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WHAT IT CAN DO: The secret of a successful MRO IT System upgrade project
Author: James Cornelius, President of ROTA TechnologySubscribe
All too many people view a project as a trial of endurance with many hidden bear traps along the journey: but it needn’t be like that. With the right processes and organization plus the input of an expert guide, a project can be not only successful but also a positive career experience for all the people involved. This article is about how to organize an upgrade project for a successful outcome and satisfied users. But before that, an introduction to ROTA technology.
ROTA was formed in 2015 by some already experienced project leaders from larger companies. The company’s first contract was for a defense startup implementation located in a very austere environment. What evolved from that was a better way to come at MRO IT by focusing on project management discipline and common-sense customer engagement. Experience, since that start, has included ten implementations, 25 upgrades and 18 system evaluations with many ad hoc maintenance technology projects.
WHAT PROJECTS ENTAIL
For ROTA, a key factor is that we need to build strong relationships with key personnel. Whether it’s a new client or a business with which we’ve worked in the past, it’s important to get access to key stakeholders and SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) from the IT and the Business sides of the airline to assemble a single team for the project.
First, our team will map out the task deliverables as well as both resources and hazards: this builds a good rapport early on between the SMEs in the client business and the ROTA team who will then build a project plan for approval and adoption by the client’s team. In this, the combined teams get through what can usually be very tough sessions such as cataloging the processes that the client already has plus the processes that ROTA has, and identifying any gaps. Pairing the right ROTA SME with their appropriate counterpart in the client’s business ensures that the process is extremely efficient and ROTA is able to guide the process and close any gaps.
As this phase draws to its end, ROTA partners with the client’s internal team responsible for the software to be upgraded to start indexing results around UAT (User Acceptance Testing), managing bugs and making decisions around functionality. This is also where the project inertia starts to have to be managed to keep things moving forward at all times. Finally, ROTA delivers post-upgrade support which is usually stand-alone but can be delivered in partnership with the client’s internal team.
So, why do airlines and MROs decide to upgrade their software?
THE DECISION TO UPGRADE AN MRO IT SYSTEM
What is often overlooked with software upgrades or gets lost at the start of a project is the original reasons to make the upgrade. As a consultant, ROTA believes that it is valuable to dig into these original reasons to upgrade as deep as the customer will allow because, ultimately, those reasons will affect project nuances and tempo once underway. One example could be that, if the upgrade is necessary for a sympathetic system to work correctly, it’s important to make sure that the modules and departments are all focused on that. This is not to say that all aspects of an upgrade are not important but that special attention needs to be paid to those particular areas. Anything suspect has to be escalated with a higher priority.
Many upgrade decisions are based on a lot of the same reasons; either needing an upgrade or contemplating one. Sometimes, the approaching end of support for current versions of software, which might include a lot of backlogs of fixes and modifications, means that a growing number of software obsolescences can become a restricting factor for the airline or MRO’s ability to continue efficient operations. For all of these reasons, upgrading to the latest version of the system or to a new system can be a priority as well as to facilitate additional projects within the technology roadmap. The technology roadmap is dependent on a series of upgrades to move forward.
Notwithstanding all of that, it’s a big deal making the decision to upgrade. It can be emotional and there is always an element of risk with significant consequences should it not go right. They are all good reasons to work with a partner such as ROTA but, equally, they are reasons why ROTA takes these upgrade processes very seriously and will assume the burden for their clients. With any upgrade managed by ROTA, there is a clear process to follow (figure 1).
The start of the process is with discovery, initial meetings with users, management and stakeholders. This time is very important to the project: although it has to happen quickly, based on experience, ROTA has a methodology that helps to understand the customer, their capabilities, shortcomings and, conversely, their strengths. Taking the time to properly understand stakeholders’ and SMEs’ perspectives helps mitigate any risks once the project is underway. It also establishes the background to ensure that the project is always putting the customer’s needs first.
These meetings also help to understand the culture of a company, how rigid is their Project Management (PM) methodology and how end users interact with the management groups that run the business’s systems. It’s the first opportunity for ROTA to start working in its own PM Methodology which is to start level-setting expectations based around a strict timeline adherence. This is also the time to start to plan for any data that might be affected along with configuration changes. Sometimes, the customers making the upgrade are on a tight schedule to, for instance, induct new aircraft, and some things cannot be put on hold while the upgrade is being accomplished. Other times there could be certain sympathetic applications that the new configuration might affect. It all has to be taken into account during the planning phase.
In many cases, the next step is to consider what levels of training will be required and whether the airline or MRO requires a niche modification that would completely change an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure). Also, it had to be established whether there might be changes to the UI (User Interface) and/or UX (User eXperience) that front-line users could struggle with; it might be just a different look and feel but its impact has to be considered.
At this stage in any project, ROTA starts to baseline the user acceptance testing, meaning, how good are the client’s processes; will they just need to be complimented or will a complete re-write be necessary? All of this helps to work out when the project can plan for the cutover and how that will look. Each one of these planning sessions should give the upgrade project team an idea as to how long and to what depth post-upgrade support would need to be organized. After this round of due diligence is complete, with a project plan developed and approved by the client, there is no time to waste.
ROTA will send a team into the main workspace either in person, or in a virtual or hybrid manner. ROTA SMEs are paired with Client SMEs based on knowledge and experience – ROTA SMEs have often spent years working in the same jobs as the people they are paired with plus have a deep understanding of information technology.
CORE PROJECT TENETS
Once the planning process is complete, ROTA executes the plan to some core project tenets (figure 2).
The first key tenet is project plan and project management. This is a collective road map that, ties together multiple departments within the client’s business, multiple companies outside and countless people inherent to them all. As mentioned above, ROTA develops this road map by spending time with all stakeholders, learning the ins and outs of the organization, nuances, etc., but what is most important is that, once the kick-off is held, a strict project management discipline is put in place from day one. If tasks slide, it’s important to know why, if team members have road blocks, ROTA will clear them immediately: every plan has a different level of discipline based on company culture, biases and/or team members.
We’ve all heard things like, ‘this was how it was done in the past’ or have known places where the client company lacks inter-departmental collaboration. ROTA takes all that on and quickly institutes its own discipline to the project which is supported with regular meetings that hold people and, sometimes, processes accountable, every time, without exception. Remember that this was started in the planning phase but the pressure will be increasing incrementally each day, if not each hour. Everyone knows that you manage to the plan which also helps to drive change, whether subtle or dynamic, and proper engagement helps to drive both. By setting PM expectations early on, projects normally end on a high note instead of pushing and dragging people across the finish line.
Lastly, business process management: when a complete set of processes exists, testing becomes very easy to manage and document. This is not usually the case anywhere you go. ROTA uses a BPM (Business Process Management) 2.0 system to house, organize and then map to a clients’ unique business needs. This is typically where ROTA takes the customer partnership and engagement to a new level. For instance; usually the first task is to level set existing processes from both companies, airlines and software vendor, and identify new or missing processes. ROTA will work with the corresponding SMEs from the client, developing synergy and, again in short order, producing processes that could be used as test scripts. Throughout this process we also test application configurations, new or enhanced functionality and APIs with lots of sympathetic SWIM (System Wide Information Management) wins happening at the same time.
Once the processes or set of processes are level-set, ROTA runs through an initial test and signs that off: the client SMEs follow up with their test and sign that off. This ensures that testing is only complete after a very robust and complete process in which both the client and ROTA have been closely involved. We all know that some processes are more complex than others so, where necessary, ROTA will continue to work with their counterparts in the client organization on the level-setting process. As this process continues and we signed off more test scripts, the more challenging the remaining ones become: this is where time lines usually start to stretch when the challenge is complexity or user issues such as having day jobs; ROTA relies on a disciplined project management approach, starting on day one, while managing project inertia. This is also where we start to blend the human factor with the software factor. Project management discipline and common-sense customer engagement allow the teams to very quickly work through any vendor-consultant biases to a place of mutual respect. All of this while keeping the project on point.
Finally, managing project inertia. For some, this is possibly the hardest tenet to see through. It’s only possible if you are involved in every daily meeting or have seen every single SWIM win or discipline in the process of the level-setting phase of the project. One day, it could just be getting SMEs off the starting block, another day helping to influence a decision in a way that doesn’t cascade through the whole project and affect the timeline. It is constant and mostly comes from vast experience coupled with human and software factors meticulously blended. A couple of examples.
As we start to close out the testing, we’re holding initial meetings on the actual cutover, again managing inertia. Because one phase rolls into or overlaps with the next, there is no idle time. This also helps to push the closing out of testing. Pressure has been continuous and continues to increase incrementally.
Another example is cutover. Cutover can be a very long night, entering data with complexities that, in most cases, require split second decisions: it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work coupled with very high stress. Whether doing it themselves or whether they’re doing it with a talented internal team, ROTA is there to help steady nerves and provide feedback on those decisions. Again, inertia; gently nudging one way or the other to make sure of the success. We’ve all seen what the effects of getting cold feet the night of cutover can cost; this is especially true in the loss of inertia, once it is lost on a sixty-day upgrade, it is almost impossible to get back.
First and foremost, the consultant and customer partnership is critical. The consultant has to understand the decision at all levels, the reasons to upgrade. Customer engagement has to be developed throughout the whole process, planning the project, executing the project, utilizing core tenets. Finally, supporting the project when it’s complete to close it out successfully. Everyone should walk away, head held high after a successful project. No one upgrade is like any other, they are unique and should be treated as such. ROTA always takes a long hard look at every project to ensure that the next project is done even more completely and better.
I hope that readers have gained some value from this article to inform their own next upgrade or implementation project.
James is an experienced MRO IT Program Manager with deep experience in both commercial and defense aviation software. Prior to starting ROTA, he spent nearly three decades working in aviation. Starting with Boeing and transitioning to FAR 121 carriers, James worked through the ranks to leadership roles across multiple departments in maintenance and engineering, and the IT world. He is a Veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
ROTA Technology Inc.
With MRO systems projects and support spanning both the military and commercial markets ROTA brings proven experience to all sides of aviation. Specializing in system implementations and upgrades, ROTA brings deep knowledge of aviation business processes, integrated into custom built software. Aside from upgrades ROTA has completed a number of data projects from cleaning up aircraft configuration to system security overhauls plus training and ongoing admin support for any MRO IT needs.