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Solutions in practice: Transportation pulls it all together

This article appears in the issue Nov/Dec 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 10]


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By Judith Lamont, KMWorld senior writer

The transportation industry is a key component of the U.S. economy, accounting for about 10% of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). On the producer side, transportation encompasses diverse activities ranging from vehicle manufacturing, sales and repair, to logistics management and port security. Consumers of transportation products and services are equally diverse, from individuals who purchase cars, to retailers who use the shipping services. The amount of information and the number of processes associated with the transportation industry provide an environment in which knowledge management solutions can make a big difference.

In order to provide up-to-date business performance information to its employees, International Truck and Engine needed to pull together data from numerous systems and applications. With annual sales approaching $7 billion, International is the world's largest producer of medium-duty range trucks, school buses and mid-sized diesel engines. Founded more than 100 years ago, International had a wide array of data that it wanted to include in its Key Business Indicator (KBI) portal. The KBI portal was designed to provide International employees throughout the enterprise with the ability to monitor performance measures such as costs, supplier metrics and safety, as well as to analyze and drill down into the data.

A critical step in creating the business intelligence portal was integrating data from the different sources, some of which are legacy systems dating back nearly 30 years. The company chose DataStage from Ascential Software for the ETL process that provides the data warehouse with information. DataStage has eliminated time-consuming manual data searches and validation steps. Now that "clean" and accurate information is available, an online analytical processing (OLAP) application allows employees to receive alerts that indicate the status of a variety of business goals, and to view the information that sparked the alerts.

Process as well as content can benefit from knowledge management solutions. International's Truck Development and Technology Center is responsible for vehicle design and improvement. In 1999, the division was launching a series of new products, and had more than doubled its work force, from 500 to 1,200 employees. Its paper-based administrative processes such as purchase requisitions were not keeping up with corporate needs, and efforts to use e-mail to automate such requests did not provide the ability to monitor a request's progress. Moreover, engineering design is iterative and collaborative, but the division did not have a standardized way to track the complex steps in the design process.

After exploring several options, Bill Bailey, Process Development Department manager at the Truck Development and Technology Center, selected ActionWorks from Action Technologies. The division has now automated 20 business processes and cites some impressive results: a productivity increase of 30%, reduced cycle time of 60% to 75%, and reduction in development costs of 50% to 70%.

Process owner is key

"We have eliminated a lot of waste," says Bailey, "and our processes are now very transparent, so we know which steps have been taken and which ones remain to be done." Some of the automated processes were administrative, while others were project-oriented. Consistency has improved across all the processes, and this has been an important benefit of the ActionWorks system.

"Although the system is flexible, people cannot skip steps that the process owner has set up," says Jeff Bauermeister, the division's workflow automation manager. The process owner is a key element of success. "The individual needs to understand what the purpose of the process is, what it was intended to do and resist changing it for a minor reason," he adds.

Bailey agrees. "If you try to set up processes at a very low level, the details will slow the big picture too much," he contends. "There is still an important place for phone calls and personal meetings to address issues."

Acceptance of the system was rapid, in part because the first process to be automated, purchase requisitions, was seriously flawed and affected employees at all levels. The improved flow in that process made a convincing case for the next ones, and helped ease potential cultural issues.

According to Bill Welty, CEO of Action Technologies, the best fit for ActionWorks is a situation that requires negotiation and collaboration. "Many BPM products are oriented toward uniform, predictable processes," Welty says, "but knowledge workers such as design engineers need a high level of interaction with each other." ActionWorks uses a model of requests and responses, rather than one of task assignments.

Reaching out to customers

The desire to provide enhanced customer service has been a primary motivator for some transportation companies to deploy new software solutions.Acme Truck Line has a public Web site on which customers can request deliveries, but the company wanted to offer its major customers additional services such as standardized reports and access to scanned documents related to their orders. Acme was founded in Louisiana in 1960 as an intrastate oil hauler with a fleet of six trucks, and now manages over 1,300 trucks. Its business partners are individual truckers and companies with small fleets, and its customers are organizations that need delivery of items ranging from oil rigs to statues.

Acme selected CleverPath Portal from Computer Associates as the portal for the extranet that extends the additional services to its major customers. Through the extranet, Acme customers can run standardized reports on their shipping activities and costs, retrieve scanned copies of documents such as weigh bills and access Excel-based reports.

"The portal has made it much easier for us to handle our business efficiently by allowing self-service," says Acme President Mike Coatney, "Our customers like the portal and feel comfortable with it." Implementation was smooth, and administration has been straightforward.

"In some cases we need to establish groups so that employees in different divisions of a customer company see a different subset of data," notes Coatney. "These groups have been easy to define using CleverPath, and we liked the built-in security features that the portal offered."

Seeking services from data

Shari Shore, director of CleverPath Marketing at Computer Associates, highlights the advances in portal technology that the product reflects. "First generation portals were primarily interfaces, with little if any built-in intelligence," she says. "As users' sophistication increased, they wanted integration with applications, and easy ways of interacting with the data in those applications." Users do not need or want to know where the data resides, but do want services based on the data in the system--for example, an alert when a truck is late. The portal allows users to remain in an environment with a consistent interface, while the analyses go on behind the scenes.

Like many business sectors, transportation management services have been marked by a flurry of mergers and acquisitions, which pose special challenges for data integration. Typically, such companies find themselves with a diverse set of operating systems, platforms and applications. That makes data sharing difficult and impedes effective coordination of enterprise activities. Landstar System (landstar.com) consists of a group of companies that provide over-the-road, intermodal and contract logistics services. In that setting, Ascential's Enterprise Integration Suite integrates information from multiple business units into a data warehouse that supports Landstar's B2B Web site, which is used by the company's sales agents and more than 7,000 transport suppliers.

"Many companies have legacy database systems that are important elements in their IT infrastructure and need to be accessible," says Chas Kielt, senior manager of media and analyst relations at Ascential. In addition, by consolidating data, companies can often reduce the number of instances of other applications. In one case, an aerospace company is consolidating 3,200 instances of an ERP application into 400 instances. "Consolidating data helps by providing one version of the truth," Kielt says, "and is a more efficient use of resources."

Getting the diagnosis right

Steady improvement in vehicle performance has produced an unexpected challenge for determining the causes of failure when it does occur. Since failures are less frequent, service technicians have less experience on which to base their diagnoses. Rather than seeing the same problem day after day, they may see only a few examples of each one. Moreover, vehicles are more complex, with many subsystems now controlled by computers. The net result is an increasing gap between the knowledge level of technicians and the expertise required to determine the cause of failure. Although vehicle manufacturers provide hotlines that offer guidance to technicians, such services focus on the most frequently encountered problems, while the cause of other problems remains elusive.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that many components and subsystems are manufactured by suppliers and sold as "black boxes" to the OEM that produces and sells the vehicle. Therefore, the manufacturer whose name is on the vehicle may not know detailed failure and diagnostic information about a transmission, for example, since the company did not develop and produce it.

The cost of misdiagnoses can be high, both in dollars and customer satisfaction. Whether the vehicle is under warranty or the consumer is paying for repairs, multiple service visits may be required for a successful outcome. In addition, without accurate information on the cause of problems in the field, engineers cannot redesign to improve performance. Some feedback is provided via warranty claims, but often the level of detail provided in the structured forms is insufficient to identify the root cause of the failure.

According to Joseph Barkai, principal at Diagnostic Strategies, better knowledge management would go a long way toward improving both diagnosis in the field and feedback to manufacturers. If information regarding failure were captured and interpreted more effectively, a better body of knowledge would be available for diagnosis.

Barkai argues that the "real" knowledge required for analysis is expressed in unstructured text in service records, but that information often remains unused. Diagnostic Strategies has begun using text mining software from Attensity to analyze records of warranty claims and repair information. Because Attensity's technology is designed to understand the failure semantics and relationships in complex, free-form text, and accounts for misspellings and grammatical errors, it can identify and extract up to 95% of failure events accurately.

The value of that previously untapped information was evident when several thousand warranty and repair records were analyzed by Diagnostic Strategies. The service information contained multiple references to complaints about low power, clogged fuel filters, bad fuel pumps and debris in the fuel subsystem. However, none of those were frequent enough to command attention. By "reading" the free text notes attached to the warranty claims, the Attensity software determined that the events actually had the same root cause, which was eventually traced to a manufacturing problem.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.


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