In Men, Machines, and Modern Times, Elting Morison shares the story of a British officer in the 1940s who was reviewing his unit’s processes. Previously pulled by horses, the unit’s cannons had been mechanized, and the officer brought in an expert to study stop-motion pictures of a light artillery crew going through their firing drills. While running through the pictures one frame at a time, the expert noticed that a moment before the shell fired, two members of the gun crew came to attention and did nothing else until the firing ceased. The expert and the officer were stumped. The wasted three seconds were valuable; they could start reloading, communicate to the front, or any other productive task. But the officer couldn’t decide if maybe there was some good reason for the pause. The golden question was: Is this necessary?

So they contacted a seasoned artillery colonel, who was also confused at first. Then it hit him. “Ah,” he said. “They are holding the horses.”

Even though the unit had ceased using horses to pull their cannons into place, the soldiers were trained to pause three seconds, originally to hold the reigns and keep the animals from being spooked. As the unit mechanized, they’d neglected to get rid of a procedure. It was simply “just how we do it.”

You’re probably already running scenarios through your head about your own operation, because this situation plays itself out all the time in organizations big and small. Especially as technology continues to disrupt the world, that golden question is more important than ever: Is this necessary?

Let’s take a look at just a few ways K-12 transportation software can help you figure out where you might still be “holding your horses.”

  • Seeing the big picture. Let’s say a driver comes in and says, “Bill and I cross each other’s path twice every morning, and I bet we could free up some time if I handle his first couple stops.” What sort of processes do you have now for checking this? Maybe you call the other driver on the radio? Maybe you phone down to a dispatcher? Maybe you jump into your GPS software and have a look at the paths? However you do it, you’re probably relying on some kind of resource. The trick is pointing all those resources to one place, so you can be as efficient as possible in your research.
    • In order to provide the highest level of service, routing software should operate based on the needs of students, and not simply a collection of bus stops. Professional school bus drivers mean well with suggestions, but what they may not know is that Johnny is on that route because he can’t ride with Suzie, and Stop 3 had to be reassigned last year because of Daniel’s IEP plan that says he needs to be dropped off early at the resource center, halfway through the morning runs. If your software can’t easily track these nuances, then you’re much less prepared to understand your operation from that 10,000-foot level.
    • Or maybe your driver is right. Maybe you can reassign a few stops. Maybe you can overlay GPS information on your planned runs to be sure. If you can save even 0.2 miles and 6 minutes on one run per day, do the math and you may be able to save enough to purchase that new bus next year. In any event, you need to be able to use the software to do the research and then make that change so it’s a true reflection of your operation.
  • Deadhead and inter-route paths. The ability to track deadhead time on a fleet scheduling tool can be crucial to your operation. If your software only allows you to look at the times for the run path and doesn’t consider where each bus is coming from, then you’re less prepared to handle route changes or daily overrides. Especially with a tiered system, software that can carve out exactly where a bus is coming from – and build that in when you reassign – is much more useful than simply looking at time thresholds from the first stop to the last.
  • Bell time studies. With Versatrans Routing & Planning, the fleet schedule allows you to run an unlimited amount of what-if scenarios. The process doesn’t affect the current database of students, and all the user does is change the paramters for bell times and let the software recalculate – always based on student needs. The program gives suggestions for re-routing, how long each tier(s) will take, how many buses you’ll use, plus associated costs. If your current processes would force you to do all these things manually, then you may be caught holding your horses while administration officials wait for your take on feasibility.
  • Improving communication. I’ve talked to so many districts who have to place individual phone calls or use an imperfect school messaging system for communication, or who don’t reach out and simply react to the calls that come in. What’s important to understand is that there are new tools that allow your operation to be proactive. Surprise and please the public with proactive communication, sent directly from the transportation office to a transportation app on parent’s phones.

Transportation professionals everywhere have the daunting task of both finding efficiencies and increasing the level of safety for the students they serve. There are many tools out there to choose from, but we hope we have provided some insight into what to look for when choosing new ways to streamline your processes.

This month’s blog was inspired, in part, by Joe Byerly’s miliblog From the Green Notebook and his December 2017 post, “Let’s Stop the 100-Hour Work Week: Letting the Horses Go.” Thank you, Joe, for your insights and your dedication to improving our military leaders.

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