Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Onboard computing realities

Onboard Computing

I was recently asked by an onboard computing company to be on a customer panel to answer questions.  They provided all of us some questions to answer and this post will share with you my answers.

Before the questions can be answered several things the reader of this post needs to be aware of.  First what is onboard computing?  This is actually one of those simple questions to answer.  It is a device attached to the engine system bus of vehicles.  This device collects engine information in real time and stores it for future retrieval.  This retrieval can be immediate or a store and forward approach.  These vehicles in my case are large tractor trailers and our straight truck fleet.  We currently have over 800 of these units rolling around North America.  In fact I have more rolling infrastructure then static desktop computing.  Also, the computing power and complexity is higher on my rolling fleet than anything on my accountants desktop.

Modern onboard computing is the ability to monitor the vehicle geometry (location, speed, rpm, braking etc) and driver behavior (hours of service, speed, cruise, lights, wipers etc) and bring the back office into the cab (driver messaging, pickup information, delivery information, signature capture, fuel tax, image scanning etc).  Seems simple enough, oh but wait, if it was simple all of us would be doing it.  You need to be aware that most trucking companies’ equipment committees are not tied to the backend accounting needs.  The push and pull is everywhere.  Traditionally if the rolling stock needed new toys, voila the money is/was found.  Over time this becomes a very complex dance between perceived value and benefit with real cost of support.

There are two main camps in this arena.  The first camp is all about driver and vehicle data.  The old world of tacho-graphs and vehicle data lead the way.  Our firm is squarely planted in this camp.  This is typically the camp of the early adopters.  Before backend systems had reliable means of real time connectivity the store and forward world of driver/vehicle data was one of batch reporting and driver coordinators who enforced compliance based on these reports.  This is not a bad camp to be in if it can move forward.  These types of solutions are usually very proprietary and closed and very good at collecting data.  Not so good at making information out of it though.

The next camp is the one that wants to bring the back office into the cab.  This is the where the late adopters find themselves.  The technology has matured and the industry as a whole is comfortable with baseline vehicle and driver information.  These systems typically are newer, open and standards based.  The support groups of trucking firms really enjoy these platforms for they are easier to support.  With anything new, there are issues to work out but all in all they are excellent approaches to solving real business information needs.

What about the driver.  In most worlds the driver is actually forgotten by the technology unless the firm forces driver feedback.  This feedback can be in the form of messaging, panic buttons for safety, audible alarms to enforce safety rules and give attention to immediate action.  Some of the technology is actually used to improve driver skills.  An example of this is lane departure software.  This type of software emulates the rubble strip on the sides of the highway so the driver is aware of any drifting.  It is very sophisticated in the math of determining if drifting is occurring and over time  the drivers have had positive feedback on its accuracy and then by their improved handling of the equipment.

So what is in it for the Driver?

  1. Real time feedback on equipment issues.  For example spike break, lane departure, fatique
  2. Panic button
  3. Communications to and from dispatch in an non-obtrusive manner
  4. Driver safety - Hi-jacking prevention and alarming
  5. Driver pay based on performance
  6. Reduced paperwork (driver logs, fuel tax, trip reports, pre and post trip inspections)

 So what is in it for the vehicle?

  1. Effective and proactive monitoring of engine performance
  2. Fuel usage
  3. Safe handling
  4. Extended vehicle life
  5. Proactive and preventative maintenance procedures
  6. Consistent, predictable usage pattern regardless of driver 

So what is in it for the organization?

  1. Getting data as close to source as possible
  2. Creating information from data
  3. Increased customer service 
  4. Customer transparency
  5. Reduced labour to support operations
  6. Real time tracking of fleet
  7. Heightened security position
  8. Better competitive edge
  9. Ability to make decisions faster and with better context


Here are my answers to the questions.

Question 1: How has technology in the cab provided your organization a competitive edge?

Answer:  The technology deployed gives us near time information on business and operational performance.  Our customers have complete visibility into their freight.  Our bottom line is positively affected by lower costs, higher safety ratings, and predictable operational performance.  We are in effect proactive not reactive to the marketplace.

Question 2: Has technology enabled your company to operate in a safer environment?

Answer:  This was one of the biggest drivers for our onboard committee.  From driver fatigue, to driver safety, to safety compliance we are able to work with the driver to improve safety both for the equipment and more importantly for the driver.

 Question 3: What best practice has your company implemented to get driver buy in?

Answer:  We have a pretty proactive and progressive driver committee and driver coordinator team.  We run pilot projects and get driver feedback.  We adapt the technology to fit the needs of the driver and the organization.  We are always very aware of providing real time feedback to the drivers.  This can be achieved through visual or audio cues in the cab.

Question 4: How do you see government regulations affecting your business?

Answer:  We see the government finally taking the advice of our associations to adapt the technology in a supportive way.  To be more accepting of digital information.  We also see that there is still a lot of education required on the parts of government to understand what the industry is able to provide.  One of the challenges facing some of the early adopters and proactive firms is information overload to the government.  Some of the late adopters are just providing baseline information and not giving context to the information.  This is leading to a dual standard on the road.  Governments should align reporting requirements with reporting templates and guidelines. 

Question 5: How does the government inter-play affect your technology buying decision?

Answer:  More attention is being applied to things like driver logs and this is a good thing.  The late adopters have an advantage here where some of the early adopters are struggling with technology architecture issues.

Question 6:  How is technology enabling your organization to take advantage of fuel saving best practices?

Answer:  Along with safety this is the largest benefit achieved by onboard computing.  Elements such as idle time, progressive shifting, speed, excessive acceleration and rapid deceleration.  All of these elements have given real saving to fuel and repair costs.

In Conclusion

Onboard computing is maturing to a state that not having the technology is no longer an option.  We are at the stage that just having the technology is not good enough.  The firm must be able to leverage the data to make useful information with it.  Otherwise it becomes an exercise in diminishing returns.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stubby Pencil Principal

Technology as the tool

This post is being written to address how technology is meant to compliment the business and not complicate the business.

All too often, businesses and organizations look to technology to solve problems. However, sometimes technology is the problem. The organization must be able to articulate what the organizational problem is before a solution can be explored. Remember I am a technology person and I am saying be cautious of technology. Pay heed, truly.

Here is a true case study and the acid test I use almost every day. During the big space race of the 60’s both Russia and the USA were posed with the same problem. How will the astronauts write in their logs in zero gravity? This was/is a real problem. The countless checklists, science experiments and daily logs are a reality for this type of adventure. The USA Team through NASA started on the zero gravity pens. They Spent 10 of thousands of dollars in its research and came up with a swanky solution. The US astronauts were unaware of the great technological advancement made by the zero-gravity engineers but were happy they had a writing instrument. The soviet cosmonauts were given simple pencils and were equally happy. Both solutions worked and worked very well. Hence this is what I call the stubby pencil principal.

The lesson to be learned in the above case study is, “what is the problem?” Both teams understood the problem. The US team wanted a unique technical solution, while the Soviet team just wanted to solve the problem. Again, both worked. I liked the pencil solution for it was quick, relevant, inexpensive, easy to support and allowed the rest of the engineering team to focus on other real new problem like how to navigate back to earth without melting the humans in side.

Every day I have conversations with people and they come back to me with “how can technology solve the problem?” More times than not, I counter with, “let’s look at the current process”. Address that first.

Humans have been using tools and technology since the cave man and its early use of clubs. The tools then as they should be now were used to solve a specific problem. Craftspeople took great pride in making the tools and then allowing other craftspeople to use the tools. What changed? Simply, it comes down to respect and attitude. When we had only hand tools in the house building industry, each craftsman made sure their part was done well for everyone else would benefit from their work. Today with the advent of almost every tool imaginable and with the mindset that fast is better we get poor work from the beginning to the end. We have the capacity to do more with less but what we end up with us less with more tools.

I still love to witness good craftsmanship whether that is in woodworking, sewing, iron works, painting etc. The one thing I have consistently found is that the correct tool with the correct craftsperson creates art. The correct tool with the wrong person is considered work. The wrong tool with the wrong person produces junk.

Take the time to understand the problem, look for several options and when you are committed to a solution then put it in correctly.

I heat with wood and my wife and I enjoy the process of wood heat. You have to go into the bush, select your trees, drop your trees, cut your trees into stove length, split the wood and then stack the wood. On the surface, why bother? But in reality we have an appreciation for wood heat. We do not over stoke the fire box. We run the house at a reasonable temperature and we are always sensitive to effort required to heat. We are also aware at every stage of the next stage. By this I mean we do not rush and cut any tree, but rather the ones that can be dropped safely, handled with just the two of us and of the correct species to provide maximum heat for the problem. Of course this is not an option for everyone and I am not proposing that every heat problem can be solved with wood. What I am suggesting is that knowing the problem, respecting the options and deciding on a course of action that fits what the organization can support is the correct path.

The same goes for businesses and organizations. I tire quickly when speaking to business leaders who tell me their technology problems to nauseam but cannot express to me the business problem at all. This is tantamount to listening to an electrician telling me his hammer is broken but he cannot express to me why the house has no power.

The same is true when I see accountants using spreadsheet to send text documentation to someone. It amazes me that it can be done when a word processor would have been better. In most cases the accountant is not willing to learn a new tool and is forcing everyone to adjust. This is another form of disrespect.

The current attitude of waste and to throw more technology at problems is only creating bigger issues and forcing the real craftspeople to shake their heads in disgust. I have a saying “those who think they know really annoy the ones who do”, applies here.

Let business do what they are in business for and let technology in all its flavors support that business as a supporting actor and trusted advisor.

Have fun and be safe.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Leadership and Management

Leadership and Management
Ok this discussion could go anywhere and it is as old as time. The questions that is mostly asked is can a leader be made or are they created? I will attempt to give my perspective on this. Again, this one may turn out to be more of a rant but I feel under these times of stress and crisis it is important to have this discussion.
Leadership and management are both required for any organization to be successful. There are many business schools that cloud the issues and interchange the words. I completely disagree with this thinking. Do not get me wrong both words are very positive to me and they are very real roles. However, there is a difference and I will attempt to explain.
Just so there is no confusion, I will state that in my opinion leaders are born. You can teach leaders to be better and give them more tools to work from. I have the same opinion of trouble shooters. You can make them better with training however; they need the character to start from. My personal opinions of those experts whom believe the contrary are saying it to sell the snake oil of their training programs.
Management is the care and feeding of an existing system to make it better and to be efficient. You have management of people, time, scope, quality and a whole ream of other things. In the end, a vision was created by someone or something else and it is now the management of those strategic, operational and tactical items that is important.
Management is critical for any organization to be successful. Well managed teams and organizations can weather many storms and are difficult to knock off balance. However, when real change is needed by the organization to succeed management will struggle with how to solve the problem. Recent events of the economic crisis are case and point in this. Large very well managed companies are failing to respond to the situation. It is because the management team was closed to real inputs and changing factors. Crisis of what we are facing do not happen overnight. It is a long term effect of poor management decisions not necessary poor management. The goal of management is to keep the collective calm. The graphic above is an attempt to illustrate the concept. The consensus concept is not bad; in fact, it is a great management style. However, the concept does not promote innovation or free will. That would cause management issues and those issues must be excised to keep order. This is why well managed organizations can weather a storm but rarely can avoid the storm in the first place.
Then we get into management promotion from within. This is also a two edged sword. You get the insight from someone who has history with the firm; however, this promotes a closed system. Strong management teams promote this behavior and it causes the system to become stagnant and less resistant to change.
Leadership comes in many forms. It comes from all levels of the organization and it must start with personal leadership. This is the type of person that steps away from the crowd and asks “why” or “there has to be a better way”. Innovative and creative organizations promote this behavior at all levels not just within their management ranks. Leaders take charge and make the tough decision even in the face of personal adversity. A leader who puts themselves aside and does the right thing for the collective is the true leader. Many leaders can be confused with charismatic managers. Do not confuse the two. Look at what visions leaders leave behind. A leader leaves a lasting imprint on the organization and charismatic managers leave the group with a good feeling but not a clear vision to follow.
A leader by my definition is someone who can positively get someone to do something that they would not have normally done. Once completed it raises the personal bar as it were. By doing so, the person being led is now better for it. Some people are great manipulators and can get people to do things they would not have done. The acid test is the person doing the work better for it or just the person asking for the work done?

A leader leads from the front, is the last to eat, first to rise, the last to sleep and takes care of the people under their care first. Most management schools don’t even recognize what this sentence means and that is why it is a management school.

In times of crisis leadership must be promoted to navigate the storm not just weather it. Sadly, the world is getting lean on leaders and too rich (multiple context) on management. Leaders seek consensus but are not framed by it. Some examples of current leadership are Tony Blair, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Pierre Trudeau, Margaret Thatcher and Barrack Obama. All of these people shined in crisis and struggled in calm. The collective are quick to cling and to be lead through the storm, however, once the clear sky appears they want to return to the comfort zone. Sadly, we as a society are too quick to penalize the peacetime leader in favour of the manager who can split the financial hairs to get more bonuses and perks for the elite.
General Motors was well managed but very poorly led and hence they are on the brink of self made collapse. The management team was so use to drinking from a fire hydrant and so far removed from the product they made that when the customer went elsewhere all they could say was, “heah, we are number one and if we fall the economy fails”. How sad is that? People are still buying cars, just not theirs. Good leaders would have known to build something that will get purchased. The examples of this are many, current telecommunications companies, air lines, cable companies and hard goods manufacturers all need to learn from the auto crisis. Get out of your offices and go and talk to your customers. Learn what they need and want and stop thinking we are cows to be herded.

In conclusion

If any of you are Star Trek fans you will know the borg. The borg is management and they were powerful, however, a strong leader, Captain Picard was able to get the management (borg) to fail at its lowest unprotected system. The system attacked was to lull them to sleep. They did and the captain won. When we look at recent events and we see how simple the failure was and how pervasive the abuse was it is no wonder that leaders are excised from the management teams. Our recent ails are based on greed and selfish management teams whom have lost touch with what business they are in.

People remember leaders; leaders need management and management needs leaders. Once leadership is excised all management system will eventually fail. Look around you, are you the leader or just the manager. It is your choice and your choice alone.

My mantra is “Lead, Follow or get out of the way”. This may sound crass but take a deeper look and you will see the mantra is just stating, “Know your role”.