Seven of the UK van industry’s brightest minds got together to debate how best to minimise downtime at a special What Van? roundtable event. Guy Bird reports.
The recipe was simple: get a group of UK fleet’s finest light commercial vehicle managers together in a room, feed them thought-provoking questions plus tea, coffee and biscuits, then hear the conversation flow and note the best bits.
The venue just to the north of the M25 ensured a great turnout – the AA, Arval, Lex Autolease, Southern Water Services and more were all in attendance – and the topic on this occasion was how businesses running light commercial vehicles can minimise downtime.
The first discussion brought a calm and reasoned debate about the relative difficulties faced by bigger and smaller fleets in scheduling maintenance based on the different tasks they have to undertake. Mick Cook, senior fleet engineer at Babcock Emergency Services, acknowledged as much. “It can be done in the night if you’re a big player,” he began. “Maybe it’s harder for smaller players, but the vehicles’ systems can help” (i.e. when a warning light goes on to indicate a service required).
Steve Hobbs, transport & legal compliance director at BML Utility Contractors, has fleet demands that have seen him adopt an in-house approach to minimise downtime: “It’s cheaper for us to do our own servicing. As our vehicle engines are on all the time the service light comes on way before mileage limits are reached.”
For other fleets with relatively local beats, like Public Sewer Services, additional vans waiting in the wings is another solution. As its transport & accreditation manager John Moran put it: “We have spare vans and are only Essex-based, so our drivers are never too far from us.”
The AA’s new business development manager, Dean Hedger, pointed out that how well your fleet is able to cope with these scenarios can depend on how utilised your fleet is. “If you’re pretty much at maximum utilisation, dropping one vehicle will have a big impact,” he said.
“But the type of vehicle is relevant too: if it’s a standard one then it’s quite easy to get something to replace it, but if it’s a bit more specialist, that’s when it can cause jams.”
Eddie Parker, product manager at LCV Arval, considered the original question by breaking it down. “Let’s look at those three key words: ‘mobile’, ‘inevitability’ and ‘downtime’,” he begun thoughtfully. “Does the driver always need to be mobile? And if downtime is inevitable, let’s make downtime as small as possible. That goes down to planning, regular maintenance and driver education.
Downtime doesn’t necessarily have to have an impact on the business if [the vehicle is] driven by someone who is knowledgeable about the vehicle and its safety and maintenance. Driver education is key. I’m sure all the people round this room have had experience of drivers who will do everything in their power to destroy a van if they don’t like it. ‘Wrong badge’, ‘Not what I wanted’, etc.”
“That’s where driver training comes in,” interjected Andy Hill, commercial vehicle manager at Lex Autolease. But which approach is best: carrot or stick? For Arval’s Parker the ‘stick’ can be useful, especially when it has a financial element. “When you explain the implications to their wallets and future insurance,” he says with a wry smile, “they take note, and suddenly become very interested.” From Hobbs’ perspective at BML some ‘carrot’ helps too, though: “We’ve tried the stick approach but now use incentives. The best driver of the month might win £100 to take his wife out for dinner.”
To be fair to Parker, he too saw the benefit of some ‘carrot’. “I saw two accidents this morning that came as a result of a lack of driver training,” he said. “So it’s about encouraging the professional nature of van driving, seeing who is receptive. It’s also about understanding where accidents happen. We have a client who suffered a plethora of accidents inside car parks, not in reversing but when the vehicle was stationary, and by people manoeuvring around car parks and impacting with their vehicle. So by putting £50-worth of hi-vis fluorescent tape on the extremities of our client’s vehicles we cut that by 20%.”