In an era where companies profess to be partners the minute a deal is struck, the very meaning of the term is suspect. That is unless you consider the circumstances that led Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) to forge a partnership and bring a human element to its Job Estimating Tools (JET) development efforts.
Competition and shifting technologies have caused PG&E to change how new applications are implemented. The company must work smarter, faster and more cost-effectively to ward off competitors. That process started with the introduction of a new systems implementation model that recognized success hinged on balancing business drivers, user requirements and technology trends. PG&E also identified one other critical element: the human factor.
“The company recognized that user acceptance-the human factor-was essential,” said Dirk Koops, PG&E project engineer and union official. Koops said the Labor Management Committee, composed of senior management and union officers, vowed to involve users in new deployments. “We had developed a working partnership to identify issues. Providing improved new tools to workers was essential.”
JET is used to provide material, labor and cost estimates for all new construction and replacement of existing equipment. PG&E began the JET project in 1989 using a cost estimating application-Estimator-that ran on the Hitachi CAD engine in the DOS operating environment. With some 400 PG&E employees using the product by the mid-1990s, it was essential to the job estimating function.
“With the onset of new technology and competition, we were faced with trying to extend the life of the existing tool through year 2000, or start to modernize and improve its capabilities,” said Mike Bernovich, PG&E’s JET project manager. PG&E decided to move to an industry-standard CAD platform compatible with Microsoft’s Windows.
The company that had originally developed Estimator was changing its business direction to focus on other industry applications. “During the development of JET, we had built strong relationships with the Estimator development team. Most of the same people had been working with us since 1989,” said Bernovich.
One of those people was Jerry Kennedy, an original designer of Estimator who had moved on to form his own company, SophSys Inc., in 1995. SophSys initially provided relational database system (RDBMS) services to investor-owned utilities. Faced with the opportunity to expand Estimator’s functionality, SophSys acquired the intellectual property rights to Estimator in 1996 and hired the team working on the project for PG&E.
PG&E initiated a grassroots education effort to generate funding for the new JET system through bringing employees up to speed on what the new tool could do. “As senior management discussed increased productivity with employees, employees in turn asked when new tools were going to be funded,” said Bernovich.
“The energy products delivered by PG&E are available from other sources,” said PG&E’s Koops. “The users got on board because they realized there was something out there called competition, and it was in everyone’s best interest to work together to make the company more competitive.” This grassroots effort resulted in funding approval for the new estimating tools.
PG&E next began the process of defining requirements, and evaluating Windows-based CAD platforms and estimating applications. Working groups were formed to develop requirements for the new tools. Bernovich said the goal was to get a team of 10 users in place to remain with the project through implementation.
“The first group was vetoed by the union because they were all too technically competent,” said Bernovich. “That may sound crazy at first, but the JET project managers knew they needed a team representing the full spectrum of users-from those who were afraid of computers to those who were technical hotshots.”
After the evaluation process, PG&E selected Autodesk’s AutoCAD as the platform for the new application. This decision narrowed the field to two potential estimating applications, one of which was a new version of Estimator being developed by SophSys on AutoCAD. PG&E determined that the new Estimator best matched the company’s engineering and estimating methods.
For SophSys, the opportunity now had turned into a significant challenge. “Our team had become an important part of JET,” said Kennedy. “We were supporting 400-plus users of Estimator. PG&E had realized productivity improvements ranging from 18 to 37 percent. We had to rewrite the product while making sure there was no downturn in current performance.”
SophSys created a fresh name-Sherpa-for the new estimating application. Sherpa had to perform ‘on-the-fly,’ estimate-as-you-go designs. It had to increase work throughput while optimizing construction labor resources and material costs as part of the design process. Sherpa had to communicate with Oracle databases such as PG&E’s Construction Cost Information System. Like its predecessor, it had to integrate with PG&E’s SAP R/3 Materials Management, Work Management and Corporate financial modules.
“SophSys had knowledge of SAP through their integration efforts with Estimator,” said Bernovich. “This was a major consideration in keeping the learning curve short.”
Rapid application development practices were employed to tie deliveries, testing, feedback and fixes together during the year-long development effort. PG&E brought in Andersen Consulting to develop the testing program. “Anderson’s approach allowed us to complete business cycle testing and what we call ‘actual-factual’ testing-the functional user component,” said Bernovich. PG&E built a test lab environment where users worked with each delivery over a three-month period. Andersen developed some 20 work scenarios for both electric and gas jobs covering real-world job estimating situations such as placing a pole and new and replacement gas mains.
Bernovich said each SophSys delivery was run through as many scenarios weekly as possible to identify bugs and additional requirements. “Each weekend, SophSys implemented bug fixes and as many new requirements as possible,” he said. “They recompiled a new version of Sherpa and reinstalled it on each machine by Monday when the test cycle began again.”
The next phase was training, and PG&E again relied on the human factor. With the number of Sherpa users now up to 925, “Developing the training schedule provided us with a budget reality check,” said Koops. PG&E issued a request for proposal for training services and the selected vendor worked with management and union members to develop a program customized to PG&E’s human and functional needs. Only one week of training per employee was required.
The next step was deployment to the 925 users. Union executives maintained communications channels established during development, testing and training, said Koops. Schedules were published for when each of the company’s 18 operating areas would be brought on-line.
The hand-off from a development environment to users was treated with a human touch as well. To avoid problems, SophSys team members, trainers and testers were assigned to provide on-call support. “The decision to have on-site vendor support from SophSys from development through implementation was not popular at first, but it turned out to be invaluable,” said Bernovich. “SophSys had to learn a new paradigm-how to deal directly with users instead of with a client development team representing users.”
For SophSys, that meant getting on-the-job training as analysts to learn how to interpret user requests and to discern the difference between glitches in the product and Monday morning grumpiness, said Bernovich. “They got very good at that, and they worked closely with us every day to identify and prioritize issues.”
PG&E recently purchased 160 seats of a new Sherpa-family product-SherpaMap. SherpaMap extends cost estimation automation to what is known as ‘completing the cycle’ of tracking and managing plant assets by providing Geographic Information System (GIS) capabilities. Kennedy said combining GIS functionality to a set of Sherpa’s placement and labeling tools allows assets to be spatially located. SherpaMap will enable changes to be made graphically or directly from the Oracle relational database environment, said Kennedy.
Bernovich said the addition of mapping capabilities is essential to how utility jobs are planned, engineered and estimated. “Utility job functions are fairly distinct in that planners determine what we have available and what is needed. Engineers design the work. Estimators provide material and labor requirements and cost estimates based on the design,” he said. “All these work functions need different views of the same information. With Sherpa and SherpaMap we can share information throughout our work environments.”
The human factor inherent in PG&E’s implementation model was in play during every step of the process. “Management has continued its involvement in this effort even after Sherpa was delivered,” said Koops. “They frequently drop in unannounced on our users and ask them how the tool is working and if it has made things better. It’s sort of a corporate Nielsen rating for JET.”