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Entries in Automation (2)

Monday
Mar192012

It's Better with the Lights Out

In the mid 80’s I had the opportunity to work with Arnold Farber and Rosemary LaChance of a company known as Farber/LaChance.  They preached the gospel of lights out operations, without any staffing.  Fast forward nearly 30 years, and www.farberlachance.com doesn’t have an owner (as of March 28, 2012.)

The truth is I don’t know what happened to Arnold and Rosemary, and hope they are blissfully retired somewhere.  As I look at data centers, who is really doing lights out operations?

It’s my observation small and medium business’ are often running lights out….with someone getting a text message if something fails.  These are not sophisticated operations; if power is lost the text system often fails.  These are operations where automation supports the business, and isn’t mission critical.

In larger organizations, staffed operations centers remain the norm.  Why?

Back in the mid-80s, we were worried about running batch jobs at the right time, or making sure the printouts got produced.  Scheduling, Tape Management and Report Distribution were pretty hot back in the day.  Heck, some people were even getting press coverage.

Our CFO was not amused with Computerworld’s choice of quote.

Thinking about today, large data centers have made great process with reliability, monitoring, correlation, scheduling, backup management, replication, etc.  Many keep all but a handful of people out of the data center (system admins get upset when they can’t be in the machine room…and the truth is they don’t need to be there.) And still, people are often in place.  Why?

Ultimately people make decisions.  People are pretty good correlation engines. 

It’s people who open the data center doors for repair people.  People who run the incident bridges.

And in the end, for a company with mission critical systems, having a small cadre of people is very inexpensive insurance.

So it’s about the criticality of the systems to the business.

I thank Arnold and Rosemary for their contributions in pushing forth with the vision.  Their vision is still valid, as we couldn’t run the highly complex environments of today without automation. As a discipline, we still have progress we can make.

What automation efforts are you doing leading to lights out?  How close is your business to true lights out operation?

Sunday
Oct162011

Small Business Automation

Up until recently I owned a small lawn care business with 250 accounts.  Not a “mow, blow and go,” place, but a lawn renovation/fertilizing company requiring specialized licensing.

As you could expect, I automated the business, with special lawn care software for scheduling/billing and even took credit cards.  We were able to measure lawns online, and see the weather forecast so important for applying chemicals. The website was professionally developed, and phone service was VoIP.

The new owner, an experienced full service landscape company, uses a typed list for his schedule, doesn’t take credit cards, always visits the property, looks outside for the weather, dropped the VoIP service (in favor of a single cell phone he answers.)  From a technology perspective, he immediately dumped everything except the website.

Let’s look at each with an eye towards what makes the most sense:

Area

Me

New Guy

Advantage

Lawn Care Software

Kept all my books and records on one system.  Clients got billed (in advance.)

Mails bills after the service.

I’ll take the advantage on this one.  I trained my clients to pay BEFORE service, and gave a small discount to “pay in advance locking in the rate.” 

Credit Cards

I’ve always been taught cash in hand is best.  Taking a credit card let me get the cash in hand.

No credit cards.  Has receivables.  Doesn’t pay credit card fees.

He can have the advantage on this one.  Most people using the credit card did so for miles or other credit card perks.  6 months of year I had no charges to process and still paid credit card fees.

Measure online

The lawn business was an after-hours thing for me…something starting as a hobby and expanding.  This let me measure lawns at night.

Always visits every lawn.

He gets a huge advantage.  He can see before quoting what the lawn needs, and is not relying on the home/business owner’s description.

Weather forecast

I was able to look days in advance.

Watches TV weather.

Draw.   Knowing the weather in detail has an advantage when planting grass or applying treatments. 

Website

Having a professionally developed website makes an immediate first impression.

His original business had no website.

Advantage me.  Small business owners – your website has to be great.

VoIP

Calls came in, got routed.  With voice mails, I got an email.

Cell phone.

He gets the nod for simplicity and more timely response.

 

So while I was growing the business at 30-40% a year, he’s grown it 100% this year.  Is it because of simpler technology? 

No.

It’s about branding.

He has kept the name and branding of my former business separate from his original, and now offers clients (especially commercial clients) competing “bids” from each company.  He’s also opened up lawn renovation services to all his original clients.  So, similar to General Motors, he is offering the same models through different channels.

Using technology wisely can pay off for businesses of any size.  Remember, your clients want great service on a timely basis at a fair (can be premium) price.  Technology is an enabler for this kind of business.