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Tips to Run a More Efficient Fleet

By Mike Henstridge

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

If the fleet is running smoothly, numbers look strong, drivers and managers are satisfied, and the fleet manager is well-liked, why would they want to do something that rocks the boat?

It’s easy for a fleet manager to slip into a comfort zone. Fleet managers should constantly be looking for ways to shake things up, to discover better ways to do things, be creative and innovative, regardless of whether the result is something that goes against the company norm.

We all become comfortable with routine personally and professionally and fleet managers are no exception. Consider a large fleet, for instance. One that has a few hundred vehicles which are leased to a fleet management company (FMC) handling maintenance and accident management, along with a fuel card.

It’s a very smooth operation. Drivers know the policies and adhere to them; the fleet manager has a single source for programs and services, with a single point of contact. Why would the fleet manager decide to upset a fleet operation practically on cruise control? Because single sourcing for convenience sake isn’t always the most cost-efficient way to go.

But, what about using multiple vendors when unbundling? Won’t that add significant administrative and clerical costs? Separate billings? What about getting data into the FMCs’ fleet system for reporting? Yes, these are issues to take into consideration; however, it is usually the comfort and convenience of single sourcing that keeps fleet managers from going against their instincts and looking at alternatives.

Downsizing Fleet Size

Fleet vehicles should be downsized when that can be done effectively. But, the counterintuitive step here is downsizing the number of vehicles in the fleet. What fleet manager wants fewer vehicles and a smaller fleet? Won’t that diminish the volume incentives suppliers provide? Isn’t there the possibility the fleet manager will downsize him or herself out of a job?

In an extreme case, yes, but here we’re talking about inventory management and vehicle assignment. Fleets with hundreds or thousands of vehicles inevitably have more vehicles than they should. This might include surplus vehicles, which branches and other field locations may keep in service for pool use. These and other situations swell the vehicle inventory and inflate fleet costs.

Whether it is part of the fleet operation, nearly every company has a reimbursement option, for employees who may occasionally drive on business. Though the word “reimbursement” often causes fleet managers to cringe in fear or anger, using reimbursement to help ultimately reduce costs is good management. This is not an alternative for having legitimate company vehicles. It has been proven that providing company vehicles is less expensive and far more reliable than reimbursing drivers who use personal vehicles for business use. There is also the image problem that reimbursement carries. The fleet managers who shy away from using reimbursement miss out on a great opportunity to reduce costs. Senior management will recognize efforts by the fleet manager that are clearly geared towards the best interests of the company which could lead to career advancement.

Don’t Become Indispensable

Everyone wants to exhibit the highest level of competence and expertise. Who doesn’t wish to be recognized as an expert in the field? Running a fleet of vehicles requires a unique set of skills and experience, and successful fleet managers make certain that management recognizes their performance.

It is tempting for a fleet manager to seek ways to be seen as the only one in the company who can do the job. After all, what employees in their right mind would want management to think that they can be replaced? Answer: a smart one.

The counterintuitive strategy would be to avoid becoming indispensable. Being indispensable is one of the best ways to block career advancement. Many fleet managers hate delegating responsibilities to staff, and/or training staff to be ready to step into the job. When that happens, and when a job or promotion opens up that the fleet manager wants, being indispensable as a fleet manager can limit their consideration for the position.

Remember the Customer

In many companies, managers are told to serve “internal customers.” In the case of the fleet manager, this means drivers and those in the driver function. Because it is the driver who uses the end product of fleet management. And, much of what a fleet manager does is geared toward achieving what senior management wants to achieve.

The legendary Jack Welch of GE, once said, “hierarchies are places where everyone has their face toward the CEO and their ass toward the customer.”

There is a lot of truth in that crude observation. Fleet managers spend quite a bit of time trying to please senior management. Innovation and value do not flow from the top down, and, not from the bottom up, either. It flows from the outside in.

The point? Include external customers in the vehicle selection process? Completely counterintuitive, sure, but who would know better how your company can serve customers than the customers themselves?

This holds particularly true for truck fleets where external customers know what product and parts your company’s drivers must have available when they come to install or service a product. Rather than facing up the hierarchy, face the customer as Welch recommends and you may be surprised at how much their input can help.

Embrace Risk

Within most large companies, there is a great deal of finger pointing when things go wrong. The end result being timid management, managers who fear to make decisions altogether.

Fleet managers who do this, rarely get far in their careers. They become complacent and comfortable. They outsource as much as possible, even if there are more cost-effective alternatives; that way, when things go wrong a finger can be pointed at the supplier.

There are a ton of quotes and adages about this flaw, for example, “if you never fail, it’s because you never tried.” Change nearly always entails risk; when something is done differently there is always the possibility that it won’t work. Fleet managers are frequently faced with such decisions. Taking risks isn’t an all or nothing thing. Risk can be managed, but not taking risks at all will eventually be noticed by senior management. Cost-reduction and management efforts will eventually hit the law of diminishing returns. Taking risks and properly managing them can open up new sources of savings and new paths for career advancement.

Be Bold

It is intuitive for fleet managers to want larger fleets, to prefer a comfortable situation with suppliers carrying much of the day-to-day load, and to avoid risk taking. There are intuitive steps that relate directly to the fleet, and others related to effective management, such as making oneself indispensable to the job in order to remain “safe.”

But, the business world is chock full of intuitive managers, and a distinct lack of those who go against the grain in their efforts to be successful. There is, however, a difference between being counterintuitive and being reckless. Managing a fleet can end up being repetitive and less than stimulating unless the fleet manager is bold in decision making and willing to act counterintuitively when it can lead to greater success.