Every week, we will seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue it is facing in its business.
Rajesh Ahuja, founder and president of Concord, Ont.-based Dependable Mechanical Systems, tries hard to live up to his company's name.
His business develops and installs the plumbing, heating and piping for multimillion-dollar projects. But every job is so complex that it isn't always as dependable as he'd like it to be.
Jobs can often take up to two years to complete, and the company's 71 employees in different locations are responsible for each project's various parts. Any communication breakdown – a document isn't sent to the right person or information isn't passed on – could have a significant effect, Mr. Ahuja says.
Right now, staff place information into folders on a computer. Not only can anyone put a document into the wrong folder, or forget to save something, but it's hard to tell when a task is completed or ready to be handed over to another employee, Mr. Ahuja says.
"Everyone's isolated," he says. "We are reacting to information that is just sitting there [in folders] We're not being told that there's anything to react on."
This system has caused the company problems. Occasionally, information about design changes to a project have not been passed down the line, making it too late, or too costly, to implement them, he says. If part of a project has had to be redone, Dependable has had to eat the costs, he says.
With the nine-year-old company rapidly growing – its revenue soared 4,765 per cent to about $9.7-million between fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2010 – Mr. Ahuja feels he needs to improve his system by buying information management software.
He wants to spend about $50,000 to either buy or create a computer program that would allow every member of his team to communicate in real time. The program would be based in the cloud, meaning anyone could access it via the Web; when tasks are completed or information is put into the system, prompts would be sent to other employees to follow up.
"Everything has to be integrated," Mr. Ahuja says. "Checks and balances have to be in the system to ensure no one falters."
He's not sure how to develop the best program. He's looked at existing software, but hasn't found anything that perfectly suits his needs. He's also talked to people who can develop programs from scratch, but isn't sure who will create the ideal system.
Whether he buys software on the market, or builds something new, he can't wait much longer to put a system in place.
"There are too many variables and too many people in the process," he says. "We need to track every function in the business, and we need to start now."
The Challenge: Should Dependable Mechanical Systems buy an existing program, or hire someone to build software from scratch?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Robert Warren, Winnipeg-based executive director for entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business
The problem with making it yourself is that it can be a long and very frustrating process as you implement the program and then work through all the bugs. And because of that, it can be expensive – what you're doing is asking someone for a one-off piece. That could also create problems in terms of hiring staff, because they'll have to use an uncommon program.
The first thing I'd do is talk to the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association and ask what their members are using. See what's out there for companies in small manufacturing.
People get frustrated that packaged software doesn't work exactly the way they want it to, but instead of trying to get something that fits with the process he wants, he might find that it's okay if he tries to fit within what's on the market. So he may need to modify his process, but maybe there is a more effective way to get his work done.
Merril Mascarenhas, managing partner at Toronto-based Arcus Consulting Group, which has helped companies implement new information management systems
Most off-the-shelf technology is generic and built for the common denominator company – it's one size fits all, which is quite frustrating. But you need to start there. So find the common denominator product and then find a company that's willing to add a layer on top that reflects the challenges his organization is facing. You tap into the benefit of a platform that's already been created, but then you can customize it to a company's unique operations.
Besides finding a company that is highly flexible, make sure they have knowledge of the industry. That's a huge differentiator. They should have worked in a similar kind of business with the same complexity – especially in Dependable Mechanical's business, where there's a lot of moving parts that are being managed. They might want to look at someone who's dealt with automotive spare parts, or another industry that's fairly complex on the supply chain and installation side.
Ross Pinkerton, founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based ERA Canada, which recently revamped its own information management systems
We've used all sorts of software to organize people and projects across offices, but I would say that, in the interests of keeping costs reasonable, I would definitely look for an existing cloud-based solution as opposed to customization. I believe there are solutions already out there. You may not be able to find 5 per cent of what you're looking for, but is that last few per cent worth three times the cost? In our experience, you can save 60 to 70 per cent of the cost by buying a program that already exists.
To find what I was looking for, I drew up a specification list of all the characteristics I wanted in an ideal solution. We used that as a checklist. While the program we use isn't perfect, you can customize field names and do other things to the software to suit your specific business. I'd be surprised if there was really nothing out there.
THREE THINGS DEPENDABLE SHOULD DO NOW
Work with a company that has industry experience
Whether buying existing software or making something new, choose a company that understands your business. The more it knows, the easier it will be to customize.
Consider changing your process
He may have to adapt his own processes to fit a program's capabilities. No software is perfect, so it may be easier to adapt to one than try and find the ideal system.
Create a checklist
It will be easier to find the right program or developer if you figure out exactly what you need from a system. Create a checklist of wants and needs and see what accomplished the most of your goals.
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