Recreating the Information Systems Organization

Suggestions for improving IS departments, computerized maintenance management systems, and reliability and maintenance operations in general.

The goal of any company's information systems (IS) department is to serve the business. When the typical internal customers are asked about the level of service they receive from their IS organization, the response is often not favorable. IS organizations are usually working very hard with limited resources and competing demands, and they often lack clear direction and priorities. With this perception so common, and with outsourcing on the rise, most IS organizations must evaluate their service and ensure they understand and are meeting the needs of their customers.

Substitute R&M for IS in the previous paragraph and it covers issues facing many reliability and maintenance organizations. The following discussion about recreating the IS organization provides insight for building a better working relationship with IS in your company. It also contains ideas for improving the effectiveness of the group responsible for managing maintenance information in your department, as well as some suggestions on how you can improve your relationships with internal customers such as the production organization

To develop into a highly reliable and functional service organization, the department must follow four basic steps. First, the group must assess current practices to understand the state of the organization. Next, the group must build a foundation for change. Only by developing a clear vision of the ideal state can change be successfully implemented. Third, the plan developed must be executed and implemented within the organization. Finally, as the benefits of the improvements are realized, the values and ideals generated must be reinforced in order to create an organization focused on continuous improvement.

Understanding the past
To better understand the current state of the IS organization, it is valuable to look at how the group may have evolved. This provides perspective and facilitates learning from the past without having to recreate it. Many IS teams were formed out of immediate necessity rather than by design. As companies grew to depend on technology more and more, they realized that a dedicated group of people was required to manage it. As the responsibilities of these groups grew, processes and procedures were developed by trial and error. Once the team found a procedure that worked, it became the only way to do it. Hence the phrase, we have always done it this way. When the procedures did change, it was usually because of a customer complaint or a new technology demand. These technology demands frequently came from customers in the company who believed they needed the latest and greatest tool or from the manufacturer that discontinued support for the current tool. Once this oc- curred, the small group of users that was upgraded to a new system with new software be- came incompatible with everyone else.

Once this cycle of change begins, the company is left with the choice of living with an inconsistent computing infrastructure or interrupting the business to upgrade systems and software for everyone. Both of these choices are painful. Most organizations, by default, live with the inconsistent computing infrastructure. As a result, the IS group is always fighting the latest fire rather than working on the larger picture of infrastructure, standard operating procedures, and documentation. This makes moving forward extremely difficult.

As this situation develops into something unmanageable, the frequent comment is that something should be done. That may be true, but what specifically should be done? That is a question only answered by an objective assessment and analysis of the company and the IS organization.

Assessing the current state
The assessment of the IS organization will provide information on how the department is serving its customers. To do this, the assessment must focus on the processes used rather than the technical elements of the infrastructure. Although a technical element such as the choice of computing platform is important, customer service is usually based on how well the customer's needs and expectations are met. Elements such as project management, work planning and scheduling, communication, and team culture are important to the customer. Good project management and work planning and scheduling set expectations for the team while clear communication allows the customer to understand and be a part of those expectations. The team culture is an indication of the overall attitude that the IS team member exudes to each client, greatly affecting customer satisfaction.

This assessment should be as objective as possible. This can be accomplished by involving a representative sample of people across the company so that all viewpoints are considered. The discussion should be based on a predetermined set of questions or criteria that the organization wants to measure, led by an unbiased facilitator. An example of points that could be included in the assessment criteria is shown in the accompanying Systems Assessment Grid, which includes a range of process-oriented topics. The criteria will prevent the team from getting off track or allowing personal bias to sway the outcome. Management support of the assessment is key to its success. If management does not support the objective findings, then the participants will not be honest due to a fear of retribution. When the assessment is complete, the results should be presented to the company and made public for all to see. This will encourage open and honest communication during and after the assessment.

Build a foundation for change
Once the IS organization has been objectively assessed, the team can decide what to change. As with any organizational change project, it is important to develop a strong foundation. The basic steps of a successful project foundation are to decide what better looks like and to create a game plan for getting there. These steps are not successful if the manager of the change process simply develops the answers and publishes them. There must be joint prioritization of project needs among the whole IS organization and a representative sample of its customers.

When a cross-functional group, which includes the IS organization, project management, and internal customers, reaches clarity on what should be done, it can proceed to develop a prioritized plan. Once the consensus for the project plan has been reached, this combined group must commit to it. This includes agreement about the necessary tasks, the relative priority of these tasks, the overall timeline for the project, and resource requirements for the change. Without this clarity, consensus, and commitment, the project is destined to struggle during implementation. This up-front planning is often avoided because it takes time and money while customers are demanding immediate action.

In order to develop the detailed improvement plan, the group must have an overall direction to follow. This may include information about the purpose, values, and principles of the organization. Defining such principles may seem difficult, but they should be kept simple. Every organization's principles will be based on their unique characteristics, yet some that should be followed are outlined in the accompanying section Key Principles for Information Systems.

Implement your vision
Once the details of the goal are determined, it is up to good planning and project management to implement the project. This planning and management role is often underestimated; don't be surprised if it becomes a full- time job. Whether an internal or external resource is identified to lead the project, he or she should be dedicated to the management of the project and understand the organizational change process. Implementation is by far the most visible and lengthy part of the project, but it is not the whole project. It is only as good as the assessment and foundation building that preceded it. Without them, the implementation phase is often disorganized and painful.

Reinforce your values
Exercise the values and principles the organization is seeking every day. This means that the company should know and understand the principles and values that were developed during the foundation-building process. The reinforcement of values and principles can come through personal example, process measurement, and a system of accountability. Process measurement includes things such as schedule compliance measurements, backlog trending, and amount of emergencies. Accountability is the combination of performance measurement and performance review. Simply stated, accountability ensures that tasks get completed. The process measurements and system of accountability details also should be developed during foundation building or early in the implementation so that expectations are clearly set.

The information systems and reliability and maintenance organizations can be challenging to improve due to the unique requirements placed on their members. It is important to follow the four steps outlined previously to create a great organization. First, understand what the current practices are. With that state in mind, form a team to define values and provide a vision of success for the organization. With that solid foundation to stand on, the organization is ready to make the real changes necessary to perform the way it envisions. Then, at last, the change must be reinforced for it to become a way of life. When the organization is aware of its history, current state, and future vision, it is ready for the next step, the revolution. MT

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is a senior consultant at Reliability Management Group Minneapolis, MN; telephone (612) 882-8122

Key Principles For Information Systems

The following principles of information systems service organization apply to reliability and maintenance organizations. Replace the words information systems (IS) with reliability and maintenance (R&M) to see how. These principles are especially applicable to the group within maintenance that manages the computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) and condition assessment systems.

Computing is a critical business necessity, not a luxury. Just as the phone company provides dial-tone service with high reliability, the IS organization must provide computing infrastructure reliability. Without it, the business is unable to serve its external customers efficiently. The team must ensure that reliability remains high as the project proceeds.

Contribute to the bottom line by serving those who create the bottom line. Rarely does the IS organization directly contribute to the bottom line of the company. The only way it can help the company succeed is to serve the people who have direct bottom line influence.

Customer service is the prime directive. The only thing an IS organization has to offer is service. Rarely does that team create the products it delivers. The knowledge of the company and the level of competent service are all that can separate the internal IS organization from a third-party vendor. Customer satisfaction comes from functionality and reliability The average computing customer wants his computer to function every time he needs it. The satisfaction of the customer is determined by how well the system works and with what level of reliability. It is important that the IS organization provides a reliable system that does the things that the customer wants, not necessarily the things that the IS team says the customer should want.

Processes need to work with the chosen technology. Too often, our internal processes conflict with the tools we use. People often blame the computer for not doing what they want it to do. This is like blaming a screwdriver for being a poor hammer. It is the responsibility of the IS organization to supply tools that will support the business processes already in place. If the tools are in conflict with the processes, neither will work effectively. Also, it is important to remember that the tools and the processes within the business should work together. Neither one should dictate the other. If poor processes force the company to under-utilize the tools at hand, maybe the processes need to be revised to maximize the benefit of the computer system.

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