Mark Steelman, Director of Operations – Texas MUDs, Inframark
I have worked in water and wastewater field operations since Saint Patrick’s Day of 1997. I did prepare for work that morning by donning a green shirt and walking into a small city hall having no idea what a water operator was. The work was simple, complete tasks my boss assigned and every once in a while, fill out a work order to turn in to City Hall. This was my first exposure to work orders. It was not a CMMS by any means but it brought information from the field to the office to update a billing and work order system.
Fast forward over 20 years and I now hold a Director of Operations position with over 250 employees on my team. My company’s business model is primarily of a time and materials makeup. Up until a few months ago our region alone printed, filled out by hand, entered, and billed around 20,000 work orders each month on paper! I would imagine anyone reading this might imagine to themselves…...why? Why would a large operations group pour all of the resources into such a manual process? Why not get a new system to resolve this issue? Why stay with this process for years when there are solutions out there?
My inbox routinely gets hit with solicitors reaching out to me because they have a system that will “Solve so many of my issues!” or “Bring new efficiencies than I could never imagine!” But in the end, they are just another system that need to be built, customized, and implemented properly or that new shiny system may not only drag down your business, it may also damage your workflow and ultimately hurt the bottom line. Too often leaders select a system, hire a consulting firm to send a team in and implement the system, and the team using the system are left wanting or frustrated with the final product. If a system causes you to lose functionality or inhibits your current processes, it’s the wrong system for you!
“Ensure that a proper timeline, statement of work (SOW), and service level expectations (SLE) are part of the agreement that is signed between you and the vendor.”
I have been involved in many system implementations. Some went well. Some went great! Others did not go well and I’ve been a part of a team that pulled the plug entirely after many hours had been dedicated to a new mobile work order system and CMMS. So, the question is: What is the right work order system for you? There are many tier-one platforms out there that most definitely might fit your needs but not everyone has the budget for those. Are there risks with a smaller company’s system, of course, but I am here to tell you all systems experience downtime. If you get a sales pitch from a software vendor that says they never have downtime, run. Also, if they are not willing to share uptime/ downtime metrics with you it may be a good idea to explore other options, but I digress.
This article is intended to help guide you through system implementation, lessons I’ve learned, strategies to ensure your next software purchase is smooth, and most importantly ensure that you get what you need and that is a system that is built around your processes, not the other way around.
Where do we start?
There are 3 main areas that make a business run.
If you’re wondering, those are in a particular order for a reason. If you don’t have the right people to lead a project and you don’t have clearly identified processes no technology is going to come and save your business (no matter what the salesperson is pitching).
We, as leaders, need to split our people out into groups for this portion of the exercise. Who are the leaders? Who will you need on an implementation team? Who will be using the product? Are there any support departments that are going to be affected by a system change or upgrade?
After we have these lists, I want you leaders out there to ask yourself one question: Who’s the most important group in the list you have made? Answer, it’s the people that will be using the product. If the folks using the product don’t have a say in what they need, you’re off to a horrible start.
Who’s on the implementation team? Yes, you need an in-house team, not just a team made up of consultants. Consultants don’t and will never understand every facet of your business. Your team will need to drive the consultants for the system they need. It’s important that those team members be strong and that each member of the team is an affected person of the system with knowledge of your current processes.
Speaking of processes, don’t even contemplate making a system change or upgrade until you are certain that your processes are efficient and documented. If you don’t already have a process this is the time to put things on paper and formalize your day-to-day processes. If your processes aren’t documented how are the software implementers going to understand what you do and what you need? A simple flow chart will suffice that outlines each step of your work process and who is responsible for each step. You may discover there are some efficiencies to gain at this step!
Now is the time! It’s time to begin searching, selecting, and implementing your new software. Demos are tricky. Vendors will show you all sorts of things. It is very important to understand what’s “out of the box” and what are add-ons to their system. Make the vendor show you a live demo, not a PowerPoint slide deck. It’s even better if you can send them some of your information so they can set up a sandbox database that you can play with. If a vendor isn’t being flexible and accommodating at this stage it won’t be better once you sign a deal with them. List out your needs. Wants should be on a separate list. Make sure your needs are covered first before you address your wants. Ensure that a proper timeline, statement of work (SOW), and service level expectations (SLE) are part of the agreement that is signed between you and the vendor. All of your needs and wants should be covered in the SOW as well as the amount of support you will have from the vendor during software buildout and implementation. The SLE dictates what happens in the event of an outage, downtime, or lost data. Perhaps there are monetary penalties in these instances. This is all negotiable. Never let the vendor strong arm you at this stage. If the software solution is “out of the box” and can’t be enhanced, be wary. Software should be fit to your specific processes and needs, not the other way around. Also, if the vendor says their agreement is standard and can’t be amended, take a hard look. This is a sign that the vendor is inflexible and may be hard to work with. Lastly, talk to others using the system. Do your research and don’t just go off of references. This is the time for you to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Purchasing and implementing new software is an exciting time for some of us. Others may anticipate coming changes and cringe. Nonetheless, this is a critical time for you and your team. You get to improve the way you do business. You get to drive the change to implement a system that will bring efficiency and modernize your approach. Take your time and make sure you understand everything before proceeding. Don’t let IT speak bully you out of a question you need to ask. If you don’t understand something, ask! I hope this has been a helpful overview of my experience with system projects and implementations. If you have any questions or need a bit of advice, I’m always happy to help a fellow operations professional. I can be reached at email@example.com.
Rebecca Delaney, P.E., Associate Director and Operations Leader for Sustainable Engineering Studio, and Luke Leung P.E., ASHRAE Fellow, LEED Fellow, BEMP, P Eng, Director of Sustainable Engineering Studio, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill