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When Second-Best Is the Best Choice

By Tom Pettibone  |  Posted 2003-04-01 Print this article Print

Sometimes the right system isn't the best system in the house, but it's the one that gets you moving.

One benefit of arriving at a new company is that you come in with an absolutely fresh perspective. You can look at everything with virgin eyes. You can ask all the dumb questions. And if you can't get a good answer, you immediately know where you need to start looking.

I came to New York Life Insurance Company as chief information officer in 1987, and after a couple of weeks' due diligence, I went to the vice chairman and said, "The way you guys do business is like the 18th century." I explained my idea to him—a plan that would put information at agents' fingertips. He said, "We're never going to see that in my lifetime, and probably not in yours." I said, "You've got a bet." And we actually did—I think the bet was $25. I had to lay it on the table.

The plan was to push graphical interfaces out to agents instead of having clerical people entering data. There were more than 10,000 agents—too many for me to really affect on my own—but luckily there were a half-dozen technically savvy Young Turks among them. It was their input that shaped the project. They were able to explain it to their peers—as peers, instead of it feeling forced from above. I was the technical guru, but agents bought into it because they owned it. Sure enough, in the span of a year we were rolling this thing out. And I pocketed the $25.

But finding the right answer isn't always that simple. Systems have to be implemented for their business impact and sustained for business value. If you find a system that doesn't have a lot of business value and there's no user champion fighting for it, it's easy to end it. If a program's a turkey, everybody's ready to shoot it. It's much tougher to pull the plug on a winning system.

I was at Richardson-Vicks when it was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 1985. Suddenly we became very large. I welcomed the transition—not that I wanted us to lose our autonomy, but it was interesting to get into P&G and see all its systems, and how a company of that size really worked. We were two consumer-goods companies, each with leading brands, but with considerably different ways of doing business. More than systems integration, though, my emphasis was on product integration. I said, "Look: We've got a bunch of great brands here—Vicks NyQuil, VapoRub, Pantene, Sassoon. We've got to get these into the P&G supermarket campaigns." Essentially, my task was to get our inventory rolled into P&G's as quickly as possible. But integration's not always intuitive. Sometimes you choose the second-rated system because it enables the business as a whole to operate efficiently.

Our inventory system was significantly better than P&G's—it was brand-new, and offered not just the ability to track and monitor more data but a much better replenishment algorithm, as well. P&G's system was old and home- grown, and it could be both rigid in its file structure and restrictive to modify. But we just had to swallow hard and say, "Our stuff's going into their system." There was no way they could load all their products into ours, no matter how much more efficiently it ran. We could have delayed the process, perhaps—dragged our feet about it—but it would've cost us a lot more later on. Instead, this became a chance to show our willingness to work together within the new mother ship. With that attitude, we were perceived to be part of the team right away. That kind of integration is priceless.

I've never fought a losing battle—I try to be reasonable instead. You don't have to be cutting edge. You can choose to do some things with used equipment. It's OK to go with the prior generation of software instead of the newest release. It comes down to looking at the current process and ignoring what's being done. Or, more accurately, looking at the elements of what's done today and asking, "Well, how can I do that better?" If it were a perfect world, there might be a simple answer. But what you're really asking is, "How do I do it better with the technology I have at my disposal?" That can be more complicated.

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