Quality is unique

Back in the old days, say in 2003, when a UNICCO field agent inspected a customer’s facility and found a job that needed to be taken care of, he or she would submit a work order to HQ the old-fashioned way: on paper. Once the work order was processed, and the work scheduled and performed, the agent had to return to the site not only to make sure the job was done but also to make sure it was done properly. Even something as simple as getting a broken railing (liability or workers’ comp claim waiting to happen) fixed took too long to suit UNICCO or its customers.

UNICCO Service Co. is one of North America’s largest facilities outsourcing companies, with more than $700 million in annual sales. The maintenance and administrative services provider has 1,000 customers, including FedEx, John Hancock, Weyerhaeuser and Mercedes-Benz.

UNICCO’s IT team figured the best way to speed the time it took to take care of business in the field and boost customer satisfaction and service quality at the same time would be to deploy a mobile workforce solution. What the IT team came up with over a period of 20 work weeks is a system it calls UNI-Q (the Q is short for quality).

Promising pocket PC
UNI-Q consists of two essential components. Pocket PCs running proprietary software on top of Windows Mobile 2003 and a Web portal called myUNICCO.com, running on IBM’s WebSphere. Middleware connects the portal’s apps, personal information management, Lotus Notes and instant messaging software to back-end systems. The data resides on IBM’s DB2 database, running on eSeries. “When we designed the solution, we wanted to make sure it was expandable. To us, the Pocket PC 2003 looked to be the most promising device,” says Bilal Kaokhar, development manager for field operations. The team was not worried about its becoming obsolete or lacking in support, he adds.

“We decided on Mobile .NET instead of Java for the Pocket PCs,” Kaokhar continues. “There were several flavors of Java out there when we researched solutions, and some had performance, compatibility or drivers issues. We knew .NET was the only framework that would run reliably on any Pocket PC. Also, .NET was faster than the three of four flavors of Java I researched.”

“We agonized over whether to go with Java or .NET,” admits Bill Jenkins, senior IT director. “We needed to make sure we were developing a true enterprise solution.” The availability of resources—people more than tools—to develop the applications also was a critical factor, Jenkins says.

Inspect on the fly
UNICCO has deployed about 200 handhelds to 70 facilities and plans to deploy another 100 devices in the next year. The field agents use the handhelds to perform inspections based on up to 50 criteria, follow workflows from inspection through problem resolution, and several other tasks. Once the data is collected, it can be wirelessly uploaded to a RAS using Bluetooth as a conduit to a mobile phone or other device.

“We also wanted to centralize the data [collected by field agents] at the corporate back end where it could be mined and analyzed by region, Jenkins explains. Also, the company wanted to reduce the number of times its inspectors needed to visit a facility because of the cost.

UNICCO’s solution not only allows the field force to record inspection results on the fly, but also allows inspection teams to collaborate and access progress reports with version and edit control, streamlining the entire process. This interactive approach allows employees to easily review, update and synchronize information, Jenkins says.

For example, a site administrator can connect to the company’s portal to report failed site inspections, which generate work orders. Or, if an inspector reports a water leak at a client site, an app in the portal produces a work order to either UNICCO or a third party to ensure the problem is fixed quickly, minimizing the prospect of damage or liability.

The new mobile technology allows remote workers to identify problems, which used to require additional personnel, and schedule re-cleaning or follow-up appointments in real time, without delays or errors. Field employees can also locate equipment needed for repairs, alert a delivery driver, and have the equipment delivered to the customer site, all without calling the main office or manually entering data on paper. When follow-up work is required, the field force can access the customer’s account, view the open work orders and schedule visits. Meanwhile, the customer’s own building supervisor can monitor the status of the work order via UNICCO’s customer portal.

UNI-Q has been in operation since July 2004. The IT team spent 9 months working on it before deploying it in July.

Do-it-yourself savings
UNICCO chose to roll its own application rather than buying one off the shelf and modifying it. “We looked at the costs of recurring maintenance 5 years out, and they were prohibitive,” Jenkins says. “It would have cost us $1,500 per PDA the first year for 50 devices, and then 20 percent of that each year as recurring costs, and it becomes a big number 5 years out. Doing it ourselves, we saved 75 percent on every unit.

“When I build my next solution, I can add PIM and e-mail to the devices, and roll out new programs—the costs begin to come down even more,” Jenkins adds.

UNICCO’s customers can access reports based on data collected from the field through the myUNICCO.com Web portal. For example, they can enter and audit work orders, analyze inspection information to confirm the work that has been completed, track e-procurement transactions and manage inventories. The site also enables customer facilities managers to compare notes on best practices, evaluate benchmark and performance measurements, conduct trend analysis, collaborate on projects, and pull reports through Crystal Reports.