Small Systems – Big Impact

Never overlook the value that small systems can bring to an organization. Keeping track of information can start out as a small responsibility which can grow bigger over time until it becomes overwhelming. Microsoft Excel is a great tool and can be used to maintain all kinds of information. It is easy to use and with small amounts of data it is easy to manipulate. However, as the amount of data collected grows and the relationship of the data increases in complexity then Excel’s inability to keep up becomes apparent.

Many years ago the Director of Maintenance of the company I worked for approached me about a way to keep track of vehicle inspections for 18 wheelers. These inspections were mandated by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT required periodic inspections which he labeled ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. Each higher level required the same inspection as the level below it plus additional items. In addition, the records of these inspections had to be kept for certain periods of time. The company was tracking the inspections on Excel at the time of our meeting. These files were kept on a Personal Computer (PC) in the Shop Floor area and were exposed to diesel fumes as well as greasy fingers. Numerous keyboard deaths were attributed to the copious amounts of caffeine that were usually sitting on the desks. Needless to say they had lost these files numerous times due to operator error, power failure or a PC crash. The data communication lines at the time were prone to going down periodically as well. He wanted a better way of tracking and maintaining this information.

We decided on an approach that utilized local databases with a consolidation of the data at the corporate office. Local databases would be installed on the PC’s which would give them some opportunity for recovery of data due to power failures, keyboard failures, and some operator errors. The database of choice was Progress. Progress is a very easy to use 4GL database with a proprietary language. A database crash due to unexpected shutdowns would force Progress to automatically invoke a recovery attempt when the PC was restarted. The databases from all the different field offices would transmit their data each night to a consolidated database in the corporate office which would undergo regular backups. The district field offices would also download any application or database updates and apply them.

This was a very simple system with a minimal number of data entry screens. A menu screen was created. Three screens were developed for inspections, one for each type. One screen was developed for populating the basic vehicle information. In addition, one report was created to identify the last time each type of inspection was performed and when the next one was due. The Director of Maintenance later confided in me that he had seen significant reduction in down time on his vehicles due to their ability to ensure that their inspections were performed on a regular basis which he attributed to their new system. I was able to solve all of their problems with a very simple solution that took only a week to design and develop.

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