Crew Pushers and Technology: It’s Not like Oil and Water
By Peter Purcell/
June 18, 2012

Why do most oilfield services companies hesitate to deploy technology to streamline the field ticket process and live with the inherent billing errors and delays associated with paper forms? It boils down to three things: access, ease of use and rewards.

My father is a retired pipe-fitter who spent 45 years working in a variety of inhospitable environments installing and repairing pipelines, compressors, valves and pumps. The family joke is that Grandpa Del, a union-card carrying, gruff, teddy bear of a man, can weld the perfect bead while manipulating the controls of a pipe bending machine in a blizzard with his eyes closed standing on one leg. He probably could.

The family secret is that my dad spends hours a day on his laptop. He sends and receives e-mail, banks online, co-hosts a Vietnam veteran’s blog, and loves to Skype his grandkids.

Recently, his dog knocked the laptop off the kitchen table. It took an act of congress to get my 72-year-old father to hold off buying a new laptop and let me send him one of my spares. He was pretty perturbed at waiting three days to get back online. I received phone calls just about every hour asking me to track the shipment until he received the replacement.

How did this man with plate-sized hands become so attached to a technological tool that most oilfield services (OFS) companies are hesitant to give to their pushers or project managers? It was easy; we bought him the laptop.

At his retirement dinner six years ago, my dad expressed interest in emailing his friends. We went out and got him a new laptop that evening. My son made the laptop simple to use by removing all applications except email and Internet access, which made it hard for my dad to get lost. Finally, we gave him the ability to Skype with his grandkids. I am not sure why he wanted to Skype my kids, but communicating with his friends and family rewarded his efforts to use the laptop. The rest he figured out on his own.

A number of our OFS clients have followed the same simple formula to deploy tools that streamline the field ticket process and reduce contract leakage, billing errors, and cash collection times.

Access

There is still a general perception that people who work in the field do not have the interest or capability to care for and use technology on the job. This perception is wrong. One of our clients was required to implement a safety and tool certification program in order to win a large contract. QHS&E determined that the existing paper-based process would not support the contract requirements. We helped the client select a laptop-based solution that would provide work crews with the latest policies, procedures and equipment certification. With great trepidation, 300 new laptops were loaded with software and sent to all crew pushers. Senior management was convinced that the laptops wouldn’t last more than a few weeks in the field before they were destroyed. In meeting after meeting, IT described how the laptops were going to be dropped in the mud or slide off pickup hoods as the pushers drove from site to site.

Their predictions could not have been more wrong.

Six weeks after the laptops were deployed, our client found that only four laptops had failed. The failures were due to bad hard drives installed by the manufacturer, not as a result of rough handling by the pushers.

Two months after the laptops were sent to the field, an even more interesting phenomenon occurred. The crew pushers had figured out how to use the laptops to make it easier for them to process field tickets. During a follow up audit, the QHS&E group found that more than 60% of the pushers had created digital field tickets in Excel or Word. When asked, the pushers stated that they had worked with everyone from their kids to office administrators to figure out how to duplicate the field-tickets electronically.

Pushers said that paperwork was cut by more than 70%. Peer pressure drove other crew pushers to figure out how to use the laptops. As a result, billing disputes and contract leakage dropped dramatically for these crews and their offices as a whole. These positive changes occurred because the crews had access to the one tool that they supposedly could not handle.

Ease of Use

One of my clients spent a significant amount of money deploying sophisticated electronic work order processing on laptops to their project managers. Within four months, the business case for reducing the number of administrative personnel, contract leakage, and billing errors was not being achieved. In fact, the number of administrative personnel and DSO had increased dramatically.

We were asked to determine the cause and found that the new system was too hard to use. The system was developed without participation by the project managers which resulted in an excessive number of screens to navigate and fields to populate. Company men lost patience while waiting to sign the work orders and left before project managers were done. Days, and sometimes weeks, were added to the work order completion approval process. Project managers started creating their own paper forms and stacked their laptops in field offices. Customers complained and our client lost business to the competition.

We asked the project managers what could be done differently. Should the company move back to a paper-based system? They said no.

In less than a week of facilitated sessions, the project managers helped redesign the system to reduce the number of screens and data entry fields, as well as make the system more graphical. The simplified design more accurately reflected what they did day-to-day. Special projects or odd jobs would be tracked outside the system.

The new system was piloted at two locations where previous acceptance was the lowest among 42 offices. The project managers on the pilot were hesitant at first, but quickly adapted to the new system. They made a few suggestions for changes and universally stated that this should have been rolled out the first time. The system was rolled out to all locations within three months. A field audit seven months later has shown that the original business case has been exceeded and more than 99% of project managers use the tool daily.

Ensuring the tool is easy to use and supports common work ticket activities is critical to success.

Rewards

Reducing the amount of time it takes to fill out paperwork should encourage the use of new tools, right? Not always. Some of our clients find that their crews work in hostile environments where unshielded electronics are not allowed. This means that the pushers or project managers have to capture critical information on paper and rekey into their laptops later.

Paper ends up piled on dashboards and often does not get transcribed into the system until days later. Billable time or equipment usage is forgotten and is not invoiced. Company men cannot remember exactly what was done, making them hesitant to sign documentation for payment.

We helped one of our clients determine how to encourage their pushers and project managers to enter information into their work orders and field tickets more quickly. We randomly visited 15 projects and determined that the project managers were under invoicing by more than 20%, and that was when the project managers knew they were under scrutiny! It is likely that the actual number was more than 30%.

We led a series of workshops with a number of operations and project managers to determine what would encourage better compliance for using the work order system and increasing the accuracy of billing. The team determined that a bonus structure of 3-5% based on timeliness and accuracy was the best solution. Timeliness would be measured between project completion and company man signature. Accuracy would be measured based on the results of random audits. Simply stating that it is part of the job and you would be fired if you did not comply was not an option. Project managers are in great demand and they could easily leave to work for the competition.

Within six months, the average revenue for these projects increased by more than 26%, DSO dropped by more than 15 days, and billing errors were all but eliminated.

This improvement was the direct result of rewarding the appropriate behaviors.

Summary

Deploying technology to the field should be simple. Many software companies and consulting firms will try to over-engineer solutions that are expensive and difficult to use. Oilfield services companies can take advantage of tools to support field-level operations if there is a focus on ease of use and rewards.