When You Have a Big Rollout, Start Small

By Ken Lacy  |  Posted 2005-04-06 Print this article Print

Make sure your new system is bulletproof. If it's not, it will be the shot heard around the world.

When I became chief information officer of United Parcel Service in 1996, I encountered my biggest challenge as a technology manager. The staff was developing shipping software that resided on a customer's computer, and was intended to help automate the shipping and tracking of packages.

The customer would enter information such as his or her name and address along with the delivery address, and print out a shipping label that would be placed on a package. At the end of each day, the customer would dial into our network, and the information would be loaded into our centralized system.

The software, however, wasn't working right. The labels didn't always print properly. Our business development staff got swamped with complaints from customers, who returned to using hand-written shipping labels to send packages.

With only three months on the job, I went to my boss, CEO Jim Kelly, and said, "Jim, I cannot let any more of these systems go out of the door. It's the right technology for our customers, but I need six months to fix the problems."

He let me shut down the deployment for six months. We reprogrammed the software, and did a lot of testing. We fixed the application within six months. Eventually, the software was in place on more than 500,000 computers in corporate shipping centers around the world.

If you roll out an application or system to a large number of people—either external customers or internal employees—the technology needs to be bulletproof from the start. You have to test as much as possible and run pilot projects to make sure your system is going to work right the first time, before you launch it nationally or globally.

Let's say I'm an accountant who's used to doing something one way for 15 years. You give me a brand-new, slick system and I have problems the first time I use it. Word gets around. It's like the shot heard around the world. Not only do you have to fix the problem, you have to sell everyone on the fix.

You must also roll out technology in phases. You never want to change something for 500,000 or more people at once.

Last year, for example, we started to deploy new software and hardware that complements business process changes in our package centers. The new system simplifies the package sorting process by creating a label that identifies the spot in the driver's vehicle where a package should be loaded for optimal delivery. Previously, the UPS employee responsible for loading trucks had to memorize all the addresses on a driver's route, and figure out whether the driver had enough room in his vehicle or enough time to deliver the packages. Instead of deploying the new system to all 1,000-plus package centers in the U.S. at once, we phased in this technology.

First, we tested the system in a package lab, a highly controlled environment where we simulate a real production setting. Once we had put the system through this testing, we moved it to a small production area at a package center in Gainesville, Ga. Through the piloting process, the industrial engineering organization, which represented business users, and the information-technology staff worked together to test the system. When we both felt comfortable, we began a very limited deployment. As of February, 25% of our facilities were using the new system. We expect the rollout to be completed in 2007.

The new system works very well in most facilities. In those where the implementation has not gone as smoothly, we retrained employees on the system and its benefits. We also took the things that we learned from each deployment and applied them to the implementation process going forward so we wouldn't repeat an ineffective process.

How does UPS compare to its competitors? There's no silver bullet, no secret sauce. A single use of technology cannot give anyone an indefinite competitive advantage. Technology requires reinvestment and innovation. At the end of the day, it's how well the technology is integrated to support your business that gives you a sustainable competitive edge. —Written with Anna Maria Virzi


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