By Damien Moriarty
All too often the discussion of mobile applications focuses on removing paper from the field. That goal easily can be achieved by simply taking paper forms and making them digital. While this is admirable, it is only an incremental enhancement as there are no improvements in the field process. All you are doing is removing the data entry. Using mobile applications for workflow enforcement on the other hand, provides substantial additional value in many areas of business through improved efficiency, compliance and quality.
Safety is a prime example of where workflow can provide drastic changes in fieldwork practices. The reality is that in many workplace cultures, safety checks are at best viewed as a necessary evil, hampering with the ability to get the job done, and at worst as additional paperwork to be completed only after the work has been finished. The worst case can be avoided by enforcing safety checks to be completed before the job begins, which is the first step in the mobile application workflow. Once the relevant information about the site has been presented and the field worker understands what the job entails, restricting the ability to proceed with work steps before all relevant safety checks are completed ensures higher safety standards for all involved.
While this enforcement of safety checks ensures completion at job start, it doesn’t ensure quality. If these are seen as a hindrance to the work, they are often rushed and don’t get the attention they require. This is where enforcement of mandatory questions within the application form are important, since they serve as prompts for safety considerations.
When assessing the site environment, field workers will often look for the obvious issues such as exposed live wiring, pressure vessels or protruding sharp objects, but they will miss the simple ones such as the 2-in. step in the concrete that is a tripping hazard. By prompting the field worker with mandatory questions to provide a true assessment of the site environment and all hazards, field managers can ensure they fully understand any potential environmental safety issues, which goes a long way in preventing recordable injuries and time lost.
Safety checks need to be relevant to the site and work type in order to keep field workers engaged in the safety process. For example, questions relating to safety harnesses are irrelevant if all work is being conducted on the ground. Questions that change for each job type will be enough to get the field workers attention. This ensures that they are reading and considering each question, rather than simply churning out answers through muscle memory. In addition to this, the mental effort put in by field workers will often mirror the consideration put in by the organization. If a generic safety check is used for all jobs to satisfy external compliance, then these will not be closely reviewed onsite. Whereas if the checks are pertinent to the work at hand, they will get the field worker’s attention, thereby improving safety compliance standards.
In addition to the site and job focused checks, presenting a historical account of the site hazards to field workers is equally important. The ability to easily identify and enter site hazards allows the capture of this information, however it is the fact that these are shown on the next site visit that motivates the field worker to actually enter them. The reality is that every time a field worker enters information not directly related to job completion, they question where it will be used. Entering data that helps them next time they are onsite will take priority.
Worker safety is only one example of compliance checks that need to be completed onsite. The principles remain the same across all internal and external compliance matters. The integration of these compliance checks into the overall workflow improves the quality of the data captured since it is completed onsite before the job commences rather than after the fact.
Many companies already integrate process safety checks into their maintenance inspection runs. These then feed into the site inspection process, but in many cases the field workers are merely a data capture mechanism rather than someone who can commence investigation. Just as validation of ranges and tolerance is used in the overall reliability management process, field workers can also provide guidance on the parameters around process safety by identifying issues that can prompt additional checks and higher standards.
In addition to the identification, automating the capture of temporary rectifications allow these to be managed as part of the site management process. Additional checks can be defined for a site to ensure process safety issues are monitored and temporary rectifications maintained as part of the overall site maintenance process. This can also provide visibility to what these temporary rectifications are to ensure all internal and external compliance is met.
A key requirement of effective compliance and auditability is that all data collected in any solution needs to be structured and able to be referenced when required. In turn, automation of data collection ensures that all required information for internal or external audits is captured and automatically sent to the right systems, documents and databases. The integration of these mobile applications into the systems of record and back office databases allow full visibility of not only work completion but also the level of internal and external compliance. This allows companies to manage compliance issues before they occur rather than fixing them after.
In addition to capturing information, mobile solutions can also improve accountability and auditability by tagging any job with the user details of a particular field worker. The capture of date/time stamps of when this information was recorded is an additional way to provide clear evidence of when the tasks were completed. Geo-stamping the data provides a clear indication of where the task was performed while the barcode/RFID identifiers add to the accuracy of what the data recorded relates to.
One of the common issues that occur with mobile applications that enforce workflow is how changes are managed. External standards and internal processes change over time, and if the system doesn’t reflect these changes, the field process will either remain ‘as is’ or field workers will revert to the updated paper forms. It is therefore important that changes can be defined and implemented quickly by subject matter experts rather than after the completion of a lengthy development cycle. Changes can still be managed through an IT change management process, however the ability to apply these changes to test systems for review and approval before commencing the formal change process will ensure that only a single change cycle is required rather multiple cycles for implementation followed by many more for the inevitable corrections due to requirements being lost in translation. The ability to keep the application of these changes simple also ensures that they are applied when needed rather than waiting multiple years for the next round of investment, and is also the best way to ensure that they actually happen.
Mobile applications can improve field safety and compliance, but as shown, the results don’t come from merely digitizing paper. As much as companies think this can achieve their goals it doesn’t account for factors such as field worker compliance, process enforcement (i.e., when is the data entered) and in-field visibility of historical issues. These can be provided through automation of the field process. However, the industry needs to ensure that the application workflow matches the field process now and in the future.
Tags: June 2016 Print Issue, mobile apps
Damien Moriarty is international delivery manager at Retriever Communications, a global software and mobile applications provider with its U.S. office based in Houston.