School bus fleet maintenance managers face challenges in trying to control costs that continue to rise sometimes as much as four times a year.
Costs are increasing very quickly for tires, emission systems, labor, and many other parts. The maintenance manager can no longer find ways to reduce year over year actual cost or maintain the year over year margin of the total budget relative to transportation operating costs.
In many cases, at the highest district administrative level, costs are measured by general ledger accounting established by how finance wants to code expenses for payment. Then they compare those costs against a one-year old department budget with the higher forces wanting to see lower operating expenses.
Fleet maintenance managers must justify reality with a new generation of mangers who perceive value by measuring charts, graphs, predictions, and cost benchmarking—all in a way to reduce costs or fix the perceived problem on a short-term, cost-cutting basis, without any consideration for performance benchmarking.
Does this sound familiar: A new transportation manager is told that his/her responsibility includes the maintenance department, yet maintenance is not his/her forte—their expertise is organization from behind the desk, assisted by computer programs, and may even include charts on the wall. They have been hired by a school administrator, with similar thought processes who is also driven by numbers, who has been unhappy for years with the condition of the fleet, maintenance facility costs, service disruptions, as well as other missed operational opportunities. So, the new manager’s style and approach is to measure cost—make charts and graphs. His boss is happy because now they both can look at the same reports and both conclude that the costs are too high. They are not meeting the budget so they plan to drive cost out without seeing in real life where the money is being spent, such as the performance upkeep for an aging fleet of school buses with only a sprinkling of new 2018 units within it.
If this can happen you will soon get to a point where no one cares or knows about the needs of the maintenance department, what it’s going to take to keep the bus fleet safe for 12 years of vehicle life, how you are going to do it, or how much money it will really cost?
What truly works though, are the basic simplified methods: A prescribed fleet replacement plan supported by a good maintenance policy, with a defined process and efficient practices. Then an administration add-on of non-burdening “micro-measurement” through charts and graphs is only required to understand the effectiveness of the maintenance process – not control it. If you fix the three “P” basic issues, then the numbers fall into line.
While you must measure, you must also understand each other’s thought process and work jointly—Board, Administration and Transportation. All must work towards the common goal of being the safest and most cost-effective school bus maintenance provider.
Value and understand the fleet manager’s position. They are the one who should manage the cost of life cycle maintenance, not continue to defend the maintenance department by the minute, in lieu of budget cost-reduction efforts.
There is no more room at the top for fleet transportation staff who know how to fix buses but not necessarily how to measure the maintenance process. This is the never-ending challenge: Make the repairs fit the numbers.
Robert Pudlewski is STN’s technical editor with more than 40 years of experience in the school bus industry. He is the retired VP of fleet operations, procurement and maintenance for Laidlaw and is a member of the National School Transportation Association Hall of Fame.