Outsourcing: Managers Offer Insights and Strategies
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“Doing more with less” has become a guiding principle for maintenance and engineering managers in institutional and commercial facilities. Buildings present managers with a host of complex challenges, and in some cases, managers might not have the proper equipment or personnel on staff to fix the problem. This is where outsourcing becomes an option. These managers have been through the outsourcing process, and they offer their experiences, insights and lessons learned.
What facility functions or tasks have you outsourced most often or most successfully?
Amico: HVAC work as it relates to controls systems, air handling systems maintenance, janitorial and day porter services, electrical services, security services, fire alarm and sprinkler system maintenance and testing, and steam trap maintenance and testing.
Orndorff: Typically, we outsource those things that require specialty training, specialty tools, specialty equipment that don’t really make sense for us to have on staff. We also outsource projects that tend to get a little larger and time-consuming so that we can keep our focus on preventive maintenance and taking care of the smaller issues that come up. If we have a boiler that needs to be replaced or has leaking sections on it, rather than spending a couple of days on that, we would typically outsource that. A large repair that would take a couple of days, we would outsource that.
What events typically lead to the decision to outsource a function or task?
Amico: We’ve outsourced HVAC systems quarterly preventive maintenance. In trying to effectively manage the timely completion of routine quarterly HVAC maintenance, I found myself struggling again and again to complete these tasks around production scheduling with a limited in-house staff. Other routine tasks needed to be completed, as well as project-related tasks. Add on top of that day-to-day fires that needed to be put out.
The task of completing the extensive amount of HVAC maintenance led me to outsourcing them. I met with several vendors and ultimately selected the one that was able to commit the personnel in the windows of time according to the respective production schedule for that quarter. The production group was able to continue production, and maintenance was performed timely each quarter.
Orndorff: Some of this is regulation driven, as with elevators we are required by state law to do monthly and yearly tests. The local jurisdiction has adopted NFPA, and we’re required to do certain checks on fire extinguishers. We typically do the monthly inspections, but the yearly and six-year (inspections) we have those outsourced.
Legislation has pushed us to have somebody who is certified or licensed in a specialty field, and rather than try to find people to fill that position and then equip them. Then, of course, you have to have a backup because you never know when the are going to be off for a couple days, weeks or even months because of an illness.
What are the main challenges of working with an outsourcing provider?
Amico: Facility ownership and familiarity of equipment locations can become large obstacles or time-consumers. Unless discussed and put to paper in outsourcing agreements, it can be an arduous task to have a sourcing company on site that does not have a satisfactory level of ownership or accountability level in their work. If an outsourcing company cannot display an appropriate ownership level, then the agreement shall be cancelled and this vendor becomes a bust.
With regards to familiarity, it is better to have specific outsourced personnel who are familiar with the facility or have been in the facility numerous times provide the service. Otherwise, it becomes a tedious process always having another new person arrive to the site. These individuals require additional support for escorting around the facility or shown where equipment accessories are. These two challenges should be addressed prior to signing any agreement.
Orndorff: You do sometimes come across the providers that if you haven’t explicitly spelled out what you expect them to do, when you expect them to do it, that you’re going to have issues getting it done or getting it done correctly without them wanting to charge additional to take care of it.
What steps can managers take to manage in-house and outsourced staffs effectively?
Amico: Utilization of a functional work order or CMMS system where (in-house) staff and outsourced staff are trained to use that contains a calendar module and a standard operating procedure explaining the process.
Orndorff: We typically try to have one person take care of all the outsourcing stuff. As far as the contracts and getting it scheduled, we let our field people take care of that. One of the things that works really nicely is to have a service level agreement with whoever you are outsourcing to so they know what you are expecting and you have something to evaluate them against and let them know if they are or aren’t performing to your expectations.
Have you ever had a negative experience with outsourcing?
Amico: Yes. Early on in my career, I did not understand a lot of the jargon written into agreements, such as multi-year, auto renew, or the hidden penalty clauses or the small print items.
Orndorff: We have been pretty good and spelled things out well enough in the contract documents that we haven’t had anybody that didn’t perform to what we were looking for. We really investigate before we issue the contract to someone. We call references and talk to them and make sure that we are getting quality people. We have not always settle for the cheapest price. We really take into consideration their performance at other places, how well established the company is, and so forth and so on. It is part of our method of judging who that contract is going to be issued to.
What should managers know about outsourcing before signing any contracts?
Amico: There are several things that need to be considered before any contract is signed with an outsourcing provider. Managers should ask, why is outsourcing being used? Is it temporary? Or a multi-year item? What is the length of contract? What area labor rates being used?
Most contracts are written with the outsourcing company’s terms. Develop your own list of must-have terms when entering into any agreement or contract. Utilize your legal department to review and negotiate agreements and ensure your scope is covered in the agreement. Always know what is involved to cancel the agreement and if there are any penalties of cancelling early. Do not enter into an auto-renew agreement with an early-out penalty. Request designated persons and back up if needed, providing services to your facility. Meet the service personnel, and obtain resumes in advance to review their qualifications.
Orndorff: We try to find references that they don’t provide because people tend to provide references who they know are going to give them a good reference. We root around a little bit. There are ways of finding out where people work by seeing their vehicles at certain locations working on stuff that you can sometimes get to clients that will tell you the truth. We have a pretty good relationship with our vendors, and they are sometimes able to share information that they maybe shouldn’t, but they do.
We develop a rubric and take many things into consideration, and whoever comes out with the highest score in that rubric — quality of product, delivery time, how long the company has been in business, what their financial background looks like all of those kinds of things, the reference checks. We weigh all of those things before we issue to anybody. It’s time-consuming and can be a pain in the butt, but given the idea that you may end up with a bad service provide, it’s worth investing the time up front.