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Engineering 101… Getting The Most From Your Engineering Department

If I have learned anything after twenty years of managing engineering departments it’s this: the most successful engineers thrive in an environment where their leadership has a thorough understanding and appreciation for what the hotel’s maintenance team does, and how its efforts contribute to the overall success of the property.

Sounds obvious, right? But how often is this dynamic a reality? Perhaps more often, general managers’ priorities lay elsewhere, and when it comes to their engineering departments, their paradigm follows the mantra “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” So while their engineers likely welcome the sovereignty, it still begs the question…do general managers really understand what their engineers do? And perhaps more importantly, are GMs getting the highest return on their engineering department investment?

Does my well-oiled machine need lubricating?

So how do you know if things are truly running like clockwork? Does the absence of complaints necessarily equate to a well oiled machine? What if the hot water is 135 degrees, or the air conditioning in the ballroom is running 24/7? While these conditions probably would not generate complaints, there would be opportunities for some focus on safety and efficiency. How about guests who have had such negative experiences that they tell everyone about it except you? Clearly, no news may not be good news.

Once you are convinced your maintenance team warrants closer scrutiny, the next step will be to determine how to measure its performance. In this vein, the following tool is designed to help you measure and benchmark your maintenance team against the only indisputable variable in existence…themselves.

The premise is simple: You must be able to measure performance if you are going to be able improve upon it. In a maintenance setting, consider each work group within the department and ask yourself the following question:

“What should this work group be doing so that their success clearly contributes to the achievement of the hotel’s overall goals?”

Once you have identified a goal, ask yourself how you can empirically measure the team’s performance in order to gauge their success toward achieving that goal. Taking this simple incremental approach to each element of your maintenance operation will make it easy to help focus your entire team on what matters to you most: your guests and your bottom line. Here’s an example:

Let’s say you’re operating a 600 room hotel. You employ 22 engineers who handle most aspects of the hotel’s routine maintenance needs. Your team is comprised of:

6 General maintenance engineers
4 HVAC mechanics
3 Painters
3 Operating engineers
2 Kitchen mechanics
2 Laundry mechanics
1 Electrician
1 Carpenter/locksmith

Using the approach described above, let’s look at the first work group, the general maintenance engineers. These are the team members who respond to guests and fellow employees, and are often considered the “face” of an engineering department. Following the guidelines above, you have determined that this team’s responsiveness to your guests and ability to promptly resolve guest issues are both key performance indicators that directly impact your hotel’s overall guest satisfaction goals. After all, guests typically would not even see an engineer during their stay if everything were to go smoothly. So when they do, it is vital that the interaction be as seamless and pleasant an experience as possible.

Using the hotel’s existing maintenance management software (MMS) or manual log book, track each engineer’s response time to guest calls — defined as the time between when the engineer acknowledges receipt of the call and the time he/she arrives at the room. Next, measure their individual completion time — defined as the time between their arrival and when they report back that the issue has been resolved, either to a dispatcher or operator, or directly to the MMS system through an electronic portal, if your system permits. Track performance daily, weekly, and monthly by individual, by shift, or whatever grouping suits your needs. Next, communicate daily performance back to the team relative to whatever goal you have established in the beginning of the process. This communication can be verbal, posted on a bulletin board, sent electronically, or a combination of all these methods. Most importantly however, the communication of progress must be transparent, such that everyone’s contribution to the overall goal, whether it be positive or negative, can be seen by all.

Figure 1 below shows an example of a customized display board used at a convention hotel to track the progress of their general maintenance team; referred to in this case as Guest Service Engineers. An engineering department manager provides his team feedback by updating this board daily, made easy with dry erase markers. The odometer dials indicate the average completion time for each shift on any given day, while the graph tracks each day’s performance over time— making it clearly visible whether or not the team averaged a completion time of 45 minutes or less — the team’s goal. The thermometer at right tracks the number of days the team met their goal or stayed in the green zone, defined as the number of days the entire team averaged less than 45 minutes to complete their guest calls.

In this instance, rather than tracking response and completion times separately, this department is tracking completion time only by shift. By doing so, they have created a friendly competition between the day, evening and overnight shifts…each vying to be the fastest team to respond to guests and resolve their issues.

The key to this board is its simplicity: Any team member can immediately ascertain how he or she and the team are doing with just a passing glance. If it takes more than a few seconds for the board to be deciphered, it is much less useful, even counterproductive.

Using the methodology described above, the same type of customized measurement tools can be used with each work group in the department, such as the HVAC mechanics, painters, electricians, etc. Once goals are defined, the performance of all work groups can be numerically combined and rolled up into an overall department score. Figure 2 below shows an example of such an overall measurement tool, in this case defined as a Property Condition Index, or PCI. The index calculates an overall score based on the individual scores from each work group. Similar to the performance chart above, this board would also be updated daily, and posted in a conspicuous location central to the team’s work area. Thus, every member of the team is able to understand exactly where the department’s performance is in comparison to the goal, what his or her work group is doing to help or hinder the achievement of that goal, and what their individual performance is doing to bolster their work group’s success.

This simplistic method of accountability can be extremely effective and a valuable motivational tool. Over time, it can bolster not only performance and guest satisfaction, but employee satisfaction and team camaraderie.

Energy Benchmarking meets the KISS method

Now that your maintenance team is operating smoothly, your focus shifts toward one of the largest expenses on your P&L…energy. You suspect your hotel’s energy efficiency is middle-of-the-road at best, and you are tired of those client questionnaires that ask about your property’s Energy Star rating, your conservation efforts, and what you are doing to minimize your carbon footprint. You want to improve, but where do you begin? How do you reduce energy without sacrificing comfort or safety, especially after you have already picked all the low hanging fruit like compact fluorescent bulbs and motion sensors? The answer is likely in the basement — in the office without windows. Your chief engineer probably has more than a couple ideas to reduce energy consumption, but has not been given the time, resources or opportunity to bring them to fruition. So why not make it easy for him or her? Here’s how…

First, a quick lesson in physics. All energy can be measured in British Thermal Units or BTUs, defined as the amount of heat energy needed to raise one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit at normal atmospheric pressure. Since all energy can be measured in this manner, BTUs are an ideal unit for calculating a building’s overall energy performance. Armed with this knowledge, ask your engineer to bring last September’s utility bills to your office: Electric, gas, oil, steam, chilled water— whatever utilities your operation consumes other than potable water. Convert each of them to BTUs, and then add them all up. (Note: a quick Google search will make these conversions easy.)

Now that you have a total BTU figure for the month, challenge your engineer to reduce this coming September’s total BTU consumption by 5% year over year, corrected for occupancy and degree days…the two variables that highly impact energy consumption but which your engineer has no influence over. Then lay down the ground rules. Your engineer can pursue the savings any way he/she sees fit, as long as guest and employee safety and comfort are unaffected. Then commit a portion of the anticipated savings back to his/her operation, whether it be in the form of a department party, continuing education assistance, or whatever you think would make the challenge attractive to the maintenance team. Better still, commit the funds back to the operation in the form of self perpetuating savings. Invest in an EMS upgrade, infrared thermometers for the team, or a departmental oscilloscope. Just be sure whatever you spend your money on includes the training needed for your team to use it, and use it properly. Otherwise you will have invested in an extraordinarily powerful paperweight.

You will be amazed at how positively this challenge will be received, and how readily it is likely achieved. Also, be sure to measure performance in energy consumption, and not energy expense. The formula for calculating the latter includes utility rates, and in most cases your engineer does not influence the rates your property pays for energy.

About the Author:

Richard Manzolina is a former member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants.

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