Standardizing Non-Standard Interfaces


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Designing a system, whether it’s a hardware system, software system, or organizational system often results in problems where multiple parts of the system interface with each other. In workflow, these are the boundaries between steps and actors; in applications it is that space between disparate databases. Most of the organizations I work with do not have one completely integrated system; nor do they share systems with their partners, suppliers and customers. As a result, there is quite of bit of value to be created bridging these non-standard interfaces.

These handoff points, where work is delivered to the next actor in an end-to-end business process, can often cause waste in the form of waiting, rework and other value-destroying factors. It becomes especially difficult to get a vendor to change their process for just for you; after all, you’re just one of their customers. However, over the years tools and platforms have emerged that are affordable and highly configurable; allowing organizations that historically couldn’t afford it, to deal with these non-standard interfaces in a way that has a huge value-adding impact.

I had a customer that was looking for a way to update delivery dates, at the PO line item level, in their MAS 500 system. The problem was that they received a very unfriendly (non-standard interface) email from their vendor containing this information. Due to the means by which they received this information, it appeared to them to be impossible to automate the process; therefore, the only alternative was to have a real, live person update potentially thousands of line items by sifting through the emails; which came every few days. There was barely enough time in between these batches of emails to process the last batch.

Errors were introduced as this information was reprocessed from one system into another system using manual labor. At other times, schedules simply didn’t permit the completion of this activity. This had a ripple effect down the line with regard to inventory management and setting customer expectations.

From the organization’s perspective, the task of solving this problem was daunting. However, we already had a relationship with the company, so when I was introduced to this situation I was able to offer a solution based on capabilities had developed with a reasonably priced business process management platform. It was simply a matter of matching capabilities that I had developed with the problem they had developed; and those capabilities are far more affordable than they would’ve been 10 years ago.

I’m straying from my normal agnostic approach to writing about CRM-ish stuff to talk about how I solved this problem. I think it’s valuable to understand more than the mere concepts of framing the problem, but how (today) one can approach designing a solution (next year there may be a better way!). Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a “how to design TaskCentre automation” manual. However, I’d like to paint a picture as to how an interface which is seemingly so challenging can essentially be standardized without requiring the other actors in your process (or value-chain) to change their work product!

In this case, the vendor sends out a batch of emails (one for each distribution center). The trigger here is action-based, as in it has to happen whenever our upstream supplier decides they want to send the information. We are using some MS Exchange routing logic to forward it to a monitored SMTP server so the supplier does not need to change who they send it to either (and we use that original recipient to send exceptions to). A simple filter that looks for attachments named “EMAIL.CSV” is used to fire the task (tasks are not processes!).

Here’s where things get tricky for us, while the other actors in the larger process are completely oblivious to what we are doing, we are taking this email attachment, that is basically a mess, and turning it into a recordset we can work with. The garbage (1) is removed and the good stuff (2) is massaged to remove things we don’t like (such as = signs and “s around the dates).

There are actually 2 tasks being used to makes this happen. A child task is being called to match PO lines, perform updates and log mismatches (2) and then this parent continues along to process files, send success messages, gather errors and report them to the original recipient. The key here is that now the recipient only has to deal with a handful of mismatches as opposed to thousands. I can share with you that this is a very happy person!

While these tools tend to make things look pretty, I can assure you that it gets ugly fast as you dig into this. That doesn’t mean it took years to do it. In fact, I constructed this and tested it in a matter of days. Given the amount of time that was saved, the fact that we didn’t have to negotiate any custom rework from the supplier (not the only customer), and that our end customer now receives the result they wanted (an up to date delivery time), this project was definitely worth it to my customer.

Especially in the middle market (and below), more often than not, you won’t have the leverage required to get external partners to dedicate resources for your special needs; nor is it always possible to re-jigger your systems to accept a token from one of many partners. But you can certainly integrate with them using a tool like TaskCentre (and others) designed to bridge the interface gaps we all have in our organizations. The standards we have to work with, such as OLEDB/ODBC as protocols, and SQL Server, etc. for databases provide an interface with the tools necessary to bridge that final mile of standardization.

The wall between front office and back office is artificial and I find myself working with these kinds of end-to-end business process challenges as much as I do sales and marketing processes. At the end of the day, whether you’re dealing with internal suppliers and customers, or external suppliers and customers, you should be looking for ways to leverage the current technologies to help standardize interfaces between steps and actors, to optimize flow globally and to align human resources to more value-adding activities.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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