Technology alone can’t get it done

Confessions of a software developer

By Michael C. Hinckley

The software should simply provide a different platform for employees to do what they have always done.

Having spent the last 12 years attending transportation trade shows, I have come to anticipate this familiar scene: The owner of a bus company and his operations manager who has been with the company for 2-1/2 years walk up to our booth. The operations manager tells me he has been pleading with the owner since day one to get the technology they need to bring the company into the 21st Century.

The business has done well but they see opportunities to expand by acquiring a neighboring bus company and bidding for potentially lucrative work with a nearby school district. Such a move would require a sweeping implementation of technology to maximize resources and allow the company to scale to larger horizons.

Proper systems take time
Before these gentlemen walk away I hear the same two questions: “How much does something like this cost?” and more interestingly, “How long would it take us to get up and running?”

My answer to the second question has changed dramatically over the last few years. I used to say a week or two at the most, responding as though it related entirely to the software and training. I have since learned that proper implementation takes much longer; more like three to six months to become fully functional. The raised eyebrows and startled expressions remind me to explain the new variable in this longer implementation strategy. Once the operator has learned how the software works it will take several more weeks to adjust the workflow processes and customize the reports to make the most of the new system.

In the landmark book, Good to Great, business guru Jim Collins devotes an entire chapter to the role of technology in great companies. The crux of the study is the good-to-great companies use technology as an accelerator, not a creator, of momentum. None of the good-to-great companies began their transformations with pioneering technology, yet they all became pioneers in its application once they grasped how it fit into the operation.

For too many companies implementing new technology typically means bringing the software to the workplace and attempting to shoehorn current practices into the new system, when in fact the software should simply provide a different platform for employees to do what they have always done.

Make the system fit
Our most successful installations are with companies that review all the workflow processes of each employee affected by the change. Such a comprehensive and meticulous review is probably more important to improving the efficiency of the company than the technology itself. Without it, the technology implementation will be seen as a magic bullet sure to disappoint, as it merely digitally enshrines the inefficient workflow processes that were previously limited to an older software platform — or pencil and paper.

It is extremely common to see excellent employees using inefficient systems. Separating the user from the evaluation of the system is vital.

Employees are more important
This review is challenging, yet very simple, evident in the single question repeated throughout the review: Why do we do what we do the way we do?  Regardless of the nature of its business, a company has developed many practices as the result of personal preferences of employees (some who may no longer work for the company),  the specialized needs of a certain client or the limitations of old software. In many cases the complex processes a veteran employee has developed would be nearly impossible for a new employee to grasp should the local expert become incapacitated or unavailable to do the job.

The challenge for most employees involved in this review is overcoming defensiveness. Having visited hundreds of transportation departments throughout North America, we find it is extremely common to see excellent employees using inefficient systems. Separating the user from the evaluation of the system is vital. The review asks what is the most efficient way for this company to operate position by position given the available resources. This may mean moving responsibilities from one employee to another, telling a special client to adjust to the revised method.

No technology is perfect
Against the pull to settle for inefficient systems, a good operations manager must also resist the opposite urge to create the perfect system. In our first few years in business we were determined to bend over backwards for a very high profile client, which meant completely customizing many features to every
desire — resulting in myriad settings and complicated steps. We trusted the software to handle any possible scenario.

I will never forget what the owner relayed in a conversation several years after the implementation.  He told me that in retrospect he wished we would have told him that he simply could not have his way.  He wished he had forced us to use the system as we had designed it, because in the end he felt the technology became a monster for the company.

No software or workflow system is effective enough to remove the need for good employees who can make decisions and remember important information. With the goal of a technological system a monkey could use comes the irony that such a system requires computer scientist to administer the desired result.

At EasyBus, because we have seen the best practices of hundreds of transportation companies first hand, we find ourselves serving an unexpected role through our ability to clarify the uniqueness of each company.  Our best chance for success is when both the sales process and the training process is not one side or the other.  Rather than telling a client this is what we do, or this is what our software does, we engage in a dialogue to determine how can we work together to implement a solution that makes the company as efficient as possible.  It takes a little more time and effort but the results speak for themselves.

Michael C. Hinkley is president of EasyBus, Inc., Ballston Lake, NY.