The 2% Objection

July 13, 2015
If we take actions that are not in the interest of the satisfied 98% trying to appease the 2%, what message are we sending and what will be the impact on future customer cooperation and their attitude toward us?

One of the first tasks assigned to me when I joined TransAlta Utilities in 1985 was to develop a process for alternatives to repetitive tree pruning that was based on financial justifications. The manager assigned this to me because he had a suspicion that sections of line were being moved or placed underground not because it made any financial sense but to silence the squeaky wheels.

I developed a form our Forestry group could use that determined the present value of pruning based on private or municipally controlled trees and the length of the maintenance cycle. The form would then go to Engineering and they would assess if the present value of pruning was greater or lesser than the salvage value. When the present value of the pruning was greater the benefit could be captured on overhead systems or used to lessen the cost differential between overhead and underground which would be charged to the customer. While this process made sense, it was not popular out in our divisions and districts. You might think such a process would increase the use of alternates to repetitive pruning. Unfortunately, it took away their ability to silence the squeaky wheels because it turned out that the situations most clamorously protested were rarely financially favorable. The good part was that many fitting situations were identified by the Forestry group and other TransAlta employees.

What happens when you refuse to grease the squeaky wheels? Well some of them will button hole a VP at some public function. The stock response is “I’ll look into it.” Subsequently informed that the situation failed the financial test, yet needing some action the file landed at Public Affairs’ feet. Hence, Public Affairs’ plea to the Forestry group “isn’t there something we can do?”

The Public Affairs group at TransAlta conducted annual customer satisfaction surveys the results of which were presented to all employees. I noticed a pattern in the results. Regardless of the subject and question, there was always about 2% in the very unsatisfied category.

This recollection was brought to mind when I received an email from Jim Cole at United Illuminating referring me to Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority Report to the General Assembly Concerning its Review of Each Electric Distribution Company’s Vegetation Management Practices. The interveners who had previously pushed to require all vegetation management work be consented did not seem happy with the amount of work that was proceeding. Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) had a consent rate of 97%, 1% were modified and an objection rate of 2%. United Illuminating (UI) had a consent rate of 86%, a modification rate of 14% and an objection rate of 0.3%.

There is other interesting data and information in this decision and the responses to interrogatories. Here’s an excerpt from one of UI’s responses.

Further, in 2014, UI implemented a revised interruption reporting process to gather additional information related to the location of tree related damage relative to the UPZ (utility protection zone) as well as the hazard vs. non-hazard condition of trees that cause damage.  Based on 266 tree related events evaluated in 2014 it was determined that:

  • 61% of all customers interrupted by tree related events were due to tree or tree parts within the UPZ
  • Only 11% of the trees that caused outages were found to be hazardous

Pursuant to the fact that non-hazardous trees within the UPZ account for the majority of tree related events it is clear that the most effective Vegetation Management Plan would place a focus on this set of trees.  The ultimate level of reliability and safety obtained will be determined at the local level through execution of the process established in the state laws.

The eight foot line clearance dimension is the starting point for UI’s Vegetation Management specification and UI complies with state laws and regulatory requirements to ensure that decisions regarding trees are made using multiple risk and benefit factors with input from abutters and public authorities.  UI’s experience thus far has been that the vast majority of decisions can be made at the local level.

This excerpt is so rich it invites commentary. First, as I’ve been a strong proponent of failed tree investigations, could your utility provide similar clear, concise data? Secondly, kudos to UI. If only 11% of the trees that failed were hazard trees you’re doing a superb job on hazard tree identification. Thirdly, your objection level to tree work will be very low after “input from abutters and public authorities.” There’s a cost to obtaining consents but people want to be involved in decision making particularly when it involves their property. By explaining the what, why, when and having landowners involved in the decision they are inadvertently co-opted into the VM program. Satisfaction levels shoot to levels unimaginable for a utility used to simply providing notifications.

Circling back to TransAlta I pointed out to Public Affairs the 2% of very unsatisfied respondents (which they hadn’t noticed) and given the breadth of the subjects and issues studied one would have to conclude it was impossible to please everyone. If we take actions that are not in the interest of the satisfied 98% trying to appease the 2%, what message are we sending and what will be the impact on future customer cooperation and their attitude toward us?

As CL&P and UI are demonstrating, good data helps communication, garners support and perhaps just as importantly reinforces for company management confidence in its VM program.

About the Author

Sig Guggenmoos | P. Ag. CPC President, Ecological Solutions Inc., Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada

Education: Bachelor of Science in Agriculture B.Sc.(Agr.)

Accreditations: Professional Agrologist (P.Ag.); Certified Professional Consultant (CPC)

Organizations: Alberta Institute of Agrologists, International Society of Arboriculture, Utility Arborist Association, Industrial Vegetation Management Association of Alberta.

Mr. Guggenmoos was a chief architect of the TransAlta Utilities Distribution Line Clearance program, which reduced tree related outages 80%; saved 48 million dollars over two maintenance cycles; had a 98% customer satisfaction rating; and, showed a 21% increase in contractor crew productivity. He was responsible for the herbicide program, associated research and communication. In addition, he brought a financial focus to the program, developing processes for financial comparisons of alternatives to repetitive tree pruning and was intimately involved in the design and assessment of contracting methods.

As president of Ecological Solutions Inc. (Ecosync) Mr. Guggenmoos provides consulting services in vegetation management and biotic greenhouse gas mitigation strategies including biomass-derived energy.

Publications and Presentations:
Author of numerous abstracts and publications; numerous presentations to public, industry and professional associations including international conferences. List of publications available upon request.

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