What Actually Matters?
A couple of years ago I did some IT consulting work for a large, multinational food company. My work there crystallised something that is helping me to more quickly understand my clients as I continue to work as an IT consultant.
This food company, like many companies today, uses just in time manufacturing along with continuous flow production lines. This manufacturing practice puts trucks carrying raw materials to the plant and finished products away from the plant on the critical path for important business functions. For example, leading up to Thanksgiving weekend if frozen turkeys and related food items are not fully stocked on grocery store shelves then product sales for the entire year will be negatively impacted and can not be recovered (since the Thanksgiving holiday only comes once a year).
The above situation led to an interesting IT Service Desk practice (and it was that practice that crystallised my thoughts): when someone calls the Service Desk and uses the phrase, “Trucks are waiting.” then the Service Desk agent knows to open an Incident of the highest severity/priority and pull out all the stops to remediate the situation.
As I oversaw a data centre migration for that client, the measure of success for application and associated server migrations each week was whether or not our migration efforts had “kept trucks waiting”.
Prior to returning to consulting in 2003, I spent 10 years in management at Nortel Networks. When I look back on that experience, the “trucks waiting” event within Nortel Networks R&D division was when the “load build” wasn’t able to run; that is, when the nightly build of the source code failed to run or was taking too long to run. This was particularly serious when Nortel Networks’ key product was the digital PBX; a product containing millions of lines of source code maintained by thousands of technical staff (designers, coders, testers, etc.). When the load build could not run then a lot of staff were unproductive. The trucks waiting event for Nortel Networks product support organisation was when a live PBX was down, disrupting thousands of client telephones.
Now when I visit a client, one of the discussions I have with them as part of understanding their business is to determine what comprises that client’s ‘trucks waiting” event. This discussion is necessary because each client believes that all their applications are critical to the business. I've actually had a client tell me that if application 'N' wasn't critical to the business then they wouldn't be operating it.
Such attitudes are nonsense, but it's not helpful to my line of work to actually tell a client this fact; instead, I tell my "trucks waiting" story. That story always brings sanity into the room because everyone can relate to it.
Enabling a client to differentiate between "critical" and merely "important" is vital to business planning. Even when business is booming, investment dollars are limited. Where to spend each budgeted dollar, and what priority to place upon each activity must both be correctly performed if a business is to thrive and be successful. Where a business is incorrectly investing their time and money, that business will ultimately fail; like Nortel Networks' current woes, it may take 10 years to fail---but, it will eventually fail.
In closing, I must note that this anecdotal method of determining what is actually important is simply an informal method of applying the prioritisation method I've described in the "Cost Management Via Problem Prioritisation" paper elsewhere on this site.