Album 2018 – Partnership boosts business performance

McGill’s, this year’s album conference host, has worked closely with EPM to enhance its operational performance with new software solutions that aim to put managers in the driving seat.

For any business, having critical data and information about operational performance is essential. With a myriad of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to keep track of however, for many bus operators it can be a case of relying on a variety of paper-based systems and spreadsheets.

However, this methodology can lead to significant drawbacks, including inconsistencies between company depots. It can also take time for the data to be inputted into disparate systems and the process of bringing it together into a consistent and coherent format can be long-winded. There are also issues in creating a suitable format from which that information can be manipulated and examined.

McGill’s, Scotland’s largest independent bus operator, was experiencing those sorts of issues several years ago during a period of frenetic growth. Operations Director Colin Napier describes how the company began a journey in 2010, shortly after he joined McGill’s, that saw the firm expanding rapidly. “Back then we had just been through the process of acquiring six smaller operators,” he says. “It had been a period of significant growth for McGill’s, one which cemented its position in the Inverclyde and Renfrewshire area where the company has its roots. That rapid expansion continued in 2012 with the purchase of Arriva’s business in the west of Scotland.”Napier describes this time as an exciting one where the business just continued to “grow and grow and grow”. However, with that growth it became clear there was a need to integrate these businesses into a single McGill’s operation, one where business performance and KPIs could be simply and easily identified and tracked.

It led McGill’s to the door of Worcestershire-based bus industry audit and software specialists EPM, an established company that has developed a range of special software tools which aim to bring clarity to the wealth of data that is generated by bus operators.

The company has a background in auditing services for the bus industry, developing a specialised niche in BSOG certification, concessionary travel consultancy and operational audit for bus operators. This background led to the development of a range of software tools to assist with the day-to-day management of these tasks and functions. EPM’s first software product was launched 30 years ago and today the company supplies a range of software solutions to bus operators across the country, from the major groups to municipal and independent operators.

“We wanted to be able to keep control of and track the data,” explains Napier. “We had looked at a variety of solutions, but it seemed to us that the suite of tools available from EPM were easily applicable to the needs of our business.”

McGill’s started a process of introducing EPM software solutions across its business. This includes the Operational Performance Module (OPM), a clever piece of software that is designed to bring together a wealth of operational data from other EPM software modules covering, amongst other aspects, incident reporting, customer feedback, driver and bus activity, including maintenance and engineering.

“OPM streamlined a lot of our processes,” says Napier. “Previously we relied on a reams of paper and various different spreadsheets to capture the data. There was a lot of toing-and-froing to capture and present the data and it was just too cumbersome. Significant labour was needed to maintain those systems and we had doubts about the accuracy of the process. OPM transformed that overnight as it’s a resource that can extract data directly from the source.”

McGill’s rolled this system out to every department across the company over a period of between six months and one year. Its impact was instantaneous.

“We went from being in the dark over many aspects of the business to being highly informed,” says Napier. “We had such clarity and consistency. We suddenly had a wealth of data at our fingertips and there was such flexibility too. We spent a lot of time talking to EPM about how certain aspects of the software could be improved, how we could tailor the reporting to meet the needs of the business. They delivered on that.”

He jokes that EPM “made a rod for their back” with their flexibility and it led to discussions about how the software could be further developed in order to help keep track of those all-important business functions and KPIs. McGill’s and EPM have worked closely as development partners to extend the reach of the software’s powers by producing a ‘dashboard’-style solution that allows business trends to be displayed in an easy to grasp, and graphical way.

“We were fortunate that McGill’s had opted for the full suite of software modules,” explains EPM director Nick Brookes. “They were in a position that they had a system that was creating tremendous amounts of data, but they wanted something tailored to a very specific need, namely a tool that would provide better reporting.” Mark Jones, Software Development Manager at EPM takes up the story. “We had established a good working relationship with McGill’s and they were routinely using our software solutions throughout the business,” he says. “However, they began to ask whether there was a way in which they could analyse that data more responsively to their needs. They really wanted something that would look at the company’s entire performance.“They were already using the full suite of EPM modules including OPM and this produced standardised reporting tools, but they wanted something more dynamic that would allow them to quickly examine trends in, for example, lost mileage, vehicles, route and passenger analysis, depots and so on. In essence, something that would give the McGill’s team the information they required quickly and efficiently.”

Jones gives one example of this “dynamic reporting”, namely a route and passenger analysis package. This allows McGill’s to examine bus patronage on any given route and see where patterns form at any given time or day of the week. It can also closely examine historical data to allow trends to be determined. This can easily be replicated across a number of business operations, for example, in customer relations, accident analysis and vehicle maintenance cycles. Jones highlights that accident data can be analysed to produce a ‘heat map’ of vehicle accident hotspots. This very visual way of displaying the information allows managers to create an action list in a bid to mitigate accidents in the hotspot areas.

“There are a number of companies out there offering ‘dashboard’ style solutions that allow businesses to examine their performance, but I think we are unique with this package,” says Brookes. “Principally, we know the bus industry and the unique environment of the industry, so we can tailor a package that will meet the needs of bus operators. Our knowledge and experience within the industry is a real benefit.”

The expanded range of reporting tools has been in place at McGill’s now for some months and Napier believes it is already reaping benefits. It followed an intensive period when McGill’s and EPM worked closely to ensure the best solution possible. Now the two sides have rolled out the solution to McGill’s management team across its five depots.

“It’s a great business intelligence tool,” adds Napier. “We now have a system that allows us to pull up all sorts of information. We’re finding that it is already informing our own decision making. The days of people having to thumb through bits of paper or tracking through a myriad of spreadsheets are over at McGill’s.”

This article was first published in The Album Report 2018, produced by Passenger Transport magazine.