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Are you informed, or data distracted? You need AIM

Asset Information is far more than just data, and it must be managed. We want to be informed, not distracted by our data. Our goal is to make “evidence-based decisions”. The “evidence” of what is going on can be very useful if it is accurate, timely, complete, and fit for its intended purpose. Increasingly, we are turning to our computers for that evidence. But do we find it? Or do we end up searching through data looking for that “needle in the haystack”? Do we spend our time making informed decisions, or seeking information from an increasingly large and confusing array of dis-organized, out-of-date, inaccurate, and incomplete data? Data must be fit for purpose. 

Information technology is complex, difficult to manage and a challenge getting people to use it. It can also be either a tremendous corporate asset or a huge drain on resources. If it’s a bad fit or poorly implemented, you will struggle. If the information you are trying to manage is in disarray, you will struggle – you will be distracted by it, not informed.

Information has value

The value of information and IT to your business can be highly positive or negative. Sadly, we tend to focus mostly on the IT aspects and not on the information itself. Asset Information Management (AIM) is also needed.

Without good AIM, decisions are poorly informed, and multi-million dollar computer software investments do little more than generate costs and tie up resources that are needed elsewhere.

IT resources to keep them going, analyst resources to sift through data, looking for “information”, countless people generating reports, exporting data to spreadsheets, and managers attempting to make decisions with little real evidence beyond what they see happening in real life. Often-times, the data isn’t helping! That data is distracting us not informing us. Yet, there are systems that deliver value consistently and constantly. In fact, most software that is available is actually quite good. More often than not, it’s how we use it that really makes the difference. How we set it up and then use it are important aspects of AIM.

Regardless of the system or combination of systems, you choose to use, how can you ensure they are valuable assets? How can you be informed and not distracted by your own data?

Answer: It’s really all about people, and processes, not technology. Consider what you want from it BEFORE you start! And, if you’ve already started, consider starting over. Better to re-think and spend a bit more now, than a lot more later!

Who really needs information?

Let’s say (for example) that your corporate finance department wants consistent and accurate cost reporting across all divisions, regions, etc. Of course, there are programs (apps) to make that can happen, provided everyone uses those systems. Everyone else must input consistent and accurate cost data. When it comes to reporting on costs, we expend huge resources. Money gets a lot of attention. But outside of accounting people, why should you care? That’s a great question. My answer is that you shouldn’t unless there’s something in it for you too. The best IT in the world will be reduced to “useless” if people don’t apply it properly. To use it, they must perceive value from doing so, and be willing to work as part of a team that is much bigger than just their immediate department with its narrow focus.

It’s not the system, IT isn’t a strategy

Of course, it is possible that computer systems are a bad match for your business. It happens all the time. But more often, the poorly executed system implementations, the ill-conceived, poor fit (or non-existent) business processes, the “user-hostile” systems, and other technology or process-related reasons are to thank for the failure of corporate IT systems. Many systems, demand much more to keep going than they deliver – they are destroying value. And it’s not the fault of the IT.

The system must deliver value to ALL users, or all won’t use it. No amount of salesmanship or change management during implementation will get you to use something that you just don’t need, want, or perceive to be adding value. A big part of that perception is about how you have used, and intend to use the information. If you have done a poor job of it in the past, then your people will know that. Without a clear path showing how that will change, they’ll stay away in droves. You need AIM.

Gaining support – one person at a time

There needs to be an answer to the question, “what’s in it for me?” The answer that works best is “it adds value for you, and here’s how…” The answer can’t be perceived as “far removed” from the users. The answer better include making their job easier, enhancing the value that they add for the company, put more money in their pockets, eliminate some headache or problem that they want to solve. It needs to include some direct benefit TO THEM.

In maintenance, systems have often served poorly. Unless you can show how your EAM or CMMS helps the maintainers directly, you will struggle to get them to use it properly. The result of that is poor asset information.

For instance: asking a mechanic (or any other trades-person) for data inputs that he/she can not see being used to reduce failures on equipment won’t get a lot of support. For example, gathering data on failures if there is no reliability person to use it, is seen as a waste of their time. They’d rather put that time into fixing things that broke. Incidentally, those same things you AND THEY want to be more reliable.

If they haven’t seen past improvements and don’t see a plan to make them with the new system, then they will see the system for what it is – a waste of their valuable time, time that could be better spent on the tools. And they are 100% correct!

If you try to sell your employees on the capability of a system to deliver a result, but you have no one on staff who can do the needed data analysis work (like a reliability engineer), or the processes to make the improvements actually happen, then they will see it as a waste of time, money and effort. They aren’t stupid. If they know you can’t, or won’t deliver on what you promise, regardless of your good intentions, then they will nod appreciatively and go about ignoring you. Passive resistance is rampant. They are resisting the destruction of value, not you or your system. That perception is what needs to change and you achieve that through AIM. IT is just a part of AIM.

Delivering value

So how do you make sure the system provides value-added output? In a word (acronym), AIM.

Before you start, you need to develop an AIM program plan. Part of that, with your system, is to decide on the inputs needed to provide the desired outputs so that those outputs feed value-adding decision-making processes staffed by those who are competent to make well-informed decisions. It is that simple, but it is almost never done. Without it you are not informed, you are data distracted.

Where we go wrong

We tend to focus only on the technology, mistakenly thinking it is a “solution”. The software salespeople even call their systems, “solutions”. We buy computer software believing what the salespersons tell us about all the great things it will do for us. But what they don’t tell you is what you need to do to get that value and many of them don’t know or care. Their sales commission comes from a software sale, not from your results!

Ask around and find out just how many reliability engineers were asked for their desired data inputs to be built into the system(s) that you are using today. Were your planners asked what they needed in order to plan more effectively? Did you hire the needed reliability personnel or planning personnel to take advantage of all those new features and system functionality? If not, then your company didn’t choose success with its systems. I’d bet that there is some degree of dissatisfaction with your systems or the results they are not delivering. Now ask, did the software salesperson even mention that all might be needed?

Where does it all go so wrong?

Systems are often selected to serve one function only (e.g.: finance), where there is a genuine need. It informs one key business function. But the system that solves one problem, may not serve all. The concept of integrated systems is marvelous and the technology exists, but many of those complex systems don’t deliver much value in all those integrated functional areas. They can’t. It is your business processes that will do that. If you don’t pay attention to them during system design you will not be informed by your data, you will be data distracted.

Simple processes are “complexified”

Computers are finicky to get working well. One little error, even simple mistakes like misplaced commas, can mess them up. Mis-spell a word and it won’t be found in a search. We mere humans are mostly not so finicky though. We make lots of mistakes and computers often can’t tell that we have done that.

Then we put those finicky systems that are “user-hostile” and difficult for casual users (i.e.: most of your workforce) to use in the hands of those error-prone users. That’s a recipe for mistakes to happen.

Somehow we believe our old data, that we probably weren’t using all that well, is still valuable. If it was delivering value, then why replace the system?

We put a lot of focus on converting old (and often corrupt) data into the new format for loading into the new system. If the data was not used in the old system, then what makes you think you’ll use it in the new one?

For example, how well was your old PM program working? Did anyone ask that before the effort was put into loading vendor prescribed PMs into the system? Did anyone think that may job planning to ensure they get done efficiently would also help? If your PM program wasn’t all that effective before the implementation, then what makes you think it will be better afterward? Processes and possibly even the information you are loading into the system, need to change too. AIM helps identify that need.

In one case recently hundreds of vendor recommended PMs were all loaded with the same due date, just to meet a project milestone. The project looked like it was on track and everyone was happy. Of course, those PMs were never revised, so shortly after the system went “live” the planners were overloaded with hundreds of PMs all due at the same time. No planning of those jobs had been done so not one of them was ready to issue as a work order. Needless to say, that system was not perceived to be adding value.

Quite the contrary, it created a planning nightmare. The old PMs hadn’t been getting done for a long time. There was a huge effort needed to get them into a state where they were useful. While doing that, many failures that should have been prevented or foreseen actually occurred. Production time was lost and the value was destroyed by the PM program itself. Merely moving it to another software system had the added impact of destroying the “credibility” of the system too. But the tech wasn’t at fault.

Measure twice, cut once

A good carpenter knows that it’s best to measure twice and cut once. Unfortunately few in the IT world do woodwork. Their laser-sharp focus on the technology often results in a complete miss on the very practical things needed to ensure that technology delivers results.

A close friend who is an IT implementation project manager recently told me about some of the obvious “holes” in a large project he was managing. No one (client nor the contractor) had responsibility for the maintenance planning of all the PMs, yet there was a task to get them loaded into the system. No one had responsibility for data cleansing before old records were transferred from the old system to the new one. No one had responsibility for linking parts data from the old system’s catalog to the equipment on which it was used. No one had responsibility for hiring the analysis resources that were needed to get useful information from the data that would be collected. No one specified what reliability data was really needed to be collected. And so on…

There were a lot of missed opportunities, all very visible to end-users, who ultimately rejected use of the new system.

Many asset information problems are carryovers from past practices. Without the effort to correct those practices, the new system has little chance of delivering value. It would be full of the same useless (perhaps even misleading) data. No one really looked at what the business needed and of course, no one had responsibility for delivering business results. There was an IT deliverable, a process deliverable, certain milestone deliverables, reports, etc., but no one had responsibility for results. There was no AIM. The result – without AIM there was a big miss.

In that case, data is now being collected. Little of it is being converted to useful information and the only knowledge they’ve gained is the slow and sad awakening that they are not particularly good at implementing major business systems that cross multiple functional boundaries within the corporation. That lesson cost them a few million dollars in software and implementation costs, and much more in a lost opportunity.

Put the horse in front of the cart

If you want to learn more and make informed choices you will need good (accurate, timely, specific) information. To get that information you will need to collect some very specific pieces of data. That requires processes and people prepared to use them. You will need to set your systems up so that that specific data can be collected consistently and accurately. It may or may not be the data that some systems are designed to collect “out of the box”.

The system you choose must be capable of collecting that data that your business needs, not data that someone else (i.e.: the programmer or implementation consultant) thinks you might need. Buying the system without thinking that through is really putting the cart before the horse.

Get the horse out in front! It requires effort in process definition upfront before you even select your system. It requires careful selection and implementation of the system that best fits your needs as a business, not as a single business function (department). It requires the dedication of the right resources to the system implementation project that go well beyond technology implementation. You will need change management (most companies “get” that) but they miss the whole business transformation aspect. That is a very broad change that warrants very senior attention.

Anything less than that puts your initiative at risk. At the far end of the scale (typically underfunded and under-resourced), those token efforts using part-time resources on what is perceived to be a technology project, will only rarely deliver the results you think you will get. In fact, your expectation for results may be well below what is achievable.

Those part-time project staff will be preoccupied with their other “real” job. The implementation gets the short end of the stick almost every time. They are also too far down the corporate food chain to truly impact the business where it needs it the most – in process transformation.

Take AIM

AIM will help you get it right. Consider implementing AIM before you even think about IT systems and software.

It is not tough to get it right, but it does require strategic thinking about your valuable asset information. It does cost in terms of resources, effort, and knowledgeable support upfront.

Later, after you’ve figured out your information needs and processes, the IT system suppliers become useful resources.

Keep in mind that (despite their protestations to the contrary) those technology suppliers will always have an ulterior sales and commission-driven motive. After all, they make their money from selling system licenses and maintenance support contracts. They are IT experts, not business process experts (except perhaps for their own sales process). Some will call themselves consultants, but they are not independent professional advisers with the aim of solving management and business problems for you – they are professionals at IT.

Get the right sort of strategic level of professional help. Get it upfront, before you’ve committed huge human and financial resources. Measure twice, then cut once. Plan your work effectively and then work your plan. Consider that Asset Information Management (AIM) is far more than just a way of managing IT, it is a way of transforming your business into one that leverages its own information to generate value.

This article was first published in 2013, revised in 2019, and now again in 2020. It’s updated quite a bit, but the underlying concepts are much the same. AIM helps pull it all together in a way that we all struggled with before. Many old mistakes are still being made. Some mistakes are amplified now with the effects of survival driven cost-cutting precipitated during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. Many IT projects continued on despite cuts elsewhere in the business, and they did so without the proper support needed to really deliver value.

We can do better, but we need to think broader and longer term: choose business results over technical solutions.

To understand more about how to deal with this problem, see our new course on “Asset Information Management“.