A best practice approach to transitioning from manual to automatic scheduling

By John Cameron, general manager, Trimble Field Service Management.

Field service companies of all sizes will be at different stages in their scheduling journey. Some will be very experienced with using scheduling automation whilst others are still using manual, paper-based systems to schedule work. Surprisingly, there are many field service businesses out there today that are still at the manual stage and looking to automate their processes for the first time.

With so many advanced scheduling solutions on the market today, it can be a daunting task knowing what type of technology and level of sophistication would be the best fit for a business, as well as how to tackle challenges around change management.

According to Aberdeen Group, 44 per cent of field service managers regard planning and scheduling to be the greatest opportunity for investment. The benefits realized by fully automatic scheduling and optimisation tools are undeniable; allowing the scheduling algorithms to automatically manage resources in the most efficient way not only improves productivity but allows the dispatcher to concentrate on other, more valuable tasks.

However, the change from paper to automatic scheduling is a jump too far for many. A stepped approach or journey is a more sustainable way to manage the business change and ensure that a field service business achieves its primary objective – getting the right technician to the right place at the right time with the tools to do the job, first time.

The following article explains the various scheduling strategies as steps, allowing businesses to select the stage that best describes its current operation and identify the goal for its future scheduling needs.


A dispatcher can typically manage 15-20 technicians via a paper based system. Whilst many service organizations still use paper-based processes today, this is field service scheduling at the simplest level and it can quickly start to fail when volume, complexity or volatility increases.
Often a day's schedule is forced to change, due to such circumstances as a new high priority service request comes in, a job overruns or a technician gets caught in traffic and arrives late. When circumstances like this happen it becomes very difficult to reconfigure the schedule for the rest of the day, given the number of dependencies, geographic distances and demands of each individual piece of work.

Manual Scheduling

Manual scheduling is characterized by 'drag and drop' features whereby a dispatcher can easily drag and drop work orders and tasks onto technicians' calendars and dispatch work out to them electronically. Typically the system will do some automatic checks once the task is dropped. For example, to check if the technician allocated to a job has the skills to complete it. Manual scheduling offers a more automated and predictive solution to a paper-based system, helping businesses to save time and improve accuracy.

However, as human intervention is heavily involved, it can prove difficult to manage complex scheduling processes via this system.

Intelligent Advisor

A Semi-Automatic scheduling service is invoked by a user, to start an automated process. Although this scheduling system is automatic, it still requires some level of human interaction, which is something few vendors provide yet many businesses prefer as it allows them to maintain some level of control and trust.

Having decision making tools built in to a scheduler can also help to alleviate a lot of headaches experienced by a field service manager. For large field operations, emergency jobs often come in that need to be added to the day's schedule so having a tool that advises on the impact of what adding this job in will have before it is assigned can help to prevent the de-railing of a field service operation. Often known as a 'what-if' tool or an 'intelligent advisor', such a feature allows dispatchers to make quick, informed decisions to keep the best possible quality of the schedule.

For these reasons, transiting from a manual to semi-automatic system is recommended instead of diving head first into a fully automatic process.

Automatic Scheduling & Real-Time Optimization

Some companies may not have the time or resources to drag and drop work orders into manual and semi-automatic systems and check all the details. It can also prove difficult to keep on top of scheduling all of the in-day emergency tasks. Fully automatic scheduling takes the intuitive nature of automated scheduling even further. Such a tool quickly and easily builds schedules automatically and dispatches work to technicians out in the field based on pre-defined parameters. The process completely eliminates manual intervention.

A Case in Point: Pacific Telemanagement Services (PTS)

PTS achieved a 95% job completion rate and 75% productivity increase transitioning from manual to automated scheduling.

The company operates a fleet of 90 mobile workers who service pay phones and pay internet kiosks, as well as perform freezer cleaning and maintenance for their ice cream distribution company, Arctic Express. Until recently, it was using a manual scheduling process to assign tasks each day, which lacked efficiency and productivity suffered as a result.

"We used to just throw a group of tickets at our technicians in an assigned region to see what they could get done in a day. Each morning they would print out a list of their tasks, then spend a half hour planning routes based on their own knowledge of the area. We saw that this way was not always most efficient," said Justin Keane, Chief Operating Officer of PTS.

The company tried using a map feature to sequence the stops but this took an hour a day for each regional hub, and as they manage 8 regional hubs, it took 8 hours a day to build the routes.

PTS implemented Trimble's cloud-based scheduling solution to help it improve the efficiency of its scheduling process and raise the productivity level of its workers. By transitioning from manual to semi - automatic scheduling, PTS has been able to cut 3 hours a day spent on routing per dispatcher to about 45 minutes a day — a productivity saving of 75%, or about 9 hours per week. Furthermore, technicians no longer have to plan their own routes, saving an additional 90 hours per week of their time so that they can spend it on completing more jobs per day.

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