Computer revisited

Feb. 1, 1999

Computers Revisited

By Bill de Decker

February 1999

Bill de Decker is a Partner with Conklin & de Decker Associates, publishers of aircraft operating cost databases, MxManager® integrated maintenance management software, and consultants on cost analysis and fleet planning. He has over 35 years experience in fixed and rotary wing design, marketing, training, operation, and management. He also teaches a number of aviation management courses.

One thing I really enjoy is visiting with customers and prospects to find out what's happening out in the "real world."

The last three months I've had the opportunity to meet with operators of all kinds — corporate, agricultural , government, commercial, helicopter and fixed wing — ranging in size from small to large. Sometimes these visits are to renew old acquaintances, sometimes they are with customers and prospects, and sometimes they are with students in management classes we teach. But always I learn something. One of the more interesting conclusions I drew from this most recent round of visits concerns computers and the typical operator.

First the good news: Just about every operator uses computers in their organization. That is a huge and very beneficial change from even a few years ago.

Now the bad news: With most operators, these computers are used mostly as expensive typewriters and calculators. There is no question this has brought some benefits to the users of these computers, but the benefits can be so much greater.

Get comfortable
The first thing I observed is that there are still an awful lot of management people out there who are very uncomfortable with computers, and really don't have a good understanding of the power of these machines. So the first step to unlocking the power of computers for your business is to get comfortable with computers and what they can do.

A good place to start is to take some courses at the local college continuing education department. They're cheap and they're good. They'll teach you about Windows, spreadsheets, relational databases and other tools that you can use in running your organization. Frankly, the days of teaching yourself how to use these programs are over. The programs are too powerful and too complicated not to spend the few hundred dollars to get a real understanding of what they can do.

Rethink the process
The next step is to start rethinking the processes you and your staff use to track the schedules, costs and paperwork associated with your maintenance operation. Too often, this is where there is a big problem.

I've seen it time and again (and have done it myself) that an operator will focus on getting the computer to duplicate the procedures in use with the current manual or semi-automated system. This is a mistake, that can lead to utter frustration with the computer and the software. Computers and software are designed to accomplish a series of procedures in the context of one or more specific processes.

Sometimes, the procedures and processes you are using match the way a particular software program was designed. But, usually, they don't. The key is to focus on the overall objective. If a particular software program meets the requirements of the regulations and your organizational objectives, but doesn't accommodate some specific procedure you are using at present, maybe it's time to rethink that procedure! You may well find, as we did in one instance, that the procedure that the software wouldn't accommodate was frowned upon by the accounting people. In other words, the software was right and the existing procedure was wrong.

Another problem that happens when the process is not revised when computers are added is that a layer of work gets added. For example, at many operators, the technicians enter all required data manually on a form and another person enters the data into a computer. Not only does this double the work it also multiplies the possibility of error. It's much better to rethink the process, get a suitable software program, get every work station a computer and have the technicians and parts room people enter the data directly. With proper training, it'll save time, it'll save money and it will provide more accurate data.

In short, to use software (such as for maintenance tracking, inventory management and accounting) successfully, requires that you adapt your operation to the processes embedded in the software. This is particularly true with off-the-shelf software. But given the relatively low cost of off-the-shelf software (compared with custom software) this is usually a worthwhile trade-off. And even with expensive custom software, you'll also have to change your processes to take advantage of the software's capabilities.

Why lead when you can follow
This saying is attributed to Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. I don't know if that is true, but I do know that you can save large amounts of time, money and energy by looking around and finding out what others are doing that can help you in your operation. And software is a really good example of this. There are many programs out there in use with operators. Some work well, some don't. But by talking to other operators, reading magazines and looking at what others are doing outside the commercial aviation business, you will probably save yourself a lot of time and get some really good ideas.

Get the training
Our company sells various software programs. One of the things that truly amazes me is that there are operators who do not take advantage of the free training we offer with our programs. They'll offer a variety of excuses, but what they don't realize is that they are really handicapping themselves.

Simply put, it is very difficult for someone to teach themselves how to use today's sophisticated software programs. If they try, they'll make a lot of mistakes, reach a high level of frustration, waste a lot of time, give the software a really bad reputation and never see the cost reductions or productivity improvements the software is capable of providing. If training is provided, get everyone who will be involved trained - even if you have to pay for it. If training is not provided, ask "why not". And if the vendor says you don't need it because the software is so easy to use É. give serious thought to not using that software.

Get everyone involved
To make a software program useful to an organization requires that everyone who needs to use it has "bought into it." This means that all potential users of the program need to have some input into the selection process. One way to do this is to get one or two people from each major area affected on the selection team. This may sound like it is a waste of time, but it's not. If it is handled right, the folks that will have to make it work will agree with you the selected software is a smart choice. They will also make sure it works for your organization.