One of the most significant problems for transportation departments is that they are asked to do too many things with too few resources.
These kinds of demands make it extremely difficult to create both an organizational structure and position descriptions that ensure you can meet the various requirements of transportation management, fleet management, field trips, special trips, and whatever else comes through. However, in order to be an effective and efficient provider of service, we need to create a structure that properly assigns responsibility and accountability for the services that must be provided.
After seeing operations across the United States and Canada I have come to believe that successful organizations are both structured and flexible. Initially, these two ideas seem like opposites. However, the more you experience transportation operations on a daily basis the more you see these principles in action. The structure that a transportation organization requires comes through the combination or policies, organizational structure and job descriptions that define how the operations are supposed to function. Flexibility comes from the tools, technology, and processes that are established to manage daily operations.
In many operations the overriding approach to providing service is to do the same thing we did last year with a little bit of tweaking to reflect students who moved. These kinds of operations frequently have very limited documentation on policies and procedures and it is the long tenure of individuals within the operation that provide guidance on what is allowable and what is not. Routes are often documented in ad hoc ways and there are usually no systems in place to track costs of activities. These kinds of structures can work great in small and even medium sized operations where there is a lot of stability in the student population and/or routing structure and not much changes year over year. This is a genteel way of saying they work until they don't and when they don't they cause big problems for everyone.
How can an organization of any size best prepare itself to be responsive but not be a taxi service? While there is no simple, three easy steps recipe there are some basic principles that have been demonstrated to help. These include:
- Document what you are doing. Policies and procedures seem an annoyance until you can use them to ensure that services are delivered fairly and equitably. No one likes to say "Because that is what the policy says," but having a policy gives you a starting point from which to determine how changes might impact your organization operationally and financially.
- Align your organizational structure. At the STN EXPO this year Bob Young from Boulder Valley School District in Colorado presented on the need to align your organization both to what it is doing and what it is supposed to do. Ensuring you have the right people in the right spots ensures that you can do the research and analytical work necessary to evaluate the impact of all the changes people propose.
- Support your operation. The value of transportation management and fleet management software are now beyond dispute. Multiple performance measurement studies we have conducted have demonstrated that organizations that have software available (just have it without any knowledge on how well they use the software) have lower per student transportation costs than those that do not. The number of options on the market guarantees that there is a product right for every operation.
- Know where you are starting from. A critical question that must be answered each time a change is proposed is whether it is going to result in a "good" or "bad" outcome. Obviously, good or bad is context specific but you should be able to know whether costs will go up or down; ride times will increase or decrease; maintenance costs will increase or decrease; and whether students will be positively or negatively impacted. One place to start is the key performance indicator project sponsored by NAPT and described at the STN EXPO.
Given the uncertainties of the economy, the federal sequester, the implications of the Affordable Care Act and a thousand other details no one in the transportation business should expect their job to get easier. However, if you are going to try to bring some rationality and sanity to the job you need to be increasingly flexible in the financial, operational and intellectual practices of your department. Keep in mind that Gumby's arch enemies were the Blockheads and that has got to mean something.
Jeff Viar is a consultant with School Bus Consultants, LLC, (formerly known as Management Partnership Services) in Annapolis, Md. Jeff is the former director of transportation for Brandywine School District in Delaware. He has worked with districts across North America to address routing efficiency, organizational design and technology use.