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June 26, 2020 | 3 Mins Read

Simulating Service

June 26, 2020 | 3 Mins Read

Simulating Service


By Tom Paquin

Early in June, an ArsTechnica reader managed to uncover a strange piece of synergistic multimedia: SimRefinery. Developed by Maxis, creator of 1989’s SimCity, SimRefinery was a tool to help onboard workers at Chevron’s Californa oil refinery. Maxis had developed a division in the early 90’s called Maxis Business Solutions with the purpose of gamifying certain elements of knowledge management for employees and potential employees. In the words of librarian and archivist Phil Salvador:

Oil refineries are really, really complicated. That’s why Chevron wanted Maxis to make them a game like SimCity, to teach the employees at their oil refinery in Richmond, California how it all worked.

To be clear, they didn’t want a game that was supposed to accurately train people how to run an oil refinery or replace an education in chemical engineering. That would’ve been incredibly dangerous. What they wanted instead was something that showed you how the dynamics of the refinery worked, how all the different pieces invisibly fit together, like SimCity did for cities.

Games as training tools had a brief moment of popularity in the early 90’s, just as personal computers were becoming less of a hobbyist endeavor, and again began gaining traction in the early days of mobile apps. Written off as a novelty by many businesses, they are now more often tools for quizzes or simple trainings. What I find particularly interesting about SimRefinery, though, is that it’s more about the systems that make up a business, how they work together, and what happens when failures occur. In SimCity, you could trigger “disasters”, which ranged from tornadoes and fires to alien invasions and kaiju encounters. Interestingly, those scenarios were brought into SimRefinery as well, and offered users the ability to figure out how to mitigate loss and rebuild after these horrific catastrophes.

Of course my mind inevitably goes to service, where the number of interlocking systems, on a macro level, are substantial. Think about the global enterprise, attempting to manage business from a central hub, then nationally, then regionally, then to service territories, then down to individual sites (like a refinery, for instance!). Add in the complexity of parts management, contracted labor, and product manufacturing (if appropriate) and a refinery seems almost quaint by comparison.

Are there any service-focused games that have that level of detail? None that I know of, certainly not any of any particular use to the enterprise. Of course, with any such simulation tool, you need to start with what the intended use actually is. If it’s training, that’s one thing, if it’s showing people how systems work, that’s another. I’d argue, however, that simulations like this work best for service when they serve the purpose of preparing forecasting and scenario planning for businesses.

Recently I wrote about the importance of multi-time horizon planning in service. If you take the broadest piece of that, the strategic piece, you can start to see a practical use case for simulation in service. “What-if” scenario planning is a key component of best-in-class planning optimization, and though it might not be as much fun as working your way through an alien invasion, but imagining how specific scenarios impact your real service capacity, you can have the right contingency plans on hand to ensure your business is ready for anything.

Imagine how the COVID-19 crisis would have been handled differently if you could take your scheduling, parts, and operations plans and set up a system of scenarios wherein you account for massive drops in workforce availability, or travel restrictions, or decreases of specific types of service appointments. Think about that, even today, as plants, manufacturers, and retailers come back online and assets re-enter serviceability. How can you scale up? How many contingent employees do you need to bring on? What’s practical for scheduling.

Though not as flashy as SimRefinery, all of these capabilities are available today, and are powerful tools in helping you plan appropriately for tomorrow’s challenges, no matter the scenario. They may not be able to help you prevent an alien invasion, but they’ll keep your business running.