Food-maker takes right approach with little nibbles

Its incremental approach to IT is paying off, says Frank Hayes

Amercian snack-food firm Lance has just rolled out new handheld computers for its delivery sales people — and in the process violated one of the core traditions of IT. How did Lance do that? By deciding to get the handhelds into users’ hands as quickly and simply as possible.

Instead of giving users new hardware, plus new business processes, plus dramatically different applications to support the new processes, plus a new back-end infrastructure to handle all that, for now Lance is just delivering the handheld hardware with software that’s pretty much the same as what users had before.

Call that the “little nibble” approach — and recognise that it’s heresy. In IT, we don’t take little nibbles. We take big bites.

We roll up lots of changes in hardware, applications, infrastructure and process into one huge blowout project. Sure, that takes longer. It’s more complex, harder to change and more likely to fail. And it drives users crazy, because it forces them to lose all their productive habits and learn their jobs all over again.

But big-bite projects are big and impressive. They have big budgets, big staffs and big schedules, all of which are highly beneficial for IT empire-builders or anyone who leaves before a big-bite project is done, because a huge, ambitious project that’s still in development looks great on a résumé.

True, most huge projects are doomed to failure. But huge projects are also hard to kill, because some business sponsor made a big bet by funding that big bite, and big betters don’t like to admit they were wrong.

And big timelines make it easy to hide schedule slips and dead-ends. In fact, the bigger a project is, the easier it is to hide failure of every kind for a long time.

No wonder we like big bites. They allow us to hide our failures, pad our résumés, indulge our egos and cover our butts.

Except, of course, that’s not really why we do them. We take big bites because that’s what we’ve always done. The big bite truly is an IT tradition.

Well that, and the fact that it takes a much more complex planning process to break a big project down into self-contained mini-projects, with real cost savings or ROI delivered after every little nibble. That’s really hard to do, and it requires a finer-grained understanding of the project than with a traditional big bite.

Or anyhow, that’s what we’ve always assumed.

Which brings us back to those iconoclasts at Lance. A Lance vice president, Mark Carter, told Computerworld’s Matt Hamblen that his company is looking at ways to simplify the jobs of sales reps and wants to eventually use supply chain technology to provide them with “predictive” orders, and maybe even add in real-time sales updates — or maybe not.

Does that sound like a project plan? Nope. It doesn’t even sound like a project plan obfuscated by a VP who doesn’t want to give away too much to the competition.

It sounds more like a vague wish list, doesn’t it?

It probably is. But that’s OK.

What Carter has either brilliantly deduced or stumbled on by dumb luck is this: when you bite off little nibbles of a huge project, you don’t have to know exactly what every nibble will involve. You just have to figure out what nibble to take right now.

In Lance’s case, the right nibble now is new handheld hardware and slightly updated software. Carter figures those changes will cut support costs. That’s a successful nibble.

After that, who knows? Somewhere down the line there will probably be process changes, infrastructure improvements and major application overhauls. Exactly what and when may not be nailed down now, but it doesn’t have to be.

Whatever those future nibbles entail, they’ll leverage the new handhelds. Knowing that is enough for now.

Just enough, in fact, to let Lance keep chewing away successfully at business problems — one nibble at a time.

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Tags managementHandheldsLance

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