Trading clipboards for keyboards: Making the transition to IS

When fleets turn from paper management to computerized management, the most difficult part isn't installing machines but changing people's attitudes. Although computers and networks always have bugs that need to be worked out, the hardest part of computerization is overcoming the unease people feel about their jobs when computers are placed on their desks.Tom Bores has been helping trucking companies

When fleets turn from paper management to computerized management, the most difficult part isn't installing machines but changing people's attitudes. Although computers and networks always have bugs that need to be worked out, the hardest part of computerization is overcoming the unease people feel about their jobs when computers are placed on their desks.

Tom Bores has been helping trucking companies make the transition from paper to computers since 1977. An independent facilities manager located in Monroeville, Ohio, Bores states simply: "Computerization is primarily a cultural change.

"It is quite a challenge for people to leave the security of a piece of paper. The physical touch of the paper is a 'known.' Having information in a computer is an 'unknown,'" he says.

The first functions to be computerized in trucking firms usually are in the accounting services: billing, invoicing, settlements, etc. This transition is likely to go smoothly because back-office personnel understand the need to computerize. Although some may hesitate, they come around fairly quickly. Even so, trucking firms have until recently been behind the curve compared to most industries because management has lagged in its interest to computerize.

However, when computerization proceeds to the next logical levels such as load planning, road optimization, and dispatching, the human element becomes a huge stumbling block. Areas which relied on heavy use of paper -- especially where people physically moved paper or cards -- are where managers feel the most resistance to change. One reason is that many of these people have had no contact whatsoever with computers. Again, it's the unknown.

"It seems like a no-brainer, but you have to make sure that people know how to use computers first," says John Strothers, logistics operations analyst for Harley-Davidson Transportation in York, Pa. "You have to make sure computer skills exist."

In addition, the commitment has to be there from management and from employees. "You need the buy-in from people," says Strothers. "These people issues are very important."

Like most trucking firms, Harley-Davidson's overall experience has been positive. The firm's first foray was in load planning and road optimization, because it fit well with their particular needs. The company has 38 tractors and 69 trailers. "Our four shipping plants are not required to use us," says Strothers. Computerization helps Strothers' fleet stay competitive with common carriers. "It particularly helps my backhauls," he says.

Strothers says he is 'ecstatic' because for the first time he can see his operating costs and ranges clearly. "Road planning used to be by Rand McNally (maps). I couldn't make cost decisions. Now I see my daily spending; I don't have to wait 30 days. I can see my operating ranges. I can quantify costs. It's fabulous."

How much are they saving? Strothers says about $10,000 a week since January, when the system was first up and running. The company's next step will be to computerize dispatch. "We're also looking at mobile communications."

Strothers' best advice on buying a system is to make sure you know what you want and then go out and find it. "Customization is too expensive," he says.

However, the cost of computerization is relatively low considering the benefits. The average cost of a dispatching system is about $100,000 for a 100-truck fleet, with paybacks averaging less than two years. Some fleets report paybacks within a year.

Bill Dutcher, president of National Highway Express, Columbus, Ohio, says the key to his company's computerization success can be summed up in one word: commitment. "I was committed, and my people were committed," says Dutcher. "That's 75% of the battle."

The company, which has 75 tractors, 280 trailers, and operates in eight midwestern states, is not new to computerization. Eight years ago, National computerized its accounting and billing functions.

Dutcher was skeptical at first about computerized dispatching. "But I ate every word," he admits. "We had an excellent paper system from the 1970s, but it wasn't as good as this. There's no doubt in my mind that you have to be computerized to remain competitive in this business."

The fact that National already had some employees with computer experience helped make the fleet's transition to computerization a smooth one. However, Dutcher says that the majority of the credit should go to the outside trainer. "A lot of our success had to do with the trainer we used. The trainer made all the difference."

Dutcher's experience has been profitable. He estimates a return on investment in two years. Future plans call for computerized maintenance and mobilecomm.

In addition to a strong commitment and a good trainer, Dutcher recommends getting organized before a computer even enters the door. "You may think that you have all of your stuff together, but you don't. Get organized ahead of time, and you still won't be as ready as you think you are. We had some loose ends that caused us to scramble a bit."

"We should have done it sooner" is a common refrain throughout the halls of trucking companies that computerize. It's the mantra of Bernie Hoffman, general manager of Metro Xpress, Wichita, Kansas. "Computerization is a real time-saver. We should have done it sooner," he says.

The company went from paper to computer dispatching in December, so it's too soon to know about savings, but Hoffman promises it will be "dramatic." Since drivers of the fleet's 36 tractors are dispatched two and three loads in advance, the paperwork had become confusing. So when it came time to move to computers, Hoffman was ready. "I had been a senior dispatcher and I've been in the business my entire life. I bought into computerization immediately. It was not a tough transition."

The company's next step will be mobile communications. "It was a smart move doing dispatch before mobilecomm. It makes logical sense," says Hoffman.

Until two years ago, Marine XPRESS, Arlington, Wash., was a private carrier that hauled boats for its parent company, U.S. Marine. While U.S. Marine still accounts for more than 50% of the carrier's revenues, Marine XPRESS has entered the competitive market. "We had to be computerized to be competitive," says Tim Poole, director of logistics.

He says that the company, which has 120 trucks, is still undergoing growing pains with its dispatch software. "Some dispatchers are still not comfortable. They're not willing to give up all of their paper," he says. The carrier plans to add mobilecomm soon, and is testing one unit. "The missing piece for us now is, 'where are the trucks?' "

What about drivers? How do they feel about computerization? "There was some fear on the part of drivers that we would watch their every move," says Marilyn Baldwin, manager of fleet operations for Toro, Lakeville, Minn.

Baldwin now says that drivers who don't get tractors with mobilecomm equipment get upset. "They have to wait in line for phones when they get to the plant -- and that's their own time." For dispatchers, the time savings was even better. Ten- to 12-hour days were normal for Toro dispatchers, and that has dropped to 8- to 9-hour days. One reason is that drivers can be sent a message anytime via mobilecomm -- even in the middle of the night.

Toro's fleet of 40 trucks and 75 drivers picks up material to build lawn mowers from about 10 locations. About two-thirds of their loads are inbound, and they log about 7-million mi. annually.

Not only has the company cut its costs 2› to 3›/mi. in a little over a year through mobilecomm and computerized dispatching, but it can bill the next day. "There is no more overtime to bill, and there is never more than two days from order to billing," says Baldwin.

What would she have done differently? "I would have hired temporary workers to get us started. We would have hired contract workers to help train personnel so it wouldn't take time from our own employees' jobs," says Baldwin.

Time becomes one of the main bugaboos in computerization. Because it takes extra time to load data initially, many dispatchers and drivers pooh-pooh the idea that computerization will save them time in the long run. "It's tough getting across the idea that front-loading the data will end up saving time at the other end," says Tom Rittman, marketing manager for TMW Systems in Cleveland, Ohio, a systems integrator that also sells its own system.

There's a perception that the time taken to complete data entry won't pay off, but that disappears once employees see the payoff in quicker billing -- and especially when drivers get paid sooner. "You can cut the accounting process in half," says Rittman. In addition, preplanning loads can increase loading by at least 5% right off the bat, notes Rittman, whose company has 300 customers -- 70% for-hire and 30% private fleet.

To get around dispatchers' concerns, Dutcher went against his consultant's advice. "He suggested building files on the fly, but I didn't listen. My fleet managers are not clerks." Instead, Dutcher hired people to enter the data that had previously been on paper. Dispatchers only enter new information as it comes along.

Although trucking companies understand the advantages of computerization, "It's hard to get people to give up their clipboards," Bores says. Amazingly, there is a growing aftermarket for old paper-dispatch systems. Several company officials, who asked that they not be identified so as not to embarrass colleagues in the industry, tell stories about selling their paper systems to competitors for as much as $8,000.

Why? It still comes back to the human element. People don't want to change.

Sometimes, the only tack that works is for a company's top manager to take an unwavering stand and not give in to paper. Those who have undergone the process say that going "cold turkey" does work, despite protests from workers.

"We didn't run parallel (paper and computers)," adds Dutcher. "I told my employees that within a year there would be no more paper. I want to eliminate the clipboard syndrome. If you can write it down on paper it must be put into the system. Nothing else is acceptable if this is to work."

Here are some tips from experts and those who have made the transition from paper to computer: *There must be a total commitment from both top management and employees.

*Computerization should proceed logically. The order that seems to make the most sense is accounting, dispatch, mobilecomm, and then EDI if desired.

*Contract outside help to put data from existing files into the system at first. Not only will it speed the process, but it will make the transition more palatable to dispatchers and others who will tire of long inputting sessions.

*Outside trainers can help speed the transition and make people comfortable with computers.

*Although some managers prefer a slow transition, going cold turkey does work, and keeps people from clinging to their old ways of doing business with paper.

*Make sure everyone understands that there are bugs in any system and that it will take time for things to work smoothly. Tell them not to be discouraged by early setbacks.

*Once the system is running smoothly, track your improvements in terms of both time and money. This will help everyone feel good about the change they have gone through.

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