Technology Enabled Business Solutions
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A decade ago, when handheld computers first became popular, storing appointments and contact information on a portable electronic device was a convenient way to avoid lugging around your appointment calendar. Mobile technology has come a long way in the last few years; today’s smartphones are capable of much more.
Many mobile devices are as powerful as a desktop computer. They have processors that handle internet access, photos, voice recordings, and database applications. They allow viewing of documents, reports, presentations, and video files. They integrate cellular technology, digital networks, email, scanners, a world of Bluetooth devices, and global positioning systems (GPS).
As mighty as they may be, mobile devices have not replaced laptop computers because of their limited keyboards, screen sizes, and computing power. But the line between laptops and smartphones has blurred substantially. Mobile technology offers ways to become more efficient and provides more value to company operations and management systems.
Find & Fix
Traditional processes tend to produce traditional results. One cannot expect technological innovation without technological integration. Integration allows companies to stretch and empower every limited resource. The key is identifying those traditional processes that will realize benefit (mostly likely cost or time savings) from technological integration.
Take the business practice of internal auditing for example. The most traditional practice for internal auditing an aspect of a company (e.g., general safe practices, OSHA compliance, OHSAS 18001) is a “find it & fix it” cycle, where the internal inspector goes into a facility and inspects operations as they exist. The inspector typically walks a facility with a notepad and pencil, taking notes of field observations that are not in compliance with the defined protocol.
Following the audit, the inspector creates a report and shares the findings with a responsible party. Sometimes the process of creating a report and communicating findings can take weeks or even months. The cycle is repeated when the inspector comes back to check the site at a later time.
The “find & fix” inspection cycle works—but only to a point.
Same Old Methods: Same Old Problems
The difficult part comes next. What happens to that inspection form or accident investigation report after it is completed? It is likely reviewed by a few people, perhaps transcribed into electronic form by a data entry clerk (where data entry errors may enter the equation), and filed away for legal and compliance reasons, rarely (if ever) to be seen again.
Filing data away in a drawer is better than nothing—it at least shows some documentation of findings— but what happens when the inspector is asked to compile annual data from the findings? And how are trends and patterns evaluated to best allocate resources for improvement initiatives? The paper method of recordkeeping makes compiling field data into a report an enormous task consuming resources and money.
Electronic Data Capture and Reporting
When the inspector captures all field data electronically, the task of generating a report to analyze trends becomes much easier. Mobile technology allows the inspector to capture data electronically—in the field, at the point of discovery—and can eliminate the problems associated with manual data entry and manipulation.
And when data is collected, uploaded, and stored in a database, accessing and reporting on the data becomes as easy as simply requesting the desired information—from questions like, “How many deficient issues were there at the warehouse last year?” to “How many overdue action items does Bruce have in repackaging?”
Reports generated can include photos and reference information, along with field comments. These reports support the inspector’s findings and eliminate many questions about whether a situation is accurately described and/or in violation of the defined protocol. With this information, reports also become a valuable learning tool for employees in the field.
Once uploaded, data are stored in a database for later reference. Assessments continue to be added as inspections are performed and a large bank of data is amassed. That data in electronic format, unlike hand-written notes that are filed away, can be easily arranged for future analysis. Reports can be generated using a large menu of criteria that address specific business needs, such as running statistics on a site over a period time or reviewing instances of a particular violation.
Not only is reporting easier, it can serve more needs:
- Certain reports provide a means of internal communication, enabling transparency and creating clear accountability.
- Automated notifications provide real-time improvements.
- Follow-up actions can be assigned and sent to those who need them.
- Reports on action status can be sent as reminders to each assignee.
- Follow-up reports can show photo evidence from the point of discovery, cite the relevant regulatory reference, and encourage continued improvement.
- Positive observations can be used to provide positive feedback to those employees who have met or exceeded expectations.
- Mining data in different ways can help to identify root causes and end harmful trends so that real improvement can occur.
Value of Good Software
Even with all of the power and functionality that mobile devices offer, they are of limited value without good software. Software applications use the mobile device’s power, synchronize with web and network applications, and use new programming languages.
A number of management efficiencies are realized when auditing/inspection software offers:
- Consistency: Pre-defined answers allow users to answer consistently to like situations, lessening the potential for inconsistent interpretation of the responses from one inspector to the next.
- Standardization: Providing a centrally located database with standard criteria helps ensure that all facilities are on the same page.
- Consensus: On priority rating of inspection findings.
- Tracking: The ability to assign and check status of fixes and corrective/preventive actions helps ensure compliance.
- Analysis: Results can be analyzed for relative importance, statistics, comparisons, patterns, trends, and, ultimately, to identify root causes.
Our world continues to demand faster response times, constant internet connectivity, and immediate access to information. Technology manufacturers have responded, as we continue to see the emergence of hybrid devices that incorporate laptop computer capability with cellular technology.
The growth of mobile devices has accelerated to the point where they can be a huge asset to company operations:
- Provide electronic data collection
- Integrate data from different types of media
- Offer data management to organize reference materials, inspection protocols, and field data
- Immediately generate reports
- Easily assign and track follow-up actions
- Educate employees and eliminate confusion
- Query and organize data for analysis to discover trends and identify root causes
Ultimately, the goal is to continually improve the company’s overall performance—health & safety, environmental, quality, overall business. Fortunately, technology can enhance traditional business practices, such as the “find & fix it” inspection cycle, to create greater efficiencies and enhanced business value. Integrating technology with current business practices not only allows for continual improvement, it helps create the next level of competitive advantage.