Thinking Outside the Box

GSE Business Focus

Thinking Outside The Box

H.B. Wise offers tips in maintaining your sanity with maintenance management software

By H.B. Wise

September 2002

The first maintenance tracking system I was exposed to was a box of index cards that my Dad kept in the corner of the shop. He was a golf course maintenance supervisor and was responsible for keeping all of the mowers and related equipment running. Later, when I worked as his mechanic for a summer, I came to appreciate the simple, but effective, system.

Chances are you have more than a few mowers, trucks, and other equipment to track and a box of index cards is not going to be adequate to manage your fleet of equipment. You need the ability to forecast manpower requirements, schedule maintenance, analyze parts inventories, develop budgets, and gather historical information on each piece of equipment.

Selecting and purchasing maintenance software doesn't have to be painful. Here are a few simple steps that can make your selection process easier by helping you focus on what you really need.

First Things First
The first step in selecting software must be to take a careful look at how you operate. The features and functionality needed will vary with the primary purpose of your organization. A small maintenance shop will have different needs than a large organization with hundreds of pieces of equipment to track. While the basic need to track maintenance and ensure its timely completion are the same for both operations, the features each organization requires to meet their unique needs will be different.

Paper or Paperless?
Are you currently computerized? If not, what tasks will a computer help you perform more efficiently? Avoid the temptation to just computerize your paper systems. Take a serious look at how you can generate useable information from the flow of data through the shop. Take time to break down each area of your operation into its separate tasks. Really look at how you handle your record keeping and inventory.

Once you have a solid handle on how your organization is functioning, you can move on to considering which tasks should be automated. Don't be tempted to skip this step. Often, organizations buy software products for the wrong reasons. Examining your organization's workflow at the start will yield big benefits during the selection process.

Comparison Shopping
Take the list of tasks you want to automate and start comparing the available products. Build a grid that shows the features you need on one axis and the products you're considering on the other. Putting things down on paper makes it easier to identify products that won't meet your needs and narrows the field to a manageable number of prospects.

Once you have examined your organization and evaluated the tasks for possible automation, you are ready to start comparing the features of available products. Note: You are probably not going to find exactly what you are looking for in any one off-the-shelf product. Each product has taken a different path to arrive at a version of maintenance-tracking nirvana. Companies have used their own experience, customer requests, features from the competition, and manufacturers' requirements to develop their product. As a result, each product does things differently.

Demos and References
Once you have your list of products you want to consider, get a demonstration of the software from the vendors. Ask for references and then check them. I know this can seem like a hassle, but do you really want to trust a long-term decision like this to the word of the salesperson? In my experience, this type of software is a core business application that lies at the very heart of what your organization does. And, of course, once you have put in the work to select a system, you are unlikely to change systems easily or quickly. So, spend the necessary time to get and check those customer references.

When you call the customer be polite and honest. Tell them you are considering the software that they are using and that the company referred you to them. Ask them about how they use the software and what are their likes and dislikes. Be sure to check on their perception of the companies' customer support, but also take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Personalities can influence a person's perception of customer support, but if you talk to three or four users, you should get a solid feel for how the software is working out under field conditions.

After talking to the customers, call the companies back with the questions you have generated from your interviews. Get clear answers to your questions. If the software products under consideration don't have all the features you want, ask each vendor about changes to the product based on your needs. Companies that sell off-the-shelf software will be reluctant to make custom changes. If they do agree to make changes, get the timing and functionality of those changes in writing. In our defense, programming schedules can be difficult to predict at best. You should get a clear idea of what both parties are agreeing to before you exchange dollars for the product. This would be an excellent time to double-check your computer systems for suitability. It is no good buying the latest software if your computers can't run it effectively.

Once you have the software installed on your system it will be worthless if you aren't comfortable using it. Make sure your primary users are trained to understand the system and are comfortable with it. These are normally the folks who will be working with the software on a daily basis. They will become your functional experts and will be able to help out the infrequent users in your organization.

While it can be a challenge to purchase the right systems for your organization it doesn't have to be painful. Using a methodical approach will help you get the product you need while avoiding costly extra features you won't use. If you spend the time to ensure a good fit when purchasing your software tools, you'll have a long, productive relationship, rather than getting boxed in and repeating the process in a year's time.

About the author: H.B. Wise is a Principal with Conklin & de Decker in Arlington, Texas and is responsible for developing and selling maintenance management software. Wise, an A&P and a pilot, has run a kit aircraft manufacturing company and has 12 years in the USAF. He holds a BA in Economics and a Masters of Aeronautical Science degree.