June 2006, Vol. 18, No.6

Safety Corner

The Tools Dilemma

The Necessity of Developing Functional Requirements Before Purchasing Tools and Solutions

Dave Mason

Have you ever wondered why some organizations seem to be more efficient than others? Have you been tempted to find out what tools, software, and management information systems they use? Have you considered purchasing a new software package because the last one failed to deliver expected results?

The big question is what makes those systems work so much better?

I recently overheard a conversation about which computerized maintenance management solution is best. I found this discussion somewhat amusing and believe it demonstrates a common trap many utility managers fall into.

Isn’t what’s “best” determined by what you need to accomplish a job and what it’s being used for? Its function, rather than its inherent attributes or capabilities, is the important factor. Regardless of whether you are considering supervisory control and data acquisition systems, computerized maintenance management systems, plant vehicles, computers, or tools, shouldn’t the “best” really be defined as that which is the most appropriate for accomplishing routine tasks?

For example, consider hand tools — specifically screwdrivers. Some folks might become pretty passionate in a debate about who makes the best 10-in. flat-blade screwdriver. You can buy one from the bargain table at the hardware supercenter for $0.99, spend a couple of bucks on a brand name, or drop $10 or more for a premium model. We could start quite a hell-raising debate about what should — or should not — be the trade standard.

I personally have quite a variety of screwdrivers, mostly remnants of various sets. For me, I think the screwdriver is nearly the perfect universal tool. I can use it as a pry bar, punch, awl, or chisel and even as a utility knife for cutting packaging tape. I can use it to pry off paint-can lids, open oil cans, drive small nails, beat on things, and even mix paint with the blade. (I wonder how much time I spend using it for turning screws.)

If you listen to sales representatives, they can tell you about the specific attributes of one screwdriver versus another. They might include such details as the comfortable, easy to grip, nonslip handle; the way the handle and shaft are bonded; the ft-lb of torque that the tool can apply; the tensile strength of the shaft; the tool’s durability; whether its made of forged, stainless, or carbon steel; and so on. The vendor will tout that each of these attributes adds value and makes the extra money worth paying. But doesn’t it really all depend on what you need to get a job done?

A screwdriver can work wonders in my hands, particularly when assembling Christmas toys for my kids or executing a variety of odd jobs around the house. All I have to do is go to the junk drawer in the kitchen, grab it, and begin working.

Function, not Features
My point is that all of the discussions and debates about “best” should be based on what’s required to get the job done. What defines a tool’s functional requirements is what we want to accomplish with the tool or technology — not what the tool can or should be able to do. If we get carried into this sort of “best” debate, we’re putting the cart before the horse. What value is an attribute if it’s not routinely required or used? If this is a valid argument for hand tools, the same reasoning holds true for computerized work management, enterprise asset management, and other information management solutions.

There are countless examples where an information management solution was purchased to solve a problem and failed to deliver the expected results. Experience has demonstrated that information technology vendors are adept at installing, configuring, and supporting their transaction-based systems but do not have the domain expertise to replace the reporting infrastructure. Alan Brache, in his book How Organizations Work: Taking a Holistic Approach to Enterprise Health, lists some of the typical reasons for information and knowledge management failures. They include
    • assuming that computers are the solution;
    • putting the computer “cart” before the business “horse”;
    • tolerating a culture that discourages knowledge sharing;
    • assuming that information technology has to be managed internally;
    • underestimating cost and time;
    • installing systems that do not provide strategic information; and
    • delegating information and knowledge management to the information system department.

Identifying functional requirements enables us to examine and define the work we want to accomplish, how it should be done, and what tools and enabling technologies are required to do the job. It also provides us the opportunity to evaluate the skills and number of folks that are required to do the job. The benefit of going through this process helps ensure that we are doing all of the right things and that we’re doing them the right way. There’s no sense automating ineffective and inefficient work practices.
Perhaps the screwdriver example will help us to keep things in perspective and remember the need to start with pencil and paper. Define what you want to accomplish. Develop the functional requirements before searching for the “best” tool to do the job. Don’t get caught off guard by putting the computer cart before the business horse.  

Dave Mason is a performance improvement practice leader for Infrastructure Management Group Inc. (Bethesda, Md.). He can be reached via e-mail at dmason@imggroup.com.

Further Reading Brache, Alan P. (2001). How Organizations Work: Taking a Holistic Approach to Enterprise Health. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.