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Clinton Jones

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Getting a Bathroom Makeover Is a Bit Like an IT Project

But, there are some big differences ...

I am writing this as one of my bathrooms at home goes through a face lift. This is one of those projects that I have pretty much put off for years over fear of what might be found under those loose shower tiles and creaking flooring around the bathtub. As anyone who has gone through any home improvement project will tell you, the experience can be relatively energizing, frustrating, soul destroying or all of these. Bathroom refurbishments in particular seem to be extraordinarily stressful due to the uniquely intimate nature of this being the place of ablution.

Over the past twenty plus years, I think I have gone through roughly 4-5 different bathroom overhauls. These have covered everything from wholesale replacement of major plumbing and fixtures, flooring, walling and tiling to supposedly simple faucet and drain replacement. Some of it I have done myself and some of it I have relied on contractors to undertake. The choice of DIY versus outsourcing is a combination of factors, not least of these is personal competency, tools, and of course budget.

There are a tremendous number of parallels between this activity and what you might consider doing about implementing an IT project. Again, the variables are largely the same. Internal technical skills, experience with running or doing such projects and budget.

In terms of relative scale, I consider the replacement of a faucet as being somewhat similar to tweaking current IT configuration, perhaps leveraging existing technology and simply switching something on or enabling something that already exists but is switched off. You might consider this as something akin to enabling a web service, leveraging a standard system application programming interface (API), using your SharePoint infrastructure for something more than a glorified file share and document store, or even using a screen scraping technology to integrate something like Microsoft Excel with some back-end system.  Replacing basins, toilets, bath tubs and showers on the other hand is a bit more liking deciding to switch on eCommerce or building and enabling a self-service solution or shopping cart solution that integrates with your back-end warehouse or manufacturing system.

Such projects are hardly for the fainthearted and inexperienced. Things get a little more interesting when you decide to rearrange the layout of a bathroom or change the configuration. This is more akin to open heart surgery on your IT systems. Now I am mixing my metaphors, but you get the idea. The challenge with major projects is that you cannot always tell at the outset whether your project is going to ultimately lead you to question the underlying integrity of your installation infrastructure or architecture or whether it will simply represent a small imperfection in the overall finish of the bathroom like a misaligned wall tile or a inconveniently placed pipe or hose.

With my bathroom for example, when it was originally constructed in the early 1960's it was standard for the contractor to take the shortcut of using galvanized steel pipe for the plumbing rather than copper. Today, no doubt some contractors persist with using PVC piping where they should be using copper. It is as if their thoughts don't go beyond the prospect of more than about twenty years of life expectancy and they fully expect you to just accept that you will need to replace the piping. Are your IT systems built with the same expectation? I think we would all like to say no! The pragmatist in us says otherwise. We fully expect to renew our IT systems periodically in a number of different ways. If we have a relatively dynamic business with constantly changing demands and dependencies then we plan ahead for systems renewal. This may not be as overtly articulated as saying, 5 years from now we will replace our sales and distribution system. But it may take on slightly more subtle characteristics like saying. Well, we fully expect to have completely replaced all our underlying server hardware in five years or, we have bought a modular system that has all the bells and whistles because we aren't sure which modules we will need in the future.

In this respect our bathroom overhaul strategy is slightly different. No one replaces a bathtub or a toilet with the expectation that they will replace it in 10 years. The expectation is that they will replace it when it needs replacing. Replacement may be driven by things like leaks, blemishes, cosmetic and/or technical failings. My bathroom toilet for example doesn't use the same flush mechanism or have the same flush choices as modern toilets. For example, it contains a large pickle jar to reduce the flush capacity (some people use a brick) whereas new water efficient toilets have a partial flush and a full flush capacity. Conversely, bathrooms really have limited functionality. A lot of what a good bathroom is about, is aesthetics and taste. The same isn't necessarily true about your IT system.  So because my bathroom doesn't have a constantly changing purpose, perhaps my expectations around renewal are more constrained.

Now that I have decided that I am going to undertake this overhaul of facilities, I need to evaluate how much I am willing to spend and do. There are so many choices. Ironically, the most obvious choice is white. With white you can't really go wrong, however it is interesting how many people hate white bathrooms because they claim that they are not ‘warm and inviting' or convey opulence or a sense of being plush. I am not sure I want a warm and inviting bathroom, it conveys images of shag pile carpeted bathroom with a crocheted toilet seat cover and gilded faucets. Too many disturbing thought enter my mind on this topic and I think it is a bit crass. In my mind at least, white is good. It is easy to keep clean, easy to spot dirt etc. It is a good baseline.

This bathroom used to have custard yellow fittings which were likely super fashionable in the 1960's along with cerise pink, teal and plum. These popular colors seem to have largely gone the way of dumb terminals and floppy diskettes though no doubt there are still a few people who insist on installing such bathrooms. From a systems implementation perspective, we don't generally choose old technology to implement as part of a systems renewal, however, sometimes we're again constrained by the underlying architecture or infrastructure. In my bathroom, I choose to replace the toilet in situ because I don't want to re-plumb the waste water plumbing.

The same might be true of my backed ERP system. It does what I need it to do, but I need to web enable it. So I evaluate technologies that build on what I already have in place. You would choose to augment the capability of the systems without undertaking major back end changes. This is of course a sweet spot for a company like Winshuttle, their workflow, forms, and ERP integration platform is all about augmenting the capability of the backend infrastructure not forcing you to undertake wholesale major changes to your underlying infrastructure.

What you may discover however, is that these kinds of solutions platforms expose flaws in what you thought were steady states. Some of the things that happen here for example, are that you arrive at conclusions and answers faster than before. This means that ultimately you may need to accelerate renewal of things you hadn't budgeted on replacing. My decision to overhaul the bath in particular, leads me to replace the hand basin and the toilet and consider the electrical fittings because I want to keep the overall experience in the bathroom consistent. I may discover that the wall separating the two bathrooms has bad mold and dry rot, so I need to replace the wall in the other bathroom also, or I may need to replace my iron pipes for copper in order to avoid having to deal with leaky plumbing due to pressure test failures. Similarly, the fact that I can load 10,000 orders an hour into my ERP system, or now have 200 suppliers connected to my system remotely may bring my core infrastructure to its knees. Exposing my inventory holdings online so that my suppliers can engage in vendor managed inventory practices for example may break my system because it has to service too may supplier information requests.

Then there is the who, as in who is going to do the work. This is driven as  I said before, by experience, competency, budget and possibly even timelines. The last time I worked on a bathroom it took weeks to make progress because I did it on weekends. I chose to replace faucets, basins, baths, do tiling, build a shower pan, tile that, check the draining, etc etc. I had to check out the hardware store supplied, source them, coordinate a builder to do some cement work and then finish off the job. It drove my family insane. For weeks they had to ferry their toiletries in and out of the bathroom or all share one bathroom without a tub, while the bathroom was under reconstruction. This time around, I am taking the easy route. I am retaining my steel tub and simply getting it re-inserted with an acrylic custom insert and sealed wall surround, clinical but effective. The insert is installed by a technician to will tear down the existing wall, adjust the plumbing as required and perform the acrylic insertion and sealing. This is something he does 4-5 times a week. In a good month he will do around 20. He has likely seen every kind of bathroom imaginable. He knows what to expect, has a van full of requisites, tools and supplies and has a work order that covers off unexpected eventualities.

Building your own system is somewhat similar. Have you got the right tools, have you done this before, do you have the resources in house? Does the business have the palate for the potential disruptiveness of the project and have you got a clearly defined scope with a clear understanding of all the potential pitfalls and failings that the project may have. What is your baseline?  The challenges are not dissimilar, I may have to buy an electric saw, I may have to rent a pickup truck, I may have to get a bit dirty or redo something I mess up. I can however adapt my install or refurbishment as I go along if I am not directly dependent on a third party. So the same characteristics are true for the IT project. Doing It in house means that I can self pace, I can adapt as I go if I feel that a change order can be accommodated internally. Self-driven and implemented projects can often be more flexible and address the business problem a bit better than the outsourced ones, because you have control over the schedule and scope of work. When you outsource though, you're usually looking at some sort of cookie cutter approach to tackling the problem. Accordingly, unexpected eventualities and outcomes are all dealt with as part of the change order process in the contract. This is especially true if you're working on a fixed bid IT project or working with a contracted resource that has a regular arrangement with you but will bill extra for project work.

There's an underlying assumption of course that internal projects are cheaper than outsourced ones or vice versa and that is of course a fallacy which you can read more thoughts on from "Dave" in his blog Lessons of Failure.   You don't necessarily have particularly good visibility into the margins of your contractor but you do have the ability to get competitive or comparative pricing irrespective of whether it is a bathroom installer or an IT services provider. What you often cannot do, is mix up the combination of who does or supplies what. "One stop shops" that do everything usually carry a premium and are driven by a get in and get out philosophy. As my current service provider says, we have a system. This means proper assessment up front (taking dimensions), clarity on the scope of work to be done and then having a clear timeline, resource plan and resource schedule. So with my bathroom refurbishment I will likely pay a 30% - 50% premium but I am not getting my hands dirty, I am not having to do rework, I am on schedule and I am going to land up with exactly what I asked and was billed for. Best of all, it will be turned around in a day and I have a warranty.

Ok so my IT project will take longer, it may have some schedule slippage but as long as I stick to the scope of work and I had predefined measurement metrics I can hold the service provider to the contract. What kind of premium will I pay, well of course that answer depends on many variables. Some of them include, whether my company is a globally recognized brand and is prepared to provide a case study or a customer reference; whether I have fully outsourced or partially outsourced the project; if I have managed to contain my scope creep and have done a proper job with the vendor, of the project scoping. As Brian Heywood of the Financial Times comments, "typical business environment will often complete their projects not knowing whether the battle has been won or lost" and in this case we're really talking about the success or failure of the project in meeting the business objectives. If you didn't define those up front with those metrics I mentioned, then all bets are off so to speak.

My tub and shower at least has a single function and purpose. If the tub doesn't drain properly or the hot water runs as cold then guess who I will be calling? Heywood comments further that Business Satellites may be the way to solve the problem of projects failing, irrespective of whether you do it internally or with an outsourcing model. This is kind of what I am doing with my bathroom. I will divide and conquer. Someone will do the tub and shower and the toilet and hand basin will be done by other means. The fact that my tub and shower contractor doesn't actually do toilets and hand basins is ancillary to the discussion, but it is one of the reasons I chose them over a one stop shop who I know would have pressured me into getting them to do everything and more.

Look at your IT project initiative or any initiative for that matter and consider whether you could use a similar approach.  For example;  one solution from one provider to provide shopping carts and a different one to provide your suppliers with collaboration and perhaps a third solution or service provider or even internal project to provide desktop integration.

You might consider in this instance what Gartner calls BUAD or Business Unit Application Development to create process flows with say a Winshuttle Workflow and form for getting details of inventory levels from SAP, and then use a standard but customizable application like an SAP CRM system to provide shopping cart technology sold by SAP but implemented by one of their consulting partners. The two systems will happily coexist in the same environment with the same common dependency - the backend SAP system.

The beauty of this approach is blended risk as well as blended cost. This is frustrating from the accountants and procurement folks; for the accountants because they don't have a simple billing and payment model and perhaps their capital investment plan will be a little more complex and for the purchasing people - they have to deal with several vendors and perhaps it will be a little more demanding for project managers but it makes things more manageable and less disruptive.

For more on the debate and to consider additional perspectives, read Ron Sellers' article published in Quirk's Marketing Research Review  and Matthew Bidwell's   "What do firms do differently? Comparing the governance of internal and outsourced IT projects"  a 2004 unpublished manuscript undertaken at MIT Sloan School but available online in various forms.

Further reading:

Outsource it or keep it in-house? by Ellison Research, Ron Sellers

Your Major Internal Projects Fail, Outsourcing Fails - What Next? - Financial Times, J. Brian Heywood

The Outsourcing Low Cost Lie - Lessons of Failure

More Stories By Clinton Jones

Clinton Jones is a Product Manager at Winshuttle. He is experienced in international technology and business process with a focus on integrated business technologies. Clinton also services a technical consultant on technology and quality management as it relates to data and process management and governance. Before coming to Winshuttle, Clinton served as a Technical Quality Manager at SAP. Twitter @winshuttle