Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Simplify

Simplify. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

The challenge? Make our user tools simpler. Examples of these simple tools abound. Steve Job’s design-oriented approach has led to innumerable simple apps that even children can use with no training.

And yet, our industry (involving project, cost, asset, maintenance, people, materials, reliability, earned value management) continues to be plagued with applications that:

  • Cost millions of dollars to implement
  • Take months or years to roll out
  • Require large numbers of people in implementation teams
  • Grossly under-deliver following long delivery cycles—as is evidenced by the spike in use of spreadsheet and other data tools
  • Burden end-users with mind-numbing processes that clearly are not logical in their particular work environments

These are just some of the challenges that accompany the installation of ERP (enterprise resource planning), EAM (enterprise asset management), CMMS (computerized maintenance management), and PMO (project management office) systems.

Alan Cooper, in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, pinpoints the root cause of clunky apps—the lack of a design approach to solution development. So how does that complicate the "simplicity" we're all aiming for?

IT’s View of Simplify

Simplification is one of the primary reasons that IT departments, and the corporate officers that they influence, love ERP, EAM, CMMS, and PMO systems. They hold the promise that other ad hoc systems and spreadsheets currently in use will be swept away and replaced by the shiny new, one-size-fits-all system that allows the entire enterprise to snuggle into a single system. It is a compelling vision! Which manager could not like the image of all of the worker-bees doing their work in their predefined slots while the big enterprise database is humming away, happily delivering exactly the data you want, when you want it and how you want it?

So, the company jumps into the ERP world with both feet, no holds barred. An employee that protests that the new ERP does not do what he or she needs done is sidelined as an obstructionist, his or her career adversely impacted. A request for a review of business rules is viewed through the lens of the new system—can the ERP support this? If yes, then it’s OK; if no, then we need to re-visit the business rule. Never mind that it is a business practice that has been one of the key factors leading to our years of success, until now. IT needs trump business needs.

The User’s View of Simplify

OK—we now have the ERP in place, let’s make the best of the situation. I cannot do what I want to do, but I can get most of the data that I need in the ERP. I can export this data to a couple or three spreadsheets, combine the data, and do the math in the spreadsheet and, voila, I can still do what I was doing! Days and weeks and months go by and my time is now pretty much settled into a routine of exporting data, combining it, and reporting it.

This is just one, all too common, user scenario. Spreadsheets now fill up the hard disk or the file-storage system. The results of all of this spreadsheet-based analysis is nowhere that enables historical trends to be viewed. User job satisfaction plummets. Users that used to spend time in the field working with equipment and people are now tied to their workstations. The apparently simple solution of using a spreadsheet has now morphed into a convoluted, tangled mess that the user is hard-pressed to even train another user in.

Consultant’s (Our) View of Simplify

Corporate IT and business users have now both landed in a messy relationship—not part of the original plan—that was based on the promise of simplicity.

Big forces (Corporate IT) have caused the ERP to be deployed. The money has been spent. Our solution needs to include the ERP, not ignore it.

Spreadsheets (and other user productivity tools) are so intuitive to use, that people with initiative use them to simply get their work done. They need to be commended. These spreadsheets need to be analyzed and, if they contain business processes that are mission-critical to the department or corporation or project, their functionality needs to be included in a simple, function-focused app.

This simple app, while being easy for the user to use, does amazing things under the hood. It uses data from the ERP, puts data into the ERP, and utilizes whatever legacy tools and repositories and other systems that it needs—all the while maintaining its simplified user interaction. In other words, the user does not have to be burdened with following that data maze that was created by poor decisions and poor design.

Sound simple enough?

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