Streamline Your Utility’s Operations and Boost Efficiency Through Collaboration

A previous version of this article was published in February 2020 by the  Northwest Public Power Association.

From grid modernization to shifting customer behavior and expanding regulations, the power and utilities industry is changing quickly. On top of these challenges, utilities must factor in increasing talent turnover and retirement influxes. To keep up, they need to find ways to improve efficiency.

As key personnel leave, strong collaboration between accounting and other departments can help. This approach can provide each department with the support, insight, and resources it needs to stay on track, while helping the utility:

  • Keep up with increased demands and industry changes
  • Reduce errors and miscommunication
  • Increase efficiency and information accuracy

Here are some important ways your utility can increase collaboration throughout the organization, improving efficiencies and bolstering the strength of your utility—now and into the future.

Background

We know that key personnel will eventually leave their organizations and, with that change, comes loss of experience. We also know that most utilities struggle with barriers within the organization. Collaboration can help reduce these silos, easing the transition when personnel leave or retire.

Example

When I was at a Denver utility conference last year, I had an interesting conversation with an accountant from an electric cooperative. I asked him about his future and what he wanted from his career, and he told me that although he really loved working for his cooperative, he couldn’t see a long-term career in the utility’s accounting department.

His reasoning was that the position he’d most logically progress to was held by an individual who was going to retire soon, but who actually started in the engineering department and then went back to school to get their accounting degree. The accountant I was talking with didn’t think he could meet that level of expectation, experience, or familiarity with the position’s needs.

However, if the accountant had opportunities to collaborate with others across the organization with relevant experience, or directly learn from the senior professional who currently held the position for an extended period of time, he may have been able to learn the details of the position before the professional retired. This could’ve saved the utility the time and resources of hiring and training a professional from outside the organization and potentially saved the time and expense of addressing a new hire’s learning mistakes.

Assess Department Collaboration

To begin increasing department collaboration, a utility should start with the accounting team. A utility’s accountants are responsible for telling the story of the organization by monitoring, evaluating, and representing a utility’s cash and reporting. That means accountants should be regularly included in major department meetings and communications to make sure they’re aware of all operations, proceedings, and opportunities for error. 

For example, the plant accountant should be part of key project meetings, such as project management status updates. Through participating in these projects, the accountant can point out potential accounting hurdles or errors rather than waiting until the end of the project to make retroactive changes.

That said, collaboration goes both ways. Just as including the plant accountant in project-management meetings will likely increase efficiency and reduce errors, inviting the operations manager to review the accounting team’s analysis of operational accounts can help improve accuracy. Deciding the key individuals to monitor, review, and include in the appropriate meetings and communications is driven by broad input throughout the utility, with the key aspect of including accounting staff and management in areas outside of the accounting department.

Build Collaboration into the Workplace

As training continues for the accountants, consider finding ways to permanently build interdepartmental collaboration into your utility’s basic functions. This can help a utility maintain the efficiencies introduced by increasing communications with the accounting department. This process may include:

Cross-Training Your Professionals

An immersive, operational cross-training program can provide valuable insight into the interworking of the utility—helping build relationships and reveal operations intricacies. These trainings are typically set up as a job shadowing programs, wherein the plant accountant, for example, shadows positions outside of their department, such as:

  • Sales order or work order generation. Plant accountants can gain an understanding of who sets up work orders and which orders may have an increased risk of lack of monitoring or closing procedures.
  • Staking, engineering, and design. Plant accountants can learn timing, design needs, and monitoring functions.
  • Materials management or warehouse management. Plant accountants can gain a high-level understanding of which work orders require materials and how these materials are requisitioned to the work order.
  • Project management and work order review. Plant accountants can learn about the monitoring function, which may be the most important of utility functions.

Expanding Performance Reviews

Adding collaboration into performance evaluations, such as a cross-department peer review, can provide another ongoing opportunity for personnel to connect and engage in each other’s work. This also helps motivate employees to build and sustain relationships with personnel in other departments throughout the year.

For example, if the plant accountant is included in work order monitoring meetings, key operational managers should be included in their performance review to verify the plant accountant is providing the value that comes with collaboration as well as insights that can increase efficiencies.

Adopt Communication Efficiencies

Many common accounting errors occur from lack of timely, accurate communication between departments. Utilities can lessen these errors by improving communication efficiencies in the following ways.

Implement New Technology

Adopting advanced communication methods—such as instant messaging or collaboration platforms like Skype or Microsoft Teams—can help personnel reduce errors while allowing them to collaborate more efficiently across departments.

A technology-driven approach can also help sync data across the utility and align the organization with the skills and interests of most millennials—the generation that will be the global-workforce majority by 2025. This can also help utilities stay current with—and appear more attractive to—changing workforce demographics. 

Hold Cross-Divisional Meetings

It’s important for personnel across the utility to spend time identifying where errors or miscommunications occur within the utility and strategizing how collaboration between divisions can reduce these issues. Though it may be challenging to implement these meetings or communication channels, they should take place consistently, and participants should be willing to make changes to the process and the utility as growth occurs.

We’re Here to Help

To learn more about how your utility can bolster its operations, increase efficiencies, and stay current with changing industry trends, contact your Moss Adams professional.