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Learn how fleet managers can use data to build compliant fleet maintenance programs that ensure driver safety and maximize vehicle health and uptime.
The Fleet Code

Developing a Data-Driven Maintenance Program

Jun 7, 2021

Learn how fleet managers can use data to build compliant fleet maintenance programs that ensure driver safety and maximize vehicle health and uptime.

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Podcast Ep.7 — Developing a Data-Driven Maintenance Program

Matthew Dziak: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Fleet Code. A podcast brought to you by Fleetio. Where we'll dive into the latest fleet trends, technology, and best practices. Get the inside scoop, as we decode the challenges of fleet management.

Robert Johnson: [00:00:21] Fleet maintenance manager or a fleet manager today really is a person who has to learn how to work with data, information. And now it's become our primary role to capture information and learn how to work with that data to effectively take care of our fleets.

Matthew Dziak: [00:00:42] In this episode of the fleet code, we welcome Robert Johnson, fleet and safety manager at kayak public transit. Robert has over 40 years of experience in the fleet maintenance industry. Will highlight how things have evolved over the years and the best practices to develop and manage a maintenance program for your fleet. All right, Robert. Thanks for joining us on the show today.

Robert Johnson: [00:01:02] I'm very happy to be here and talking with you today.

Matthew Dziak: [00:01:05] So now what company do you work for and what are your responsibilities there?

Robert Johnson: [00:01:09] I work for a public transit agency. It's operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. So it's an interesting scenario and how we're organized and how everything is run. But I actually am a tribal employee, but beyond that, we, as a public agency, have to answer to the Oregon Department of Transportation, Public Transit Division, as well as the Federal Transit Administration. So I hesitate to say we're a company. Although, I guess if you were to describe in general terms, that's probably how we would say it yeah.

Matthew Dziak: [00:01:47] I wanted to talk about your background. You have quite the extensive experience, and I thought maybe you could share some of that with the audience.

Robert Johnson: [00:01:54] I have been involved in vehicle maintenance for going on 45 years. My career has been spent mostly in the heavy duty trucking industry. I began my career as an apprentice mechanic. And worked for a number of years as a diesel mechanic actually, and got involved in art sales shop management later on in my career, really made it change for working, for a major diesel engine manufacturer as a warranty manager. And then had an opportunity to teach diesel mechanics at our local community college so then I became involved in education. And had an opportunity to develop a career technical education program and diesel mechanics at that community college. And then the opportunity came up again to develop the program that I work in now with the Confederated Tribes. But I've gone from a grassroots level mechanic all the way up to mid-level management.

Matthew Dziak: [00:02:59] And we'll definitely get into some of the work that you've done with the Confederated Tribes. I did want to circle back on your experience working with diesel and then specifically heavy duty trucks. And now you're working a little bit with buses and transportation and vehicles like that. Could you maybe talk a little bit about the differences there on the maintenance side between the two.

Robert Johnson: [00:03:20] Well, certainly there is a difference because of the mix types of vehicles that we work with in our fleet now. Having all those years of experience in heavy duty diesel, and of course, being a mechanic, you just work on a lot of different things. So a lot of my experience with gasoline powered vehicles is self-taught. And now with the mix of vehicles that we have in our fleet, both diesel and gasoline, we've had to learn what the differences are, and certainly in maintenance, because diesel engines by nature, the maintenance schedules go out a lot farther than with gasoline engines. So we had to tailor our maintenance program in two different directions, let's say.

Matthew Dziak: [00:04:05] Now, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you started your fleet management career?

Robert Johnson: [00:04:10] Coming from a background of being a technician and just actually being what we'd call a working man, and then understanding what responsibilities go along with management in general. And fleet management specifically, it was a pretty steep learning curve, but I was able to fall back on a lot of my experiences of being a technician. And certainly when I became an instructor at the community college level, that was a really great learning experience for me as well, because when you're trying to teach these concepts to other people, You have to have a pretty good understanding of them yourself. So I probably did as much or more studying on certain subjects than my students did. So there was a lot of studying and learning and talking with others in the industry that do similar types of work. And a lot of it was just learning by doing and studying.

Matthew Dziak: [00:05:05] Now in terms of a fleet maintenance program, that's something you'd had some teachings with, but you also had to implement with the Confederate tribes. Could you maybe talk about where someone starts? Where do they even begin when trying to develop a fleet maintenance program?

Robert Johnson: [00:05:18] It's interesting that you should mention that because I have presented a couple of different conferences on how I went about doing that. First of all when I went to work for the Confederated Tribes, the facility that we have includes our own maintenance shops. When I came here, it was just a bare building. So I started off, first of all, ordered all the tools and equipment and everything to set up the shop. And then once that was in process, I discovered that we're starting with nothing here. So I have to develop a maintenance program, which was a requirement from both the Feds and the State as well. So basically I have to just sit down and take a look at what are we going to be working with the types of vehicles and what is it going to take care of those pieces of equipment. And just started writing some notes down and it evolved from there. But one of the major focuses of course, in public transportation is safety. So we've also had to integrate a safety plan into that. One of the things that I did in developing a maintenance program is just simply looking at the OEM maintenance schedules and what they require and build off of that as well as from my own experience and knowing types of applications, amount of miles that are put on a vehicle and developing it for there.

Matthew Dziak: [00:06:41] And how important is it to model everything from a maintenance perspective off of those recommendations?

Robert Johnson: [00:06:48] When you consider OEM regulations and suggestions and maintenance schedules and that sort of thing, it's critical. When I first started, our fleet consisted of a lot of well used vehicles. And of course, when you start getting age and miles involved in taking care of equipment and vehicles, it opens up all new territory of taking care of stuff rather than preventive maintenance trying to keep stuff going, and as the fleet becomes newer than warranties enter into that. So sometimes there's less maintenance for certain things involved because warranty will take care of it. When you have newer vehicles that aren't half worn out, so to speak. It's much easier to take care of them and perform preventive maintenance before stuff is worn.

Matthew Dziak: [00:07:38] Now someone who's probably seen it all in terms of the evolution of technology and how it relates to vehicles or spanning over four decades prior to even personal computers. So I'm wondering how that has changed over the years and how the use of that technology has helped you.

Robert Johnson: [00:07:54] It's been a continuous learning curve and change. And a lot of times change is very hard to deal with back in the day. As a technician, I worked with older fellows that when computerized systems began to show up on the scene, they decided to just retire and not want to deal with it. They were used to everything that was mechanical. But I was very intrigued in that and working for the engine manufacturer as a warranty manager, I had an opportunity to be in that position when electronic vehicle controls first started showing up and of course having to take care of warranty issues and that sort of thing.

So I really had the advantage, first of all, being interested in it and then also getting in on the ground floor, so to speak and growing with it as it evolved.

Matthew Dziak: [00:08:47] And how have things evolved from tracking and managing all of this data to a lot of it relied on paper years ago. And so now that we have computers and softwares, even mobile apps to help us, can you talk a little bit through that evolution?

Robert Johnson: [00:09:02] For sure. Beginning with being able to use personal computers and laptops and that sort of thing to first of all, capture data and then learning how to manipulate that data. Sometimes it's hard for us to want to get away from printing everything out on paper and depending on a computer to store that information for us and go back and look it up. In fact,after 45 years. I still have a little bit of a struggle with that, but because of the people that I work with and having adult children that grew up in the computer age, and really encouraging me and pushing me along. It definitely is an advantage. And I was considering this earlier fleet maintenance manager or a fleet manager today really is a person who has to learn how to work with data, information. And now it's become our primary role to capture information and learn how to work with that data to effectively take care of our fleets.

Matthew Dziak: [00:10:04] Yeah, there's no doubt about it. Data has become the lifeblood of fleets at this point, and it's been a recurring topic when we speak to any fleet maintenance manager or anybody that works in the fleet world. If there was one thing that you could tell yourself, when you first started this exploration in the fleet maintenance management world, what would it be?

Robert Johnson: [00:10:23] I think it would be to embrace, change and embrace technology because that's where we're going, that's the world that we live in and we need to get very comfortable and very used to artificial intelligence, using data management systems, to do a lot of things that he used to do on spreadsheets and write it all out by hand. So I think the real key is to just be aware of the changes that are taking place. I read a lot of articles and I still study a lot about technology that's advancing in today's world of autonomous vehicles and all of that. It's not going to go away. So we have to learn how to work with that and how that can work for us?

Matthew Dziak: [00:11:06] Absolutely. Could you possibly give an example of how you might leverage some of that data to help influence your maintenance schedule, something like your meters or your costs or miles per day or anything around that nature that can allow you to gain a better understanding of how often are these vehicles on the road so that I can forecast out when's the most appropriate time for them to potentially need service.

Robert Johnson: [00:11:29] Yeah. First of all, a lot of what we do, we're required to do. We are beholden to the federal government, as well as the state government to report on any number of things and the condition of our vehicles, our maintenance program, how often we're doing preventive maintenance and so on and so on. Beyond that it's critical that we have a way to use the technology that we have in our vehicle information management system to help us know when things need to be done, I guess is a very simple way to put it. And a new way we did it before. All manually, all by hand, was not real efficient. It was time consuming and there was a lot of opportunity for errors to be made. And where we're at today using vehicle information management systems and fleet management software. And so much more effective and a lot less opportunity for error. And when we're required to report on what we're doing, the information is all there. You have a robust reporting system and your management software. It's very easy to provide information to whoever needs to see it. I've had other startup agencies that we've helped to get going. And they'll ask questions, like how much is it going to cost me to run this particular type of vehicle for a year? And I can simply go into my software and dial it up. And all that information is right there and I can fire it off back to them very quickly and know that it's good information. It's accurate and would be very helpful for what they're attempting to do.

Matthew Dziak: [00:13:09] Yeah. A lot of times that data that you have, that you're able to access and analyze within your software and your platforms, it's just streamlining everything for you to allow you to work more efficiently and not having to grind away at some of those maybe calculations that would need to take place or anything like that.

Robert Johnson: [00:13:26] Yeah, it used to be that we wanted to know how much it's been or how many miles it's been since we did a tire change on a vehicle. I would have to go back and dig through piles of handwritten work or try to find that information. And now with the software that we use, there are custom fields that we can set up to enter any kind of information that we want. So I use that for tracking when tires were changed, when breaks were done, every fall we record antifreeze protection levels, that sort of thing. And it's all right, it's very . Assessable, very easy to find.

Matthew Dziak: [00:14:04] Now over the years, you've probably come across and seen the inevitability of things like downtime and as a fleet maintenance manager, that's your nemesis, right? You're always trying to combat having those vehicles in the shop for as little as possible so they can be back on the road, doing what they need to do. And maybe your opinion, or maybe this has evolved over the years. What's typically the biggest cause of extended downtime?

Robert Johnson: [00:14:26] I guess if you want to just put a cause in there, it would be major component failures. When you do things like brake jobs and preventive maintenance, oil changes, and that sort of thing, you can plan for that and you can schedule for that. But when I get a phone call from a driver that's halfway through his route saying I have a bunch of check engine lights and things came on a bus just quit. That's probably the biggest issue that we dread and that we have to deal with. What's happened? What's the most expeditious way I can take care of this problem? Now I've got a bus load of people. I've got to take another bus out to transfer. I got to get the bus towed to a shop. And then the other part of this is when we knew a lot of sublet work for our bigger projects. Our shop is really not designed to do overhauls or anything like that, primarily just maintenance. So when we have to sub something out like that, now we're at the mercy of somebody else to try to get it in the shop, diagnose it. How long is it going to be? One of the big problems that we're dealing with in the industry as a whole right now is the availability of replacement parts. I've seen some articles recently about some of the major automobile manufacturers who had to shut down production because of inability to get certain components. So that's another issue more recently that we've had to deal with as well.

Matthew Dziak: [00:15:51] As you said, there's unforeseen things that can arise that can really hamper the ability of the vehicle to perform, having that expectation. Does that factor into the amount of fleets you might have on hand or the amount of vehicles you'll have on hand? Do you plan around that to make sure that you have enough to cover those events?

Robert Johnson: [00:16:07] Yeah, we absolutely do. And one of the things that's in the maintenance handbook that we get from the Department of Transportation, Public Transit Division recommends the number of replacement vehicles that be available according to the size of your fleet. For us, a lot of times, what we'll do is when we replace the bus, we won't get rid of the one that we replaced. We'll keep it in service as a replacement. And knowing that we have the correct number of replacement vehicles that's required. And as well, those replacement vehicles are treated just as if they were in everyday revenue service. So that at any time they're ready to go if needed.

Matthew Dziak: [00:16:50] Now thinking a little bit about fleet management as a whole, and some of the problems that fleet managers and fleet maintenance managers have to face. If there was one that you could solve, you could snap your fingers and make it all better. What would that be and why?

Robert Johnson: [00:17:04] Probably the relationship between us as the customer and our vendors. A lot of vendors don't understand that we're a time critical type of operation and downtime is not only downtime, but it interrupts our ability to serve our customers, the general public. So it would be so advantageous to us for our vendors to be able to understand we're not just some guy waiting around for a part for our pickup truck or something. And if it doesn't get here until next week, that's okay. I've been in the business . Long enough and been fortunate enough to spend most of my career right. In a local area. So I personally know most everybody in the business at a lot of different levels and they understand what my expectations are. But once in a while, we have to do business with a new vendor or somebody that doesn't really understand how critical our operation is. Sometimes you have to get a little more serious with them to get them to understand what your needs are.

Matthew Dziak: [00:18:08] I can understand that I'm envisioning you doing that as well. When you talk about those vendors and those replacement parts that you need, because you manage maintenance in house for your organization, can you talk about the need for tracking your inventory and managing that appropriately so that if you do have those delays, it's not compounding the issue.

Robert Johnson: [00:18:27] Yeah. We don't stock a lot of inventory of things other than filters and breaks and things that we use a lot of. So a lot of the parts and pieces that we need to get have to come from outside. A bus is an interesting vehicle because you're dealing with one manufacturer for a chassis and maybe a half, a dozen or more different manufacturers for all this stuff that goes into the box and the bus body itself.

So that in itself creates some interesting issues in trying to deal with all those different folks. Sometimes it gets a little bit cumbersome, but. If you develop . Relationships with the people that you work with a lot, that's usually not a problem. And if I need some filters or I need a new barrel of oil, I have certain vendors that I can work with and it comes fairly quickly. One of the things about managing inventory for us is that we have to report to the state every month on everything that we use at all costs, because we get reimbursed for everything that we have to spend. Our accounting is all done for us to the Tribal government. We actually pay a certain amount of money to them every month to take care of those things for us. So on the other side of inventory control, we also have to reconcile each month, our inventory and our cost sheet to what they show as to what they're going to pay out to the vendors. So it's huge. We have a lot of responsibility and keep track of things to the penny. And sometimes that really gets frustrating. If something doesn't come out right, then you've got to go back and figure out what happened. But, we have some checks and balances. We have a pretty efficient system of doing that. And like I say, at the end of the month, we reconcile to the penny. We have the ability to look at our inventory by bin location, parts used by vehicles. A lot of different ways we can slice and dice that to have some pretty effective and efficient controls over our inventory.

Matthew Dziak: [00:20:32] We've talked a lot about living in the digital age and how important leveraging that technology is. It sounds like those relationships that you have with your vendors and your local dealers still hold a lot of value for your operation.

Robert Johnson: [00:20:44] Oh Absolutely. , it's critical. And like I said, I have the advantage of all the years of experience and the relationships that I've built up, and I think that's key too. You don't want to become adversarial with your vendors. You want to try to work with them and try to find ways to make things work better. When I was in sales, one of the key things that I learned is that when you go into a customer, you don't go in to try to sell them something. You go in and try to help him solve problems. And if I have vendors that are willing to work with me to solve problems, it makes my job so much easier. I don't have time to spend for somebody to come in and want to sell me this or that because I already know, or I buy those things. Of course, a lot of the bigger purchases that we make, we have to take the time to put together at least three quotes to go out and get quotes from folks to purchase things. So that adds another layer of things that we have to look out for and make sure that we're following the guidelines set forth by the State and the Feds, because we get audited on that every three years. And we better make sure that we can explain why we did or didn't do something either correctly or incorrectly. They look pretty close.

Matthew Dziak: [00:22:03] Robert, I've had a fantastic conversation with you today. I really learned a lot about the maintenance process in your operation. Really appreciate your time joining us.

Robert Johnson: [00:22:12] Thank you . It's been fun and it's always nice for me to have an opportunity to share what we do and how we do it.

Matthew Dziak: [00:22:14] Thanks for listening to the Fleet Code. If you're looking for a modern software solution to effectively manage your fleet, be sure to check out to learn more. Join our monthly newsletter to stay up to date on all things, Fleetio. And don't forget to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn by following at Fleetio.

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