Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Learning from experience

When you're doing any sort of serious developmental work, whether it's solving a problem or exploiting a new opportunity, you have to start by defining your preferred outcome then look at all the possible options for getting you there. One of the things that constantly dismayed me when working in public libraries was just how limited "all the possible" usually was, and that these limitations were often imposed as a matter of principle rather than practice. Often summed up with a look of complacent contentment and the mantra: "Ah well, you see, they don't work the same as libraries." I still bump into this thinking quite regularly on the lists and social media, often as a dogmatic statement along the lines of "Libraries have got nothing to learn from…" This is, of course, the veriest nonsense: libraries can learn a great deal from other business operations, if only the reasons why adopting a particular policy or process would be a bad idea in a public library context (and that aren't "Ah well, you see, they don't work the same as libraries.")

The other reason why it is nonsense is that although a business operation may be very different to yours some of the operational functionality requirements may be very similar, or the same. There's no particular philosophical or ethical difference between opening the public doors to a library first thing in the morning and opening the public doors of a shop, for instance.

The exciting thing about not imposing any constraints on where ideas can come from is that you can often find alternatives to the organisation's "default setting" that are cheaper and more effective to apply.

The responsibilities in my last job included a transport management system called Tranman. Very generally speaking it was used to manage the council's fleet of vehicles and the jobs done in the vehicle workshop. Some of the jobs done in the workshop were part of the routine maintenance work included in the service level agreements with the council departments using the vehicles. A lot weren't: repairs necessitated by accidents or driver abuse were chargeable extras and the workshop also did a lot of private repair work, services and MOTs as part of the operation's income generation. Extremely different to the business operation and purpose of the public libraries I was also supporting.

They had a problem. A lot of the jobs were taking ages to complete and invoice on the system because they were missing information about the parts that were issued to them. Even worse, some jobs had been completed and invoiced without including the rechargeable costs of the parts. This was playing hob with their cash flow and making the accountants cross. So we had a look at it and basically the situation was:
  • There was a manual process involving somebody trying to catch up with a pile of paperwork at the end of the month
  • There was a technical solution which could automate the stock issue but wasn't being used
What was needed was for the parts to be issued to the jobs in as close to real time as possible and that wasn't going to be done manually from the paperwork.

We had a long, hard look at the technical solution. None of us were big fans. It was hard work to get set up and running and, frankly, was over-engineered for its purpose. On paper it looked great:
  • A piece of software on the stores manager's PC generated barcoded labels for each part, the barcode including the appropriate part number and bin, together with a human-readable description.
  • The parts bins were labelled up accordingly.
  • When a part was to be issued to a job the store man entered the job number into a PDA, read the appropriate barcode and entered the number of items being issued.
  • The PDA was then plugged into a console attached to the store manager's PC and the data uploaded into Tranman.
In reality it wasn't so hot:
  • The barcoded labels soon got scruffy and unusable.
  • We could make the barcodes on the labels as big as we wanted but the descriptive text was always tiny and difficult to read, especially in some of the darker corners of the store room.
  • The keys on the PDA were very small (6mm across), which was difficult enough for me with my never-done-a-stroke-of-hard-labour-in-his-life delicate fingers and not a lot of fun for workers who'd spent years bashing their finger ends on bits of metal on cold Winter's days. The incidence of input error was high.
  • Uploading the data was a bit hit and miss at first: it took quite a while for us to iron out the problems and making sure the solutions were properly packaged into the virtual application. (I for one was praying nothing happened to that PC as I wasn't confident we wouldn't have at least a few of these problems again with a new deployment of the software.)
  • It wasn't easy to see where and when something went wrong. The lack of transparency meant that you couldn't do any quality control to make sure that the right parts actually were being issued to the right job.
Something had to be done. 

We looked at various somethings: we spent far too long trying to sort out better barcode labels; then we had a fruitless quest for a more user-friendly PDA that could do the job. Over the next few months, in between a pile of other pieces of work we were doing with this system, we tweaked this process as best we could but in the end it felt more like we were working through levels in an arcade game rather than getting anywhere with improving the process and addressing the cash flow problem. By this stage I was thoroughly fed up and went and had a sulk in my tent. On reflection it was apparent that all we had been doing was following the same ploughed rut over and over again. 

We'd let our problem-solving be dictated by the "solution" rather than either the problem or the desired outcome.

So I looked again. And wondered why the issuing of parts to a job in a vehicle workshop was very much different to the issuing of library books to a borrower…

The solution I came up with was cheap, not especially elegant but did the job and could be seen to do the job. There were two elements:
  • A standard barcode reader, same as you'd see in a shop or library
  • A folder containing sheets of labels including all the information needing to be entered into the job record:
    • The description of the part in a large, readable font
    • The part number as a barcode (using the "3 of 9" font)
    • The bin number as a barcode
    • The store location as a barcode
The process was:
  • The request comes in for the part for the job
  • The stores man gets the part then opens the job record in Tranman
  • The part number, bin number and location are input by reading the barcodes from the appropriate sheet
  • The only manual input is the number of parts
  • The parts are issued to the workshop
For out-of-hours working the process was:
  • The request for the part is recorded on a paper job sheet
  • The fitter working on the job gets the part
  • Next working day the stores man issues the part in Tranman as above
Getting a working test sheet turned out to be a bit of a problem because initially I was doing it in MS Word and the formatting it imposed was disabling the begin and end codes of the barcode (an asterisk *). Jacking it in and doing the job in Wordpad gave us some test sheets we could use to demonstrate proof of concept. I used Crystal Reports for the final print out of all the parts.

Sadly, this is as far as I got with it by the time I was leaving. We'd checked that each step should work as expected but we'd not given the process much hammer and inevitably there'd be some snagging to do. One thing I'd have liked to have done, given the time, would be to modify the Crystal Report so that the first few pages were limited to the high-volume items, to save the stores men having to routinely wade through so many pages.

So that's how I applied a bit of standard public library functionality to a problem in a completely other environment.

So what are the takeaways from this?
  • Don't mistake differences in business operation with differences in operational functionality. In this case, issuing an item in real time is issuing an item in real time.
  • If your problem-solving energies are being devoted to the solution perhaps you've got the wrong solution.
  • To solve a problem you have to know what problem you're solving and the outcome you desire of the solution.

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