Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Achieving Success in Automation

Businesses today face a stark reality: anticipate, respond, and react to the growing demands of the market place or perish. This is even more pressing in our travel and transportation industry. In a fiercely competitive environment, business strategy not only determines success, it governs business survival. Now, more than ever, effective business strategy centers on aggressive, efficient use of information technology. But time and again, we see massive failures and delays of automation projects in spite of a comprehensive plan and thought put into those projects. Having been through quite a lot of successful and a few of not so successful automation projects, I thought it’s time to pen my thoughts on the things that have worked in our industry. Here are my top 10 list of things to look out for before embarking on an IT project:

1.       Success – Defining success and figuring out how to measure it is arguably the most important aspect before finalizing the business case for a large scale project. Too often, we assume that success is defined as on time, on budget, and meeting the defined requirements. The project may still be considered a failure if it doesn't deliver the expected business value.
2.       Process – Buy into the processes associated with the software just as much as the software itself. Expect and plan for process changes as you implement the software, rather than applying layers of metaphorical duct tape to a package in order to support a “my way or the highway” approach that has killed many a project. During the software sales cycle, the process and “way of doing things” that the software assumes are just as important as the pretty screens and fancy features. Thinking you can drastically modify one or the other is a recipe for disaster.
3.       Champion – It’s very important for key stakeholders to remain in those positions until the value of the project is delivered. As a plan B, a buy-in from second in line leaders is also important. When projects are 6 months and longer, when the key stake holders leave, in most cases if the next in line don’t buy the vision, the project could get delayed, scope creep and scrapped.
4.       Decisions – As a team, be prepared to make tough decisions that were unpopular with your team, manager or customer to keep the projects on time and budget. Be it finding the right resources for the right roles, business process changes, or communicating in advance.
5.       Customization – Whenever possible, take the system as is – get to know it, use it and document the deficiencies. The customizations are a lot more meaningful and this will also keep the scope creep in check. If budget is the issue, bank some hours for customizations as phase 2.
6.       Define –Sometimes, the people involved in a project—the project manager, team members, steering committee members and sponsor(s)—don't understand their roles and responsibilities because no one defines them. Oversight, setting expectations and asking questions are part and parcel of the equation. Examples of project managers (PM) not showing up for meetings, sponsors not asking questions on scope creep, subject matter experts (SME) in full time jobs not being able to focus on projects. Similarly, vendor resources are over stretched, PMs and SMEs
7.       Documentation While thinking about customizations, try to enforce transparency into the system. Try to get as much as the functional specifications into online help or a knowledge base. Move away from soft copies of documents. Key to have milestones on online help or knowledge base within the system. Users keep moving on and its key to have a central repository of information.
8.       “‘Til death do us apart’” – May sound obvious, but too often, systems implementations fail, because end users are overwhelmed with information and do not understand the system. Retraining after a few months post cutover and time spent hand holding goes a long way adopting the new system.
9.       Test – Quality assurance efforts such as integration testing, black box testing, functional testing and stress testing often get short drift on projects. Sometimes customers get the test scripts from the vendor – that may not be a lot of help!!
10.   Risks – Risk management should be part of any level of planning, whether initial project planning or phase- or stage planning for each new portion of a project. All too often it’s done upfront and then not revisited. Along with the critical success path, have a Plan B if things were to go wrong.
I am sure you have your ‘top 10’ as well and drop me a line if you’d like to share it.

Mukundh Parthasarathy
VP, Cargo Product Management & Marketing