How many times at your workplace have you heard and lectured others with these modern cliches: “Get more bang for the buck”; “Think outside the box”; “Work smarter, not harder.”

I'm the first to admit to preaching those cliches during my 25 years as an information technology (IT) professional and manager at Arizona Public Service. I've also heard others exhort such at the latest DistribuTECH, GITA and IEEE/PES T&D conferences.

Now the harder question: “What evidence is there at your company that anyone is actually doing any of these three?”

I've edited 21 articles for T&D World since April 2001 that provide concrete evidence that some utility companies are making order-of-magnitude improvements in productivity, customer service and efficiency — measured by hard metrics such as dollar costs, distribution system outage rates and durations. Overall, however, I don't see our industry changing that much — nor rapidly enough — to prepare us for deregulation.

I have a suggestion: an “IT mine” for you to explore, at relatively low cost, for more business value. It's related to systems integration but simpler.

Your company has invested heavily in IT systems: hardware, software and databases. You likely have hundreds of databases with very large ones supporting systems such as customer information (CIS), geographic information (GIS) and work management (WMS). You undoubtedly have a much larger investment in your databases than you realize, as databases are time consuming to build and then maintain.

My suggestion is to exploit your existing databases. Let me illustrate the concept with an example.

Let's say you have a GIS that you built because you wanted it to support an outage management system, which is improving your SAIDI and SAIFI. Or, the driver for GIS was asset (facilities) management, which is driving down your costs. In either case, you're also producing hard copy maps as an additional benefit of the existing GIS database.

I want you to consider other systems and their databases that could be blended with extracts from the GIS database to produce significantly better output for people to use. (Notice that I am not advocating that you combine all these databases into one gigantic database.) Those outputs will be “special maps.”

Consider the following systems, which you may already have:

  • Meter reading

    Produce a map that shows each meter reading route. The human eye may spot route-efficiency improvements — beyond the capability of your meter reading routing system — after seeing the route laid out geographically.

  • Connects and disconnects

    Again, seeing today's planned work laid out geographically may lead to efficiencies, working smarter.

  • Outages

    Your outage system may tell you the location of each outage and the status of restoration, but does it give you the big picture? Superimposing the outages on a map would.

  • Line patrols

    Same idea as meter reading.

  • Tree trimming

    Ditto.

  • Work management

    Your work management system may be tracking planned work, work in progress, work completed but not energized, new construction, rebuilds, up-rate work and other categories. Can you see the big picture? When your designer is ready to start a new design, can he easily find out what other work is or will be nearby? What better way to see the big picture than to have an actual picture of work items, by category, superimposed on a geographical map?

  • Economic development

    How about a map that shows where you already have distribution infrastructure for three-phase service, but the account is inactive or the meter has been removed?

Some of these special maps really belong on your Web site, where your customers and business partners can view them.

Here's the best news. If you have a modern GIS, a robust company-wide internal network (an intranet) and some reasonably talented IT developers, you are completely justified in asking your IT department to show you a prototype of one of these browser-based blended systems within 30 days on your desktop. If the IT developers can't, tell them to hire a contractor to develop the first one and learn how themselves, because you expect the second new blended system to be on your desk within two weeks after you describe what you want.

GIS is an easy example to visualize, but this principle obviously works with other sets of databases. These systems are usually quick to develop, given modern high-level languages and Internet-browser, database extract and application system tools. You already have all the data; it's just hiding out in two or more independent databases.

Let's forget about stepping outside the box or even thinking about the box. Let's crush the box and move on. It is time to exploit the information that already exists in multiple expensive databases.

You truly can get more bang for your buck!

Matt Tani can be reached at (417) 455-1772 or via e-mail at mattELUTCONS@aol.com.