The importance of knowing WHAT your people are working on
I get asked A LOT about what my job is. Officially my role at Gemstone is implementing ILLUMYS, our project controls LEM (Labour, Equipment, Material) software solution. My background is that I have many years of experience of working with field data capture applications. In that time, I’ve worked with dozens of companies and implemented software solutions countless times. There are a couple common questions I’m asked:
Why does it take several weeks to implement?
They all scan in when they come and go so why can’t it just ‘know’ how many hours our guys have worked?
ILLUMYS at its most rudimentary is a timesheet software application. We all know what a timesheet is. At the end of the day you write down the number of hours you worked on a sheet of paper and file it away somewhere. Every organization in every industry from fast food to health care to industrial construction uses a process like this. Chances are we’ve all grumbled about the boss man tracking us to make sure we’re putting in our full day.
But what’s the importance of just knowing that your employee worked 8 hours? That might be enough for him or her to get paid for their hours in a couple weeks but beyond that what’s the value?
The value is knowing WHAT they are doing.
And that’s where I come in.
Every organization I’ve ever worked with, including Gemstone, struggles with how to capture and determine this. Why? Because no two organizations care about the same things.
Every software system these days preaches customizations & configurations to meet your business needs. ILLUMYS is no different. In truth it really only makes my job to technically implement the software for your organization easier. The hard part is determining what those configurations should look like. And a good chunk of my time is spent helping figure out how to break down those 8 hours that your employee worked.
In some organizations it can seem pretty straightforward. They might spend all day (and every day) flipping burgers, loading bags on a plane or working the front desk of the camp.
But dig a little deeper….
Not everyone at the organization is doing the same thing, or working on the same project, or is at the same site, or in the same department, or is paid the same. Suddenly you need to know more than just that the employee worked 8 hours. You need to know what they were doing, where they were, and what those 8 hours cost.
There are any number of terms used to break down the hours that your people work: Project; Work Breakdown Structure; Cost Code; Work Order; Activity; Task; Purchase Order; Budget Item; Account Code and more. I knew someone who called these things ‘buckets’ as though you just dumped hours in them like sand. That person didn’t get it and didn’t understand the value of knowing what you can do with this information.
What’s interesting is if you ask an accountant how to capture this information: they’ll come up with some code that the accounting system needs. While I’m sure it’s important to them and their system: my question is: is that code useful to you? I’ll bet the answer is no.
What’s a better answer? On every project or scope of work someone somewhere has planned every detail on the job from placing an order to specifying exactly how that pipe should be welded or what piece of software code shall be modified. They also have an idea of how long it should take, how much it should cost and how it relates to other parts of the business. Done properly: that plan is organized & structured so that it can be executed efficiently.
If someone planned those details: shouldn’t you know how the plan stacked up to reality?
The best way to know what your people are doing is to take your plan and capture not only the employee hours but also the equipment & material quantities, progress and costs that are incurred while doing the job against that same plan. Once you’ve captured that level of detail, ideally straight from the field, you can compare this information to your plan and actually manage your business.
Is it worth the effort to capture this? If you’re someone who is simply happy knowing that the employee actually worked 8 hours and got paid: probably not. But if you’re someone who cares about efficiency and improving your business: I don’t see how you can manage without capturing that information.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter what the code (or codes!) is called but your plan is that’s key. It falls to me to help guide you to gaining the ability to compare your plan to its actual execution. That’s what my job really is.
5 Amazing Stress Relievers You Can do at Your Desk
Let’s face it we all deal with stress, being in a busy office and dealing with the daily grid can be challenging. Stress can be very overwhelming and all-consuming and really take a toll on your mental and physical health. While working a desk job can be great we don’t always have the opportunity to step away from a stressful situation. Here are five quick and easy ways to relive stress right from the comfort of your desk.
Stress can cause us to tense up, leaving us with sore and irritated muscles. Give yourself a few minutes to move your muscles.
Start with your toes and work your way up to your neck.
Wiggle your toes, tense and release the muscles in your legs, do a few waist twists. Wrist and forearm stretches are great too. Just get your body moving. The more you stretch the more in tune with your body you will be, you will become more aware of when your body is feeling tense and stressed.
A good laugh can do amazing things to our mind and body. It lowers your heart rate, regulates breathing and relaxes sore muscles. It also sends a rush of endorphins to the brain giving us a boost of energy. Find a funny video to watch or read some funny jokes. They do say laughter is the best medicine.
Eat an Orange
This may seem like a weird suggestion. However consuming foods with Vitamin C can reduce stress and boost the immune system, Vitamin C lowers the level of cortisol, a stress hormone. It also provides great aroma therapy.
Citric aroma therapy can reduce depression, anxiety, and stress.
Pick up a pen and start to doodle. Drawing can be a very effective way to release stress. Being creative allows you to refocus and clear you mind of unwanted stress. Believe it or not drawing can help lower blood pressure, increase circulation and boost memory.
Listen to music
Grab your headphone and turn on your favorite upbeat song. A good song can do wonders for your mood.
Listening to music increases the amount of Oxytocin, Serotonin and Dopamine; these hormones increase the feeling of love and happiness.
Being in a happy state of mind can increase your motivation, productivity and well-being. Music can be a very quick and effective way to wash away stress.
There are many different ways to de-stress. It can take lots of patience and practice so don’t get discouraged if you don’t find immediate results. Keep trying until you find something that works for you. Practicing relaxation techniques can train your body to identify and react to stress more effectively.
4 Reasons You Should Use a Travel Professional and 1 Reason You Shouldn’t
Use a Travel Professional because:
1.We know more than you do
We live in an age where access to information is both instant and readily available. There are a million websites out there where you can find information, reviews, personal opinions, rates, and on and on. If somebody has a thought or an opinion on something there is a corner of the internet where you can find it. Travel is one of those things people like to talk about and everyone has an opinion. Unfortunately their own experiences may not translate into useful information for you.
So here you are with access to all this information and you have to decide not only what’s real but also what’s applicable to you and your situation.
The very best way to cut through all the nonsense is to talk to somebody that knows the industry, and that’s where your Travel Professional comes in. Our whole life revolves around sales seminars, industry propaganda, and competitive market share. Suppliers want us to sell their products to consumers. The only way we can effectively do that, is to know our clients and what our clients needs are.
We listen to the sales pitches so you don’t have to.
2. Suppliers rely on us for sales
As with everything in this world, if you’re willing to pay for something, there is always someone willing to sell it to you.
The problem is how do you know what suppliers sell what?
Air Canada wants to sell seats on their planes, Trafalgar tours wants to sell seats on their tours, and Holland America wants to sell staterooms on their ships. They certainly sell direct to consumers, however the most effective way to get people to buy their product is have knowledgeable Travel Professionals sell it.
If you aren’t sure where you want to go, or what kind of trip you want, your Travel Professional can find the right supplier for you.
3. People are weird
Most of the time in the retail industry there is a concrete tangible product you hold in your hand at the end of the transaction. You walk out of the store with something. Travel is an intangible product.
We are selling you something that doesn’t really exist. Sure we can book you a plane seat or a hotel room, but that’s not why a lot of people travel.
People travel for the experience. As soon as you’re working with someone to help them create an experience, you have to do a lot more investigative work and that’s what we live for!
One of the things that always blows my mind, is what becomes most important to people on a trip. Bed type is always a popular one, especially in hotels. I was constantly surprised that people cared about the type of bed in the room as much as they did. As a Hotel Employee my biggest concern was that if a room had two people in it, and there were two beds in a room, then it shouldn’t be a big deal. There were more people than I thought that were not happy that we had taken them from a room with one bed to a room with two. Logistically it makes perfect sense, however the guest’s experience is a factor that you can’t prepare for in quite the same way.
You never ever know what is going to be important to the guest that you didn’t think about. A Travel Professional helps manage your expectations, and ensures all the suppliers know if you have special request.
4. Insurance, Insurance, Insurance
Okay, quick poll, who here has ever bought Travel Insurance? Let me guess as soon as you read "Travel Insurance" your mind went to one of these statements:
"I have Travel Insurance on my credit card, so I don’t need anymore."
"I’m going not matter what”.
"He's trying to upsell me to make more money."
In most cases people think Travel Insurance is optional. Would you drive your car without insurance? Not likely. Travel Insurance is just the same.
Consider this: when was the last time you had to book a last minute plane ticket? Was it a domestic ticket or an international ticket? How expensive was it? Last minute airline tickets are often full fare tickets which means a simple flight from Edmonton to Vancouver that is almost full could cost you $600.00 one way, and if you have to go, you have no choice but to pay the full fare.
Imagine that you’re on your last day of vacation and your flight gets cancelled and the airline tells you they can’t get you on a new flight for 3 days. Without travel insurance all of those expenses over the 3 days you’re waiting to get home are your responsibility.
Now let’s say that you’ve spent 2 years planning your dream vacation, and you’re going no matter what. 3 days before you go, your Mother falls breaks her hip, is going into the hospital for surgery, and will be on bed rest for at least 3 weeks. She’s going to need your help. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get away with telling my bed ridden mother “I’m going no matter what”.
Travel Insurance is there to cover you for the unexpected. Whether you need it in destination or before you go there’s a package to cover you and your Travel Professional is there to help select the best choice for your trip.
Don’t use a Travel Professional if:
You’re only interested in the price.
As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for”. Going to a Travel Professional should never be just about the price. Price is certainly an important factor in the process, however it’s also about what’s best for you. What kind of experience you want, what perks are going to matter to you, where is your best location to stay, should you be renting a car or using taxies, do you need a travel visa etc etc etc. There are a million things your Travel Professional takes into account that you might not have thought of. It is never ever just about the price.
Delivering a Large Project in a Small Company Part 2 – Keeping Costs Low
After my last blog post on 'Delivering a Large Project in a Small Company', I received questions about some of the things our company is doing to reduce costs in developing software with the limited resources of a smaller business. Here are a few key strategies we have used to keep our costs and overhead low, while delivering a high quality product.
Keep the team small and agile
According to the law of diminishing returns, each person that is added to the project adds less and less incremental value to the product as communication has to increase. For our project, we have 5 developers, a database analyst, a subject matter expert, and a business analyst.
Keeping our team small has allowed us to keep the project agile. We are able to quickly re-evaluate when we discover better ways of doing things.
Being part of a small company also allows us to avoid relying on multiple departments to complete our product. We don't have to deal with conflicts associated with internal politics which can often hinder projects in large companies. Small companies typically have fewer departments and groups to collaborate with, which saves time and money on the bottom line.
Don't harass your developer team
Easier said than done. If your project is important to the success of your company, leave your developers alone to do their work without drowning them in meetings, emails, and distractions.
For our project, we have a 15-minute daily scrum to communicate, go over progress, and discuss potential issues. That's it.
Keeping developers out of the day to day tasks, such as support issues, random pet projects, or endless meetings ("just in case we need to consult you"), allows them to focus on getting the work done for the scrum deadline. Having a focused and single-track developer team is absolutely crucial to meeting deadlines and keeping the project on track.
Project manager? What project manager?
As I mentioned in my last blog post, we have a small team. We don't need to consult with a lot of internal departments, and the project has the support of our management team. Because of this, we do not need the help of a project manager to move the project along.
According to the Project Manager Institute, a project manager will cost about 7-15% of the project cost.
This is a significant cost savings to our project, and also helps to keep our team small and agile. Keep in mind that any project will encounter barriers such as hardware issues, learning curves for employees, etc. Typically it is the project manager's responsibility to address and remove these barriers. Since this project is so important to our business, our higher-level managers remove these barriers for us. This strategy only works for us only because our managers are willing to step up and advocate for the project. If you have a management team that is busy or unwilling to make the project a priority, you are much better off hiring a project manager. Otherwise the project team will be stuck dealing with non-development related issues, which impacts both timelines and morale.
For our project, we are implementing both unit tests and end to end tests. Implementing automated testing is a long-term cost savings. It requires a larger time commitment up-front to implement, and also requires buy-in from all the developers or the strategy will fall flat (as we've had to learn the hard way a couple times).
As the project matures, the cost savings from the automated tests are being realized.
With help from the automated tests, we are catching bugs before our managers see them. This will save us money down the road when supporting the project after release. As well when onboarding a new team member who may not be familiar with the product. Thanks to our automated tests we don't have to employ a designated tester, which also saves money.
These are a few specific ways we have been able to keep our costs low without sacrificing quality. And in some ways our project has just been 'lucky'. For example, we haven't had much employee turnover in the duration of the project that would have slowed progress. I wouldn't recommend these strategies for every situation each project is unique, but so far they have been working for us!
Making Time for our Community
Gemstone Logistics is a company that takes pride in our community. Each year our team works with local organizations to give back our community. Our humble team of software developers, technical support staff, and travel agents generously donate their time to these events.
Throughout the years we've sponsored a number of different sports teams, from junior swimmers to basketball players. Along with annual Christmas sponsorship to a local family, Gemstone participates in the Big Hearts for Big Kids fundraiser every year.
In 2014 our company dynamic started to shift, for the first time we were able to organize events going out into the community. Our head office team spent time at the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch helping with renovations prior to opening day. We adjusted our hats and spent the day painting and laying flooring in bedrooms. As well as helping with general clean up around the property.
Some of Gemstone's values include Fun and Empowerment. When the ACE Cheerleading Athletes Association qualified for the World Championships in Orlando Florida and were looking for donations to help get their three teams to the Worlds, Gemstone was there to help make that happen! 2015 was a sports oriented year as we also sponsored the 2015-2016 U of A Swim Team Calendar.
Members of the Gemstone team spent two days with the families and kids at the Bissell Centre's Moonlight Bay Kid's Camp. We helped camp organizers with meal preparation and all kinds of activities with the kids including kayaking, basketball, frisbee, and board games! The second day of camp was the last day so our team also helped tidy the cabins, and bagged all the left overs for the families to take home with them.
Some of our team participated in a blood drive here in Sherwood Park. As well for our annual Christmas donation we worked with the Christmas Bureau.
Our team donated:canned goods, fruit, vegetables, turkey with all the fixings, and numerous other items for a Christmas Feast!
A couple Gemstone Elves delivered this bundle to a lovely family who was so grateful for the donation.
Cleaning was top of mind this year as we participated in Strathcona County’s Pitch In program. We battled cool, cloudy, rainy conditions on our first day. Luckily, Mother Nature was kind on the second and brought us warmth and sunshine.
A number of interesting items were uncovered in our 20 large bags of garbage. We discovered:
- high heel boots
- numerous pieces of household carpet
- discarded clothing
- remains from previous fireworks shows
- and a surprisingly large amount of Styrofoam from the lake itself
It's wonderful to work for a company that encourages us to band together and support our community in so many different ways!
Supporting the Inaccessible
Throughout my time with Gemstone, I have been privileged with the task of client support.
With locations ranging from the most northern parts of the hemisphere, to the middle of a desert in the south our vast knowledge of the culture, environments and struggles for our North American clients has made this job fairly easy. Fast forward a couple years and Gemstone ventured into a new area of business; providing our Camp Accommodation software to camps that are always on the move. For the first time, we provided our services for ships that provide workforce housing in the middle of seas and oceans.
This experience has opened our eyes to a whole new array of challenges that most of our clients do not face on a day to day basis.
We have always been able to provide support for our client’s various needs in their remote locations. But adding a moving target, plus a time difference of almost a full working day, this was unchartered territory for us.
As always - we were up to the challenge.
Providing solutions for remote workforce housing projects is our thing. And we do it well. How could adding a minor thing like time zones change anything for us? And a site that is constantly changing locations is just a technicality.
Waiting for anything adds frustration to any problem.
For most of our clients, we are within a one to four hour window of their local time and our support staff are always within a reasonable response time. However, with our new clients overseas, we had to adjust to the fact that our normal work day starts when they are wrapping things up for theirs. Add in the limited network access at sea made it very difficult for us to isolate the technical issues.
It did take us some time, but we realized that the typical approach we use to support our clients wouldn’t work here. There were too many factors out of our control as we worked to identify what was causing the majority of their issues.
We found that, just like most things in life, it was a break down in communication.
The main issues routed from our inability to get a hold of them quickly and their inability to use our methods to communicate with us. Typically, we use support phone lines, on-call support rotations and an email ticketing system to log and track issues and communication back and forth. This works for almost everyone but this was a new breed…and in this case, it couldn’t. Our support lines became ineffective. When they called our after-hours support lines, it would most likely be 1:00 am in the morning. If it was a serious issue, our development team wouldn’t be in the office until about 7 hours from when they called.
So, email should work, right?
Email would quickly allow them to send us all of the information needed to resolve the problem. We could immediately forward this to our development teams for when they come in. That was great! Until we had to start communicating back and forth… Due to their limited internet activity, an email conversation could take hours! Just waiting for our email to send to them, have it download, receive it and then send their response. Quite simply, this was the cherry on the cake of frustration.
What did we do to get around this?
We figured out what works best for them!
We worked with them to identify what technologies they use to communicate with the world while they are sailing the seas. Instead of trying to force them to use our normal methods, we switched course and adjusted to their needs. While they are out at sea they have limited connectivity but are able to send short messages to their staff around the ship using Whats App.
So we added this application to our list of support methods for them.
We created a Whats App support account and linked it to our regular support system. Because of this simple change, we were able to communicate effectively and efficiently. We reduced the amount of time it took for responses significantly. We were able to work with them as soon as problems occurred and have a steady flow of communication back and forth.
How did we come up with this solution?
We had to see first hand what they are facing. As our CEO likes to say, "No plane, no gain!"
Our clients give us the opportunity to support and help them in their business ventures. And in turn, we get to learn from our clients and become better as a company. So, we went to them. We will always go the extra mile for our clients.
What the limitations they face on a day to day basis are and what kind of environment do they work in. On paper, there is nothing that they do that is that different from our existing clients. But from meeting with them at their operation in the North Sea, I discovered that they face obstacles that we have never experienced before.
Why did we need to go?
They were dealing with a pretty severe technical issue and despite our efforts we simply could not recreate it in our office.
A major need of their business was not working as expected and they could face severe penalties if it wasn’t resolved quickly. Through our usual problem solving methods, we were having a difficult time discovering what the core issue was. We would get their system up and running from over here, only to have it go down again. Leading us right back into the frustration cycle all over again.
We decided that the best thing to do was to go to them – and the time was NOW!
I came into the office Monday morning, found out their issue was still persisting, and I was on the next flight out that afternoon!
Because of this trip, I was able to get a better picture and understanding of their world.
I was fortunate to be able to go and to spend time with them and learn about their business. I was able to see what they do on a day by day basis and why their business was so much different than any stationary mining or oil camp. Instead of forcing them to use some cookie cutter method, we were able to identify a solution that worked for them and make their lives easier – after all, isn’t that was client support is all about? This face to face opportunity and clearer understanding of their operation allowed us to identify the root cause of the issue and quickly resolve it, once and for all!
My Take Away
At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel valued. At Gemstone we will do everything in our power to make sure that our clients are not only supported with a degree of excellence, but that they understand that we value their business.
Making sure that we are using the tools that work best for our various clients is of utmost importance to us.
With the right tools, we gain the ability to easily assist and work with all our clients. Providing solutions for them that are in line with their current processes and to use the same tools that they already have in place is one of the easiest way to show that we value them.
If it takes traveling across the world to figure out a solution, we will do it!