Ian Brandwood had 160 000 leaking taps, busted doors and cracked windows to fix, 500 people to fix them, and a nightmare in tracking who did what. IT seemed to be part of the problem; then Brandwood found the solution…
Nottingham City Building Works, the council's direct labour organisation, has increased its turnover from £28m to £31m, thanks to a new software system that allows it to tender more competitively.
And as well as helping the DLO win work, the new system has also saved £120 000 in its first year, a figure that is expected to rise to £211 000 in the future.
When Nottingham City Building Works' head of finance and business support, Ian Brandwood, began to overhaul the way the organisation used IT, he was faced with chaos.
"We had a myriad of computer systems helping us to control work but in reality, they weren't helping at all. And we were paying a lot of money for computer software," he says. "We were spending as much on administering the system as it was benefiting us because of the duplicate data input." One package controlled the jobs completed by each operative; another was for administering the storage of parts; a third was for accounts.
The complexity of the IT system was exacerbated by the fact that Nottingham City Building Works' 500 operatives handle 160 000 jobs a year, are paid on piece-rate, and each job has a different price. The work is mostly repair and maintenance on local authority housing: anything from repairing a leaky tap to replacing doors and windows. The firm also carries out repair and maintenance work for housing associations, schools and a few local authority capital projects.
<B>Putting the system in place</B>
Brandwood wanted a single system that would allow a job to be monitored electronically from start to finish. Introducing it, however, was not easy. First, he had to submit a detailed cost analysis to the council to get authorisation for the estimated £300 000 that it would cost – although, in the end, the bill came to £250 000.
Once funding was in place, Brandwood put an advert in the European Union's Official Journal calling for software firms to submit bids. Two firms were then invited to give a presentation, after which he went to their customer sites to see how the product worked for other companies. "We wanted to make sure it wasn't some sort of vapourware written on a PC by just anyone," he says.
He finally fixed on an integrated package called Uniclass from software company Rocc. The system runs on a Unix system and is networked to three work locations.
"The package takes us from the first ordering of a job to the final invoicing of the client," says Brandwood proudly. The software modules cover administration, security, enquiries, estimating, job costing, stock control, purchasing and pay roll.
<B>How it works</B>
The main benefit of the new system is that it is helping the organisation to expand in spite of having to tender for all its jobs. As Brandwood says: "Turnover has increased because we are able to tender more competitively and we are winning more jobs. The new system has contributed to that." It has done this by accurately calculating costs; and, by making business systems more efficient, it also helps to reduce those costs. For example, when a council tenant calls to report a breakage, the council's housing department can input details of what is to be done. This is then accessed at the council's works depots.
The supervisor at the depot uses the system, which contains a database of operatives with details of their skills and where they are based, to see which workers are available to carry out the job. Materials bought, used and required are also registered for the accounts department to track.
The operative who does the work presents the depot supervisor with a work ticket, which the supervisor keys into the depot computer.
Once the ticket is recorded at the depot the Uniclass system not only creates an invoice for the client but also records the work done and who it was done by, then files the information in the payroll system.
<B>What's for afters?</B>
Since Uniclass was introduced in November 1998, Brandwood has found that, overall, he is using fewer administrative staff. Previously, he had to employ temporary administrators to cover the lack of integrated systems. He is also better able to control stock and how it is used.
The innovations, however, do not stop at a single integrated software package – in fact, Brandwood has his eye on the kind of innovations usually associated with a construction giant such as Bovis.
He is aiming to introduce bar coding to record all stock arriving at the depot stores – items are currently registered manually, and he admits that the operation is vulnerable to human error simply because of the array of numbers that need to be recorded.
The new system will mean components arrive at the store with a bar code. The supervisor swipes the code with a handheld computer, which downloads the information into the main database. When an item is removed, the same thing happens. The tickets used by the operatives to document their job record will also have a bar code.
Brandwood expects to introduce the bar codes next April. "I would like to have a supermarket situation that will save a little money and also eliminate data input errors," he says.
From September, Brandwood is to trial a NatWest purchasing card that will enable operatives to buy supplies that are not in stock. The card will operate like a credit card, but NatWest will pay the suppliers within four days of the order, then send the organisation a monthly invoice. The gas maintenance department will trial the purchase card before it is rolled out.
Brandwood hopes suppliers will be so delighted with prompt payment he will be able to negotiate some discount deals on products.
The first stage of creating order from chaos by integrating software is now well entrenched. The introduction of bar coding and a purchasing card will further reduce paperwork, duplication of data and human error.
All these things contribute to a more efficient and accountable way of working, which in the case of a public sector body is more important than making vast profits.
And the more efficiently it operates, the more work will be available, as all surpluses are returned to the council to help finance local authority housing maintenance.