Sunday, April 10, 2011

Continuous Improvement

I just spent the last week attending the ACUTA conference in Orlando, Florida. Not only did I have a wonderful time, I met a number of amazing people and plan on keeping in touch. As a bonus, the facilities had me thinking about future vacations and I think I’ll be checking out the Hilton Bonnet Creek for a visit to the mouse within the next five years. My boy needs to get a few years under his belt to truly appreciate a day in Walt Disney World.

While there I attended a number of lectures and there were some wonderful speakers. Before leaving for the conference, I was thinking about the phrase “continuous improvement.” Honestly, I tend to be rather cynical concerning new management buzzwords. ISO 9001 came and went without much effect on the rank and file I manage. ITIL is now making the rounds around my office and I wonder how much of the core philosophy we will truly embrace. Continuous Improvement is one of the newer phrases I’ve heard repeated around my upper management. I find the idea appealing.

As a creature of habit, I find it very easy to fall into a rut of just “doing my job.” Day in and day out my team has a number of tasks that need to be accomplished. I make that easier for them either by arranging training, smoothing over political difficulties, or coordinating their activities to respond to upper management. That’s my job. But, focusing on the job does not give much opportunity for continuous improvement.

At the conference, I was attending a panel of past ACUTA presidents and I heard something that stuck with me. I would like to properly credit the speaker but I don’t recall panel member was speaking. He advised that when working, we should be constantly seeking out the problems and coming up with solutions. If we aren’t doing that, our jobs can be outsourced.

There is an implied threat in that statement but also an opportunity that I think does a great job of defining what continuous improvement means. Working within an organization provides an unparalleled opportunity to truly understand the needs of a customer base. An IT department that truly understands their customers, whether they be professors, students, doctors, or plumbers, has a chance to not only respond to customer requests but to anticipate them with a level of accuracy that cannot be matched by an outside agency. By working within the organization, we can identify the problems and provide the solutions. This means going beyond our job descriptions and beyond our direct managers and embracing that our jobs mean to serve our customers, whoever they might be.

At the conference, one of the most common questions is “What do you do?” We all work in IT/Telecom but we all know that means different things to different people. I found myself always giving a two part answer.

I manage a team that centralizes network support for local building networks – my job.

I invented our documentation/labeling scheme for networks and constantly tweak our systems management and Pinnacle database for error correction – what I do.

The first line is a good summary of my job description. I show up day after day and make sure that our new network deployments go smoothly. Sometimes, like all IT workers, I show up after hours and replace critical systems so users don’t experience the downtime associated with maintenance. I train staff and attend meetings to keep projects going smoothly.

But, that second line is where I make a difference.

Over the past ten years we have identified and solved problems that no one knew existed. By constantly improving our documentation, we have raised the bar, both for our own performance and for our customer’s expectations. I will never forget the day one of our core engineers (switch and router jockeys) publicly complained that the jumpers plugged into his router were not labeled. Some of my staff were understandably defensive. I loved it. Just one year prior, he wouldn’t have considered that a failure at all. With one very loud complaint, he publicly validated the utility of a process he disdained just one year earlier.

Each step along the way of refining our documentation methods we have identified problems and solved them. We have looked at what many consider “the cost of doing business” with an eye to what we can do to remove those barriers. This is something we can do as members of an organization that would be problematic for an outside agency. Along the way, we’ve created a system that truly sings.

This year we’re turning our attention to our Outside Plant cabling system. By the end of the year I expect we’ll have an accounting of our outside spaces and pathways that will let us document the conduit path of newly installed OSP cabling. Installation of our OSP cabling has been outsourced for years. UF personnel are leading up this documentation project.

In identifying and solving problems that are less evident to outside agencies, we have found our own path to continuous improvement.

I have to admit, I’m a bit less skeptical of this latest buzzword.