Friday, February 27

Doing the Midrange Mash

Like a dance craze that seems to burst onto the scene from nowhere, the concept of mashing-up business applications is suddenly the talk of the town. Mashups have the potential to deliver rich user experiences that cut across silos of applications to better support the way end-users actually work. These new composite applications are proven to increase user productivity, lower processing costs and reduce the support and training burden. It should come as no surprise that, in an era of doing more with less, this practical approach to reusing existing systems is enjoying such popularity.

Business Mashups are particularly useful as a new technique for modernizing legacy applications. The useful parts of a green screen (5250) application can be isolated, wrapped and then snapped inside the Mashup framework. This means that all navigation is handled behind the scenes and the user enjoys a simple point-and-click interface. The real beauty of this approach is that old and new application functionality can sit right alongside each other in the same user interface - no more ALT-TAB acrobatics between multiple windows. New logic can be added to the Mashup so that manual, repetitive tasks are automated and errors are handled before they ever reach the back-end systems. It has been possible to develop such composite apps for several years but the recent advent of better tools - and the pervasive nature of APIs like web services - has lowered the cost and complexity threshold, thereby bringing Mashups within the reach of everyone and not just the rich kids.

The potential ROI from implementing a Mashup solution can be immense. We recently worked on a project with STRATTEC who are the world's largest manufacturer of automotive locks and keys. Their ERP system is based on the System 21 package from Infor (previously JBA) running on an IBM iSeries. This is a classic green screen (5250) application that is highly functional and perfectly adapted to their needs, but suffers from the kind of old-fashioned user interface that today's knowledge workers struggle to work with efficiently.

The first Business Mashup they built with was to automate the way they process shipment and inventory deliveries, and in particular how they allocate items to customer backorders. Users had to generate a printout of all the items that were received and with print out in-hand, start to allocate each item to a backorder one by one. A single shipment often contains over 100 items which means users have to cycle through the same screen 100 times! With the new Business Mashup a user can select any one of the shipments that came in that day and allocate all the items with a few clicks of the mouse. No more printouts and no more manual line-by-line reallocations – it has all been automated. The result? They reduced the average backorder reallocation process from 162 minutes down to 24 minutes. That’s an 85% reduction in handle time and a huge cost saving!

Their second Business Mashup addresses the order to cash process. The IT folks knew they could shorten the cycle time and reduce the number of errors that occur during the first half of this process. Users had several tasks to be performed in order to process and invoice an order with their legacy ERP system. The procedure has multiple points where errors can occur because the user must visually scan for deviations between the verification reports and the picking notes and they must manually update the quantities in the system when any changes are found. With the new automated process, the picked order arrives on the conveyor in an open box with the pick note and verification report sitting right inside the box. It arrives at the first station to have the UPS shipping label created and attached. The box moves onto the scale and the charges are determined by the shipping address. The label is printed and the UPS software writes the tracking number and the shipping cost to the database file on the IBM iSeries. Then, the order moves down to the next station where the Mashup generates the invoice. The user scans the UPS tracking number and the order number and then presses one button to invoice the whole order. They have now reduced the invoice cycle time from 150 seconds down to 30 seconds, an 80% decrease in processing time.

It easy to appreciate that with those kind of business benefits, and a relatively low threshold to implement, Business Mashups are no one-hit-wonder. Unlike the 1960's novelty song from which I have adapted the following lyrics:

I was working in the data center late one night

When my eyes beheld an eerie sight

My slumbering i-boxes began to rise

And suddenly to my surprise

They did the mash

They did the midrange mash

The midrange mash

It was an office smash

They did the mash

It caught on in a flash

They did the mash

They did the midrange mash!


Anonymous said...

It is truly amazing to see such dramatic real world business process improvements being delivered utilizing your existing IBM i software. I can't believe people aren't tired of the infamous "lipstick on a pig" type of solutions that have foisted on the unknowing for years that provide absolutely no real business value. Thanks for showing the IBM i world there is a better way.

Martin Fincham said...

This post has generated a significant amount of interest in the STRATTEC example of mashing-up 5250 apps for real measurable advantage. If you want to know more, and hear the story from the horse's mouth, then I suggest you register for an upcoming webinar: