Founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, one of the world's largest technology infrastructure companies
Everyone gets stuck in a rut occasionally. We get acclimatized to a normal routine, which can be a good thing. It takes less time, less energy and creates less stress to go about our daily business. We can take that extra time, effort and energy to do other things. But over time, a routine can be a significant hindrance to progress. That’s why we see all those new diets, exercise routines and self-help programs. To lift us out of the doldrums.
Organizations can get stuck in a rut too. In fact, for organizations, being stuck in a rut is probably the norm rather than the exception. All those people making all those sales calls, sending out all those invoices and processing those widgets the same old way simply reinforces the rut.
That’s why organizations develop strategies and strategic plans and initiate and manage projects in support of those plans – to drive change. To get out of the rut.
In this case, we’ll see how a geographically distributed organization found itself struggling to maintain its customer service and manage its costs after numerous, unrationalized acquisitions. It was in a serious rut. To extricate itself, it revised its strategic plan and went outside for help to transform its operations, regaining a satisfied client base and cost-effective operations in the process.
Christopher Brooks is the Operations Manager for Outsource IT Computing Inc. based in Burlington, Ontario. The company is a leading provider of managed IT services, supporting businesses throughout Ontario and across Canada and in the US.
Outsource IT was contacted by a manufacturing company about some challenges they were experiencing. The company had acquired a number of small businesses over the last several years to grow their company. They had not rationalized the business processes, practices and technologies and were experiencing an ever increasing rate of failure across their regional offices in Canada and the US. That left some customers frustrated enough to go elsewhere.
The small IT support group in head office wasn’t able to respond to local problems in a suitable time frame and was severely challenged supporting the diverse set of technologies spread across the continent. That led to increasing frustration and turnover and an even further decline in service. Local managers responded to the problem by hiring or contracting local staff with mixed results. Of course, there were no configuration or operating standards locally, so the local staff would fix it their own way. When the head office staff became involved, it almost always took longer and cost more than anticipated. Customers continued to show their dissatisfaction by going elsewhere.
It was this continuing downward spiral in customer retention and service delivery and the continuing escalation of costs and staff turnover that caused the company to contact Christopher at Outsource IT. After reviewing the company’s situation, Christopher’s team developed a high level strategy and plan to remedy the company’s problems. The proposal was accepted.
The program’s goal was to drive ROI through client retention, reduced staff turnover and cost and productivity improvements over a thirteen month program by standardizing the technology infrastructure and support practices.
With the signing of the contract, Christopher’s staff took a multi-pronged approach to getting the program up and running quickly. They engaged with the CEO and his senior executives to clarify the problems, scope, priorities, expectations and goals. They proceeded to inventory every element of the existing infrastructure including standard configuration and support practices, the associated vendors and their related contracts. They analysed problem logs to build an understanding of the hot spots that should receive priority attention. They talked to local managers, support staff and vendors to understand their experiences and views on the issues.
Christopher’s team consolidated this information into a current infrastructure assessment and future state recommendation and vetted the results with everyone involved, from the CEO to the local support technicians. After the changes brought about by those consultations were incorporated, they developed a program plan with eight specific projects to be delivered over nine months, addressing the highest priorities and risks first. Again, the plan was reviewed with all stakeholders and received unanimous support. After three months of preparatory work, the fixes began.
A key part of the program was to rationalize technologies across the company. The development of that target architecture was one of the first projects to get underway and involved lots of vendor contact, contract scrutinization and negotiation. Technologies were selected based on a combination of factors, including cost-effectiveness, robustness, proven expansion and upgrade capabilities, locally available support and integratability. The target architecture was developed along with the supporting rationale and reviewed top to bottom. It was approved expeditiously.
An element of Outsource IT’s practice manifesto was the development and maintenance of a Playbook for each technology component. It is a current best practice document about a component, how to acquire it, install it, configure it, test it, connect it, service it, whatever is relevant to keeping the component and the infrastructure operating at peak efficiency. New releases or versions of a component required a review and update, if necessary, to associated Playbooks before they could be put in production. The benefits of the Playbook practice were enormous. Any support technician, once trained, could handle any component in the infrastructure in a standard manner. The practice improved responsiveness and quality and reduced costs and failures dramatically.
With the target architecture approved and the corresponding Playbooks under development the project proceeded largely according to plan. Ongoing and active engagement of all stakeholders turned staff who were seen initially as part of the problem to a key part of the solution. What resistance was encountered melted with the embracing engagement.
One year after starting the project, Christopher, his team and the company declared the project complete with all goals achieved or exceeded. Clients were no longer leaving because of poor service. In fact, client numbers and orders were showing healthy growth. Outages were down hugely. The time to repair was a fraction of the previous experience. Staff turnover had stopped and morale was higher than it had been before the acquisition binge began. Infrastructure costs were 30% lower because of technology standardization and renegotiation of hardware and software licences. It was a most successful transformation.
How a Great Leader Succeeded
Christopher and his team bring a standard approach to all of their engagements and refine and adapt it to each client’s needs. In this case, there were nine practices that helped deliver a successful infrastructure transformation.
- There is no such thing as an IT project – As the opening quote by Michael Dell states, the business needs to lead the infrastructure transformation. It is, after all, targeting business needs – customer service, productivity, revenue and costs. Christopher and his team did just that. They brought the company’s CEO on board and up to speed and left him leading the charge. That made it easy to get the other executives committed, decisions made expeditiously and the right local resources assigned when and where they were needed.
- Engage all stakeholders – In addition to the CEO and his executive team, local managers, vendors and local service technicians were all fully engaged. That was a practical move to ensure access to needed information about current infrastructure configurations. It was also a strategic move to open discourse and overcome initial resistance to the changes that were coming.
- Implement a common vision – Outsource IT worked with the senior business and IT managers to develop a common vision of the desired future state. When that was achieved, those same business and IT managers worked with their staff to explore the impact on people’s day-to-day jobs, practices and procedures. As a result, everyone in the organizations involved in supporting its infrastructure was marching to the same drummer.
- Establish clear goals and priorities – In addition to the shared vision, Outsource IT facilitated the development of specific goals and priorities. Again, this exercise started at the top but was debated widely and thoroughly. When the goals and priorities were finally nailed, there was an amazing level of commitment at all levels. That enabled a reasonable plan that everyone could commit to and be measured by to be delivered in a few weeks.
- Always consider alternatives – Things change. What wasn’t available or possible yesterday might now be an option. New or changed technologies, client priorities, costs and pricing changes can open up exciting new opportunities. By keeping their options open, by taking advantage of things like cloud storage and server consolidation, Outsource IT was able to offer its client significant price/performance and service improvements without having to redo the basic plans and priorities. They were always opportunity aware.
- Keep changes small – From the foundation established by the stages above, Outsource IT was able to craft and sell a plan that delivered in small chunks, responded to priorities, reduced risks and improved quality, and provided the ability to change the plans and priorities quickly if conditions warranted.
- Deliver quickly – In line with the Keep Small mandate, delivering quickly is simply part of Outsource IT’s DNA. It allows accelerated response to the identified priorities and the accelerated delivery of benefits.
- Leverage current best practices – The use of a Playbook for every standard technology component ensured an infrastructure wide consistency in configuration and operation from Victoria to St. John’s to Tallahassee. It improved performance, reduced the costs of training and configuration and reduced risks of outages or bottlenecks by a significant degree.
- Communicate – The glue that tied the diverse elements of this program together and accelerated progress across all the sites was the communication plan and its execution. The communication barrage was full force from beginning to end, top down, bottom up, all ways, person to person, featuring the vision, goals, measures, plans, progress, successes, failures and voices from across the company. The training programs that accompanied each release were as much about exchanging ideas and views as they were about imparting knowledge and expertise.
Resistance melted in the face of the onslaught.
Outsource IT’s approach to this engagement was Think Big, Engage Widely, Do Small, Deliver Fast. It worked beautifully. They spent over three months up front talking, listening and postulating to nail the ground rules that formed the bedrock of this successful change initiative. It was that foundation that allowed them to deliver solutions rapidly, consistently and successfully.
It’s interesting to note that Christopher was recently appointed to the Varnex Advisory Council because of successes like the one covered in this story. Varnex is a Synnex peer-to-peer community of businesses and organizations that work together to drive growth and success in the IT industry.
So, be a Great Leader. Put these points on your checklist of things to consider so you too can be a Great Leader. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.
Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks