Agility results from a way of looking at the world. It doesn't come from any specific technique or a particular collection of technologies. Agility starts with the ability to accurately size up a situation in a timely manner. That means seeing potential problems and opportunities and devising bold and simple ways to avoid the problems and seize the opportunities. IT can be a big part of what makes a company agile, or it can be a big part of what makes it a clumsy, slow-moving bureaucracy. One of the major determinants of this is the way your company answers the question, "Should we build our systems fast, or should we build them good?" The agile answer is to build them fast and good enough for now.
What does "good enough for now" mean? In a fast-paced, competitive world, opportunities arise quickly and then either fade away or evolve into something else. The advantage goes to companies that can develop systems that are ready when the business needs them and don't cost more than the opportunity is worth. The best way to do this is to create systems out of combinations of simple building blocks and repeatable processes.
Here's an example: My company is a cooperative of member companies (each with its own internal systems) that band together to serve national accounts bigger than any single member can handle alone.
One of our customers is a large chain of stores that uses specially printed and colored items for the holiday season. It wants to make sure that we can deliver enough of these items to all of its stores nationwide during November and December. It also wants to track usage of these items and manage the purchasing process so that they're all gone by the end of the season.
In the past, we either didn't deliver enough product or the chain was left with excess inventory. In July of this year, we saw an opportunity to improve our service by creating a supply chain management system tailored to the customer's needs. We built it in August, tested it in September and had it in production by October. At the end of December, we can either shut the system down or expand it to track nonholiday items, depending on what the customer wants. Either way, we're delivering a lot of value at a very low cost to ourselves.
How did we do this? We created a simple system out of a combination of a few spreadsheets, e-mail, a couple of Web pages and some Java programs that took about two weeks to write and test. The system allows us to collect production and inventory data from relevant parties in the supply chain. Then it compiles this data into an end-to-end view of the supply chain that all parties can access over the Internet. Because everybody can see the big picture as well as the details, we now coordinate effectively with one another on the making, ordering and delivering of products.
If the customer wants us to expand this system to track nonholiday items (and it looks like it does), we will respond by writing a few more programs to enhance the volume and frequency of the data collection process. The rest of the system is still good enough for now. We will move with this opportunity a step at a time, stay flexible and reap tangible benefits as we go.
Michael H. Hugos is CIO at Network Services Co., a distribution cooperative in Mount Prospect, Ill., that sells food-service and janitorial supplies. He is the author of Building the Real-Time Enterprise: An Executive Briefing (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2004). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Computerworld (US)