In some ways, the modern corporation can be defined as a form of ancient tribe constantly searching for a promised land of increased revenue, decreased costs, better return on investment, less expenditure on inventory, supercharged employee efficiency and zero percent downtime.
One route to that promised land of robust bottom lines and booming executive bonuses is the deployment of new technology.
Often the road to launching a new productivity system follows a predictable path. XYZ Inc. and ABC Consulting issue a joint press release stating that XYZ has contracted with ABC to create a miraculous remedy for a profit-sapping and long-standing ailment. Time passes and a constant stream of “smiley” press releases hit the Business Newswire servers.
Finally, the great day arrives. The new system goes live amid a flurry of the most ebullient, effusive announcements yet. The executives of XYZ and ABC praise each other as the greatest visionaries since Edison and Da Vinci and promise that their product innovation will benefit customers and shareholders more than a Gulfstream and a “buy” from Warren Buffett combined.
Generally ignored in all the hype are comments from those on the frontlines—from the blue- and white-collar rank and file charged with making the new technology live up to expectations and the mobile workers who will ultimately be responsible for whether the deployment will take the company closer to paradise or further out into the desert.
In this article we take a look at four deployments covered in depth by FFA over the last 18 months. The questions we asked were basic. Had the technology vendors’ claims been validated after a year’s performance in the field? Had the anticipated benefits been realized? Were there any unforeseen roadblocks to completing the initial deployments? Were there any pleasantly profit- or productivity-enhancing surprises? Were the vendors’ support staffs responsive and effective in dealing with issues?
The four case studies profiled below were selected without any prior knowledge of the relative success or failure of any of the new systems. At a time when the tech sector is being roundly castigated for over-promising and under-delivering, it was both surprising and reassuring to find that we were 4-for-4 in picking winners.
Associated Food Stores
WhereNet WhereTags: Tracking Trucks Made Simple
The original article appeared in our January 2002 issue.
Karlyn Mosier, senior internal logistic coordinator of Associated Food Stores, calls the WhereTag deployment at the 600-store chain’s North Ogden, Utah distribution center the “most wonderful thing ever invented.”
Looking at the empirical evidence it’s hard to argue the point. Prior to the addition of WhereTags virtually all of the 127 people working at the distribution center’s shipping yard were involved, to one degree or another, in keeping track of the approximately 65 tractors and hundreds of trailers regularly dispatched from the center.
These days, approximately 16 months after completing the WhereTag rollout, just six full-time managers are handling the job. “The loaders, drivers and everybody else were able to go back to doing what they were hired to do on a full-time basis,” Mosier says. “Today five people can manage this yard with 100-percent visibility and 100-percent accuracy.”
Jason Compton, writing in our January 2002 issue, reported that approximately $2 million worth of merchandise flowed through the yard during a typical 24-hour operating day.
Compton noted that the WhereTag system was intended to provide yard managers with many crucial pieces of data about their rolling inventory including “where all of the company’s trucks are from the time they enter the yard until they leave.” This data allows them to see the fastest way to get the right equipment and personnel to the right location to get the trucks loaded and rolling in the most efficient, cost-effective manner.
“It’s really been working well,” Mosier reports. “We had a few problems with tags issued by an outside vendor, but WhereNet responded very quickly with replacements. We operate in a tough climate so there have also been a couple of issues with the special tags that report the interior temperatures of the vans; but they were nothing that couldn’t be easily fixed via the trial-and-error method. WhereNet’s support has been impeccable.”
WhereTags are actually small RF transmitters attached to equipment to transmit identification and location data when passing WherePorts, receivers that are strategically located throughout the yard. Special purpose tags—such as those that measure temperatures inside the trailers—also upload their data at the WherePorts. The information then travels by cable to an antenna, which transmits it to the control desk in the yard office.
“Before WhereTags, all the rolling stock inventory control was performed manually,” Mosier says. “And it was all basically obsolete by the time we logged it because trucks were constantly coming and going. We were in a completely reactive state trying to manage the yard; now we do it proactively. Once a truck clears the WherePort when exiting the yard, the manager monitoring the display in the office finds out it’s gone within four minutes.”
Originally “hung” only on equipment based at the North Ogden yard, WhereTags have since been applied to tractors and trailers traveling to the Salt Lake City region from Associated’s other two operating divisions.
A project to fully implement the WhereTag system at the other divisions’ distribution centers is scheduled to begin in the second quarter of this year.
Oakland, Calif., Police Department
Padcom TotalRoam Ellipse: Intelligent Network Switching
The “Keystroke Cops” cover story of the August 2002 issue of FFA.
Strange as it may seem three years into the 21st century, many police officers have as much trouble connecting with each other as they do communicating with recalcitrant suspects.
Officers in laptop- or fixed-computer-equipped patrol cars, those with radio-only cars, patrol officers with handheld radios or wireless PDAs and undercover investigators with mobile phones can all contact their dispatchers. But, all too often, they fail to reach one another. And while officers in computer-equipped patrol cars can usually access a law-enforcement database, those patrolling on motorcycles, bicycles or unconventional vehicles such as ATVs cannot.
In our August 2002 issue, William Gillis and Matt Purdue profiled four different law-enforcement agencies and the solutions they implemented to provide their officers with greater access to information out in the field. Our profile of the Oakland, Calif., Police Department detailed its efforts to allow its officers to roam between different networks, while keeping its mobile application running seamlessly.
The Oakland PD found a solution built around Padcom’s TotalRoam Ellipse WLAN/CDPD switching application, Panasonic Toughbook notebook computers, AT&T wireless network services and Sierra Wireless WLAN cards, the new system was introduced in the fall of 2001.
With 53 square miles of turf—roughly divided between flatlands and rolling hills—and 26 square miles of water to protect, the Oakland PD’s communication needs are similar to those of many metropolitan departments. Flexibility, affordability, compatibility with legacy equipment, reliability and security are required. Of these, the latter two are perhaps the most important. To insure that reliability and security standards were met, department IT specialists spent nine months working with Padcom prior to deployment.
“We met with their people repeatedly,” says Inez Ramirez, a police officer working for the department’s technology division. “We made comments and suggestions and even shot down some of their ideas. We wanted to make sure the product was stable and had the security features public safety needs.”
As of this writing, the system—using legacy, hard-wired, vehicle-mounted computer displays in lieu of laptops—has been installed in about 200 patrol cars and is in the process of being installed on the department’s fleet of 35 motorcycles.
“We chose Panasonic Toughbook CF-34 notebooks for the motorcycle deployment because of their durability and integrated communications capability,” notes Ramirez.
At 3.8 pounds and 1.7 by 7.4 by 9.0 inches, the CF-34 is the smallest, lightest, MIL-STD-810F-tested, fully ruggedized computer on the market. Support for 802.11b WLANs, CDPD telephony and GSM/GPRS positioning systems are among the 700MHz Pentium III units’ internal communications options.
So far the department has installed three 11Mb Wi-Fi transmitters at key locations around the city and is using them to automatically update their patrol units’ databases via XcelleNet’s Afaria mobile-management solution.
“The Padcom application contains a little program that triggers the Afaria client and instructs it to contact the server and download any undated files,” Ramirez explains. “As soon as the officer leaves the spread-spectrum area—about 2.5 city blocks surrounding each transmitter—Padcom automatically shuts down Afaria to conserve bandwidth.”
Officer Ramirez says the upgraded communications infrastructure has made it possible for the department to begin implementing a completely paperless report-submission system.
“The standard operating procedure has been for an officer to fill out a report at the end of his shift and put it into a box [at his precinct house],” Ramirez says. “From there it would be checked by the appropriate supervisor and given to a data entry clerk to be input into our database. The total time before the information in that report would be available to officers in the field ranged from two to three days.”
“With the paperless system, the officer fills out a report form on his computer and transmits it to the database,” Ramirez continues. “A supervisor reviews it to make sure proper report protocols have been followed and OKs it for distribution. Typically, it takes less than 12 hours for the information to be available on the server.”
Even though the system has yet to be fully deployed, Oakland PD administrators are planning to expand its capabilities by adding additional components such as a centrally managed accident diagramming application. “That’s another reason we went with Panasonic for the motorcycle units,” Ramirez says. “They are full-fledged computers that can run anything we have on the fixed units in the patrol cars or the desktops in our stations.”
Applix iSales: Discreet Application of Advanced Technology
The original article from the November 2001 issue of FFA.
AMF executives make no bones about it: despite such innovations as electronic scoring systems, synthetic-surface lanes and barricades that make gutter balls a physical impossibility, bowling is a traditional sport. Most bowling centers are run by brick-and-mortar-oriented business people.
That’s one reason the company chose Palm 5x PDAs as the platform for deploying Applix’s iSales system to its North American sales force.
“We are unlikely to ever go to a pure laptop solution,” says John Fottrell, AMF VP of information technology. “Our customers are low tech so we needed a discreet device for our people to carry into the bowling centers. We wanted an information device that wouldn’t be perceived as getting between the customer and the sales rep. Once we figured out how to properly guard our resources to maximize what we could accomplish within the Palm’s memory limitations, it proved an excellent choice.”
As Merrill Douglas reported in our November 2001 issue, the impetus behind adopting the customized iSales solution was AMF’s inability to effectively “access information reps kept in memo pads or their heads.” According to Fottrell, the system has solved that information-retrieval problem and proved invaluable in many other ways.
Making AMF more competitive with vendors offering cut-rate supplies and third-party upgrades to AMF-equipped centers is, perhaps, the most tangible and visible effect of the new system.
Members of AMF’s sales force are not directly involved in structuring deals. Announcements of new products or special sales are distributed to center proprietors directly from the company’s headquarters primarily by mail and the rep’s job is to close sales and collect information that can be used to massage the next round of promotions.
“Everything that happens at the point of sale is entered into the Palm, copied to a laptop in the salesperson’s car and uploaded to our servers at the end of the day,” Fottrell says. “Among the items that must be entered are the number of customers called on, the state of each customer’s inventory, whether or not a sale was closed and the reasons why potential business was lost.”
All this information goes into an Applix iCRM suite that analyzes lost business opportunities and predicts what effect various changes in a given offering will have on its sales/no sales ratio.
“Kids hate to throw gutter balls,” Fottrell explains. “So maybe a customer has bought auto-bumpers and is using them on 15 percent of his lanes to accommodate birthday party groups or young children’s leagues. By having reps enter the auto-bumper penetration in their market and the reasons why some of their customers love them and others are resisting them, we can use our analysis module to determine when we should schedule our next auto-bumper promotion and how we can make it more effective.”
Fottrell admits that the deployment was “a cultural change (and) a little bit of big brother” for the sales force. “Acceptance was slow, but it caught on,” he says, crediting the diminished resistance to a great deal of “sensitivity” on the part of the company’s VP of global sales and service, John Walker, and a rapid response to suggestions from the field.
“For example, in trying to conserve memory, we decided they didn’t need access to the customer’s ID as well as his name,” Fottrell notes. “They thought they did, so we gave it to them. The salesmen began to feel they had an ownership stake in the system, and that’s one of the big reasons it was successful.”
Another reason for success was AMF’s prior experience with Applix. “The relationship hasn’t always been rosy,” Fottrell says of prior rollouts, “but we understood each other really well on this one and we both rose to the challenge of breaking new ground, especially with the Palm.”
As of December 2002, that challenge has been met so well that AMF is planning to deploy the system to its European and African sales forces later in 2003.
Central Parking Systems
Citrix Systems MetaFrame XP: Around The World On 10 Servers
The article as it appeared in our February 2002 issue.
By any standard, Nashville-based Central Parking Systems is huge. Huge in terms of the geographical distribution of its assets, huge in the volume of its daily business and huge in the amount of paper and magnetic bits consumed in the process of tracking transactions—transactions as detailed as the amount paid by the last car to leave the parking lot across the street from a medical office building located two continents away from company HQ.
In our February 2002 issue, Danna Voth detailed the dimensions of Central Parking’s operations: approximately 2.5 million vehicles parked every 24 hours in facilities spread over 40 states and 11 countries.
In her article, Voth reported on Central Parking’s deployment of Citrix Systems MetaFrame XP, an application-serving platform that enables Windows 2000 servers to remotely manage LAN, WAN, Internet and extranet applications.
As a satisfied, long-term user of Citrix’s ICA client, Central Parking director of network and systems Todd Sanford expected to have few problems rolling out MetaFrame XP. He wasn’t disappointed. “I can’t really tell you how responsive Citrix has been to our MetaFrame XP service calls,” he says. “We’ve never had a problem where we had to call them.”
Prior to the Citrix deployment, Central used a distributed system that required system maintenance and application upgrades to be distributed on diskettes and manually installed on each of the company’s approximately 1,000 workstations worldwide.
“Now we run every single thing we do on our Citrix servers,” Sanford says. “The complete system (MetaFrame XP coupled to Central’s previously installed Citrix NFuse Web Portal technology) has done more than expected. We can drill down to the level of individual lot attendants and track how many cars enter and leave the lot every hour, hanger tag usage and the number of monthly parking keys in use.”
Central Parking can develop applications, such as a proprietary accounts receivable system, and install them on the Citrix platform. It can then make them available to all its locations in about the time it takes to install them.
Overall, the company is so impressed with the efficiencies afforded by MetaFrame XP that it expanded the number of Citrix servers from 6 to 10 since the original deployment. Also in the works is a Citrix-server-based document-management system to enable clients for whom Central manages parking lots to access linked images of all the invoices, expense statements, operating reports, contracts and other documents relating to a specific transaction.
Elliot Borin, former editor of Portable Computing magazine, is a freelance writer based in Montana.