic maintenance costs are incomparable to today's statistics for 'advanced' buildings. This cuts little ice with the critical customer, who has seen similar improvements within most other business areas.
It is estimated that the UK contracted out property and facilities maintenance business is worth in excess of £3 billion per annum and employs more than 20,000 people. The majority of the work undertaken by this maintenance army is substantially peripheral or rudimentary - in maintenance technology terms: driving to customer premises, checking in, checking out, recording work. The percentage of delivered hands-on maintenance work to charge time is strikingly low.
Most maintenance programmes are calendar-driven. Plant is maintained irrespective of use or need, 'just in case'. Cleaning plant - a major maintenance element - is driven by visual inspection or the calendar. Properly considered, situation appraised, planned preventative maintenance (PPM) programmes remain the exception not the norm for most properties. Maintenance directives remain driven more by manufacturers' wishes than customer needs.
For most property owners, the feel of service received from the maintenance industry is short of that found elsewhere in business.
Is this the consequence of a Luddite industry comfortably shielded in mystical techno territory - safely remote from its customer's understanding, resisting innovation, concealing antiquated service approaches and avoiding economic transparency? Or is it an industry struggling to master resources and service buildings, plant and systems of rocketing sophistication? Certainly the maintenance industry does not carry the allure or rewards to naturally attract the most highly skilled engineers and technicians. It is likely to be more exciting and better paid to design, build or install a new installation in six months than routinely maintain it for 12 years. To change that perception, and the reward system, will require a value raising exercise on both sides of the equation.
Most commercial property is nowadays fitted with some type of building management system (BMS). These systems provide a wealth of data and consequential information as to the health and functionality of the equipment and environment within a property. With Web technology, these BMSs provide a cheap and powerful remote diagnostics tool. However, just like the suite of Microsoft Office programmes or the functionality of modern telephone systems, the vast majority of the capabilities are never engaged.
Plant 'run rate' records, as easily recorded by BMS systems, are rarely used for lubrication, seal checks, parts replacement or the host of other so-called 'minor expenses' incurred by maintenance. Is this in the interest of the industry or the customer? We take it for granted that mid-range car dashboard systems compute driving conditions and elapsed mileage and so now tell us when maintenance is due for the car - why not so with buildings?
A few technically simple enhancements to a basic BMS can add even more significant plant monitoring capabilities to a system and so deliver lower customer costs plus greater plant reliability. Simple temperature and vibration sensors, if fitted to mechanical and electrical plant, can report on equipment health as readily as the functionality messages we take for granted on the displays of fax and photocopier machines. More operating condition data is often provided for a £300 fax or printer than a £300,000 pumping system. Dust particle detectors can sense the presence and build-up of dirt without a technician needing to visit a remote plant room. All of these simple, proven technology devices can now be wireless and Web-enabled. The cost of 'wiring things up' is no longer an issue or restraint. The major decider is - does the maintenance industry wish to promote and engage with such a fresh customer-focused, technologically engaged opportunity?
The signs to date are not encouraging. It does appear as though the industry generally prefers the comfortable, labour-intensive, reactive style of business, not the technology-driven, proactively just-in-time approach of so many other successful enterprises.
The opportunities now open to maintenance service providers and customers alike are enormous. We customers admire skill and technology and are willing to pay properly for them. We begrudge lethargy and exploitation. The technology of new building control systems plus society's recognition of environmental and sustainability issues and the cheap availability of Web processes have opened up a new chapter of maintenance opportunity.
The industry can afford to discard opaque processes and join the best of the service sector in providing better value, customer-focused service.
About the author
John Weston is Managing Director of Aldwyns Ltd, a specialist maintenance specification and purchasing consulting group. Aldwyns specialises in the management of critical infrastructures. John is also a director of an international data centre owner-operator organisation. Please visit www.aldwyns.com
1. The International Air Transport Association.
Building & Maintenance
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