Inspection by appointment

A smart tool will help Customs to plan inspections of goods more efficiently. Market parties must soon also reap the benefits.

For Dutch Customs, there is a new method on the horizon for the planning of inspection assignments. With an innovative self-learning tool for its regional Work Distribution Points (WDPs), the service is killing two birds with one stone: a more efficient use of its own people and resources, plus better service to the logistics sector.

“The demand for a smarter management of our physical supervision is not necessarily new,” says Edwin Koop, deputy director of Customs region Eindhoven. “There is now a tender for an automation tool that enables us to plan inspection assignments more tightly. All WDPs and other organizational units are involved in the request. As it looks now, we will be able to sign a contract with a supplier before the summer. And by autumn, we want to run a pilot project with one or two regions.”

Better information position
The distribution of inspection assignments is still largely a manual, and therefore labour-intensive, process, according to Koop. “They come from the Customs National Tactical Centre to the various WDPs. When distributing them, they consider such questions as: Who is on call today? Which colleague can I put in and where? Can we handle all incoming assignments? How long before employee A is finished with his inspection? Can I send him to a next location? Are his competencies in keeping with this assignment? It is worth a compliment that the WDPs always seem to manage to get people to the locations on time. That is especially the case when you consider that they have to deal with attendance schedules, physical planning boards and Excel schedules, and that their information position is limited. Thus, the planners have no insight into where the supervisory staff from other regions are located. Sometimes, someone has to travel 80 kilometers to an inspection location, while a colleague from an adjacent region is just 15 km away.”

Self-planning via new portal
On the basis of the declaration that a company sends in, Customs decides if an inspection of the goods is necessary. If that is the case, the administration sets up the inspection in accordance with agreements with the market within the agreed ‘response time’. Koop: “That is still linked to the moment the declaration, including documentation, comes in – then the clock starts ticking. With the WDP tool, we want to create a different dynamic to see, together with the customer, which inspection time is, logistically speaking, the best for everyone. Now we come by between 12.00 noon and 1.00 pm, if a company sent the declaration at 10 am. But maybe they say: the truck isn’t going to leave until 9 pm tonight, so 6.00 pm is also fine with us. Soon, everyone will have the chance to determine, via – within the block times offered – his time preference for the inspection. This portal must eventually become the window for all interaction with our service.”

National standard
Koop continues: “Regional differences in approach – some WDPs offer the opportunity to call for an appointment, others do not – will soon be a thing of the past. On the basis of competences, availability and geographical distribution, the tool determines who goes where. WDP supervisors receive the various scenarios for the most optimal planning. And those are, where necessary, cross-regional. To make that possible, the Customs National Tactical Centre will have to define all inspection assignments even more stringently. Without standardization, it is not possible to plan cross-regionally. To create a good match and to utilize people throughout the entire country, you also need uniform competency profiles.”

Better spread of peak moments
The intended tool should be a self-learning system that Customs can use for analytical purposes, explains Koop. “We do not now know, for example, how long certain inspections take, what factors can explain possible regional differences. Soon, we hope to see where, nationally, the most physical inspections take place between noon and 2 pm, and where and when that peak shifts to another region. Also, the tool must map out how long the inspections over a specific period took. On the basis of that kind of information, we can do more in less time, and use our staff in a much more focused manner. It is expected that, thereby, the hustle and bustle is better spread out throughout the day. Also, this will result in a decrease in much of the ‘downtime’. It sometimes now happens that no following inspection assignment is available for an employee. Or, he must drive so far away that the scheduler asks him to stay at his current location, in the expectation that a new job will come up in the foreseeable future. The staff does not experience that mandatory waiting time as a useful allocation of their time.”

The new method does mean that employees have less freedom in arranging their day, says Koop. “This requires a culture change. Via information campaigns in all of our regions, we involve the colleagues concerned in all of the changes. We will, however, continue to work with PLATO, our application for planning and allocating physical inspections. Now, an employee calls a WDP when he has completed his inspection; soon, he will provide continuous status updates via his iPad – when he starts with an inspection, when it is completed. But we will also look at possibilities to automate notifications.”

At the right time
The plans for the WDP tool have been extensively discussed in the Customs-Business Consultation forum, and the associations within it seem to embrace the objectives of the administration. There are still, on the side of trade and logistics, the necessary questions and wishes (see the box below). “Of course, we take those very seriously”, emphasizes Koop. “We do everything we can to increase the reliability of our organization, because that is of great importance for the logistics sector. As of now, we are committed to coming within the agreed time. It is, of course, even better if we come at the right time, so that we continue to strive for further minimization of the disruption of the logistical process. And it would be great if response times became superfluous and good agreements were to replace them.”

Market expectations
Entrepreneurs in the transport and logistics sector are positive about the developments surrounding the WDP tool which, in their view, fits into a wider movement towards a more efficient and faster inspection process. They do, however, have various questions and wishes regarding the tool. Their hope and expectation is that it will contribute to:
• faster handling of inspections so that goods are immediately released as soon as a consignment proves to be in conformity. After all, speed is important, especially when it comes to air cargo, for example.
• less hassle when re-routing inspections. At the moment, changing the intended inspection locations still requires a lot of communication between companies and Customs’ various WDPs.
• flexibility in planning inspections. The WDP tool must not lead to such rigid schedules that customs officers can no longer combine multiple inspections on location. A distinction must also continue to be made between import and export shipments, and between different types of goods (such as perishable and non-perishable).
• a uniform working method in all customs regions. For example, in one region appointments for inspections need to be made between companies and Customs while, in another region, Customs comes to check without previous notice. These kinds of differences do not always benefit the image of the organization as one administration.

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