The utilities sector is about the production and distribution of essential amenities, i.e. gas, electricity and water, to the general public and industry. Utilities play an important role in the economic and social development of a society and are highly regulated by the government. The production and distribution network of utilities are capital intensive. The infrastructure for distribution is very extensive, covering the length and breadth of a country. All these assets require regular maintenance to keep in good working order and avoid unnecessary losses, e.g. leakage or spillage.
Utilities involve wholesale and retail sales, the end consumer being members of the public. While the production of gas, water and electricity is concentrated in relatively few plants and companies, retailers of utilities are numerous by comparison, competing against each other for customers in the open market. Customer service and satisfaction, and hence loyalty, is very important. Customers expect responsive service and reliable supply with negligible interruptions.
Lean Six Sigma (LSS) is a business improvement methodology founded on a set of principles with data-based decision making. Data gathering and analytical tools are applied systematically to improve a process to a higher performing level.
In the utilities retail market, LSS can help to reduce wait time in resolving customer issues and reduce down time in supply interruptions by increasing reliability and decreasing response time in fixing problems. In the production plants and distribution infrastructure, LSS enables highest asset utilisation for maximum profitability, while maintaining a safe work environment and meeting government regulations.
For utilities, LSS improves efficiency at the process level. When the right areas for improvement are targeted, the cumulative benefits at the business level are:
Lean Six Sigma defines value through the eyes of the customer. In utilities, the ultimate customer is the external consumer of gas, electricity or water, with internal customers being the recipients of the outputs of each operation in production, distribution, sales and administration.
In the utilities sector, the key principles of LSS may be expressed as follows:
The focus of LSS is on removing waste, decreasing process variation and reducing defects at each process step from production to distribution of gas, electricity and water.
LSS is essentially about accelerating flow with Lean tools and decreasing defects or process variation with Six Sigma tools. Value stream mapping identifies the waste and value in the current process and is performed by directly observing people and operations and talking with staff on the production site, in the distribution network and/or in support functions such as customer service, maintenance and administration. Waste can be categorised as defects (errors), overproduction, waiting for an equipment/ tool/ document or person, non-utilised talent, transporting of items, inventory, motion of people and extra processing.
Considering the enormous size and complexity of the utilities business, LSS is commonly applied at the operational level. Management targets the areas for improvement for best return on investment and in accordance with the overall business strategy. The areas chosen for improving cost efficiency, asset utilization, safety/ environmental risks or service quality should be those which will have the greatest impact on the overall business performance.
Some examples of how LSS is applied in utilities are as follow.
LSS is a systematic methodology which demands adequate statistical, visualisation, facilitation and project management skills. A team of well trained staff members or consultants is essential for implementing changes and sustaining improvements, with the enthusiastic support of management. The initial implementation could be the creation of a core team of sufficiently trained in-house change agents or engaging a consultant.
Imagine you have successfully implemented LSS and have now clearly demonstrated operational excellence in your utilities business. What could your improved business go on to achieve? What competitive edge would you have? How could you grow further? What if you could increase market share?
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