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Larry Foster: Practical Insights for Optimizing Operational Transformation in the Utility Industry [Part Seven]

Headshot of Larry Foster
Larry Foster: Practical Insights for Optimizing Operational Transformation in the Utility Industry [Part Seven]

Explore how Lean Six Sigma's Poka Yoke methodology can revolutionize utility billing processes by preventing errors and ensuring accuracy. This blog delves into user-friendly solutions, such as smartphone applications, that boost efficiency, reduce errors, and drive cost savings. It also discusses the importance of accurate meter readings, the challenges faced by both automated (AMI/AMR) and manual systems, and the benefits of deploying digital tools to improve reliability and efficiency in meter readings.

Larry Foster, President of MuniBilling, has been working with technology for over 25 years. He's experienced in different sectors of technology, from starting new projects to helping companies grow and overcome challenges.

With a focus on the software and utility industries, Larry is a leading expert specializing in the complete lifecycle management of advanced solutions. Under his leadership, MuniBilling ensures dedicated client success teams and an unwavering commitment to ongoing support and efficiency improvements in the dynamic utility and software landscapes.

In part 6 of our series, we discussed how digital transformation can enhance utility customers' interactions with service providers. Another key aspect of leveraging digital tools is to eliminate mistakes and delays. Lean Six Sigma has a concept called "Poka Yoke," which means "mistake-proofing" or "error-proofing." This involves using techniques and mechanisms designed to prevent or detect errors in operations, thereby reducing defects and mistakes. The goal of Poka Yoke is to create systems that minimize human error and improve overall quality and efficiency. Poka Yoke methods can include various approaches such as adding physical devices, making procedural changes, or using technology to minimize errors. Sometimes, it's essential to build in extra layers of protection to prevent failures. This is where digital tools come into play, providing the necessary redundancy to ensure resilience in the system.

Q: Can you give an example of how utility billing operations could improve a process to prevent errors?

A common area for improvement is the reading of utility meters within tight deadlines to support the billing process. Ensuring accurate meter readings and avoiding mistakes or discrepancies is a constant challenge, as inaccuracies can lead to billing issues and customer disputes.

Q: What about automated systems like AMI and AMR? Haven't they already achieved maximum automation?

Yes, AMI and AMR are excellent platforms with high levels of automation. However, they come with significant upfront costs, which can be a barrier for many sites, and even well-funded organizations may take years to fully deploy them. Despite their advanced capabilities, even the best AMI or AMR systems can have an error rate of 1% to 3%. For instance, in a site with 1,000 meters, this error rate means that 10 to 30 manual meter readings might still be needed to correct inaccuracies. There are many challenges these sites still face. Poor network connectivity due to transmitters in basements, overgrown vegetation, rugged terrain, dense urban areas, extreme weather, device malfunctions, data connectivity issues, and software glitches can all impact the accuracy of meter reading data in AMI or AMR environments. These sites often still need manual meter readings and data entry to ensure accuracy. Therefore, highly automated sites typically still need an independent automated backup plan.

Q: So what challenges do utility billing operations face with manual meter reading methods?

While manual environments avoid the high upfront and maintenance costs of computerized networks, they still incur labor costs and issues. Workers must drive to each meter location and manually record readings. Sites that rely on customer self-reporting save on labor costs but may face occasional incorrect readings. Often in remote areas with poor network connectivity, manual environments can't deploy AMI or AMR. Digital assets, which can function independently of a network, make meter reading more efficient in these areas. On the other hand, highly automated environments can use digital assets for redundancy, enhancing system resilience.

Q: What core capabilities should billing operations look for when deploying digital assets to improve meter readings?

The most simplistic type of meter reading digital asset to deploy is an app for smartphones or other mobile devices used by meter reading technicians. It should be free and easy to use. Here is a top-ten list of capabilities organizations should consider to maximize the ROI of deploying a digital asset for meter reading:

  1. User-Friendly Interface
  2. Offline Meter Reading Capability
  3. Offline Data Storage and Security
  4. Real-time Insights
  5. Real-Time Data Synchronization
  6. Efficient Route Management
  7. Quick Issue Identification and Resolution
  8. Automated Data Validation
  9. Scalable Meter Reading Operations
  10. Cost-Effective Data Collection

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Larry Foster, dedicated President of MuniBilling, is committed to delivering cutting-edge Electronic Bill Payment and Presentment services tailored for utility billing. If you're interested in learning more about our product and services, sign up for a personalized demo of the MuniBilling system. 

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