NIAGARA FALLS, ON – Data can be a powerful tool for fleet managers, but there is still a role for gut feel and intuition when realizing the insights made possible through analytics, a speaker told the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada’s annual convention.
It all begins with an understanding of what the data truly says.
“Analytics is finding useful information in data, and using that information to your advantage in some way or form,” Ben Rans of Davis Pier explained.
Customers, lanes and route information can be analyzed to focus on the most profitable business opportunities, or see where margins can be increased. Costs can be reduced by diving into routes and schedules to reduce variability and plan maintenance. “If you’re fighting fires, this generally costs money,” he said. A look at how assets are utilized can be used to forecast demand and plan capacity, or optimize vehicle loads.
“A lot of information out there that we could be using more efficiently … Understand that you don’t know what you don’t know about your business, and analytics can help.”
The process will evolve with time. Descriptive analytics look at things that have happened in the past, such as identifying lanes that lead to the largest share of empty miles. Predictive analytics look a little into the future, like forecasting the loads expected to be secured in the coming month, or how projected orders might translate into trips. Prescriptive analytics are the most complex, but offer the greatest potential returns. That’s when a fleet begins to see how trips can be scheduled at the lowest-possible cost. And it’s how Amazon is now optimizing routes in real time.
Smaller pilot projects, however, can be used to demonstrate early results.
“Don’t be intimidated by analytics. You can start small and simple and then build,” he said.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for companies that don’t use a lot of analytics,” Rans added, citing a study that says companies leveraging advanced analytics are twice as likely to be top financial performers. “You will be able to answer questions your competitors cannot.”
Look no further than disruptive businesses for proof. Uber, essentially the largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Airbnb owns no real estate. Facebook creates no content. “They’re monetizing data and they’re using this data,” he said.
While there is much information available, one of the biggest challenges will be trying to access it. The good news is that the process becomes easier with experience. “Once you do it once, you start to set up your pathways and processes,” he said.
As important as the data is, however, Rans also stressed the value of human intuition. “You really need the gut feel and the business knowledge,” he explained. Initial data, for example, might not be as reliable as it should be. But that can evolve with time. “You’re never going to have perfect data, but when you know it’s wrong, that’s when you need the gut feel or intuition to supplement it … Data informs decisions, but there’s always going to be that extra piece.”
Analytics shouldn’t be seen as the exclusive domain of the IT department, either. “Analytics projects are not just technology projects,” he said. “Analytics projects are not IT projects, and they don’t have to center around implementing IT systems.” The required skills combine business knowledge, information technology, and statistics. The process involves incorporating feedback about what it means and how it can be used.
“You don’t need to be an expert in analytics,” he said, noting how that support can be secured on an ad-hoc basis.
But above all, he stressed the need to act on the insights. Otherwise, the promise hiding in the data is wasted.