US dairy giant overhauls processes using wiki-style BPM tool

A huge dairy cooperative in the US, which supplies the likes of Wal-Mart, Safeway and Costco, has taken hold of Web 2.0 technology in order to reengineer its whole business.

A huge dairy cooperative in the US, which supplies the likes of Wal-Mart, Safeway and Costco, has taken hold of Web 2.0 technology in order to reengineer its whole business.

In particular, the organisation's usage of wiki-style online collaboration tools has helped to streamline all of its business processes, from distribution and logistics through to support and services.

Tillamook County Creamery Association is a 100 year-old cooperative made up of more than 150 farmer-owned dairies, and employing over 600 people in total.

The business produces high-end dairy products, including more than a dozen cheeses, butter, yoghurts and smoothies. It does this at two manufacturing plants in Oregon, at Tillamook and Boardman.

In late 2007, Steve Burge, the firm's IT director since 2001, was appointed head of the newly created Business Process Management Office, set up specifically to overhaul the organisation's business processes.

Up until January 2008, the firm lacked proper IT systems and infrastructure, said Burge. It used more than 30 different legacy systems with customised interfaces. It relied on "paper based business intelligence, plus spreadsheets or Word documents" but also "napkins, or any method of getting information back and forth between the business units", said Burge.

The business had built up a lot of "tribal knowledge", with silos of information about the way business procedures were operated.

"Smoke clouds were going backwards and forwards between business units, and we did not really understand what the processes were, as they had been handed down over the generations."

Change came with the arrival of a new chief executive officer, who identified that IT could bring massive efficiencies to Tillamook in the form of business process management (BPM).

He gave Burge and his IT team his backing to investigate Web 2.0 technology, to see how it could be used to identify, capture and optimise the firm's "tribal knowledge", and drive down inaccurate information.

Tillamook examined several applications, including diagramming tool Microsoft Visio - which the firm found too complicated for its needs - but eventually chose Lombardi Blueprint.

Blueprint is a browser-based, collaborative, process-planning tool, designed for non-technical as well as technical users. The application itself is Java-based, built using the Google web toolkit.

In Tillamook's case, it is hosted and managed by Lombardi through Mosso, a cloud computing service provider owned by hosting giant Rackspace.

Burge said the business wanted a tool that was simple to use and visual, but also powerful enough to help identify and document the firm's business processes, so they could be re-architected.

During the first half of 2008, Blueprint helped Tillamook to identify key process problems, and analyse their potential impact on the strategic goals of the business.

By July, Tillamook had created a master document, in Microsoft Excel, from the information Blueprint had unearthed. This included a prioritised list of improvement projects, detailing the value proposition of each one.

Work covered every area of the business, including high level strategy, distribution, inventory and logistics, manufacturing the products, support and services, and managing customer relationships.

Tillamook initially trained 21 members of the IT team to use Blueprint, and they formed the "business process improvement team". They worked online with other people from the business on their particular business processes.

The browser-based, wiki-like interface enabled users to work from any location, and collaborate over large distances. In total, there were 150 Blueprint users.

Each team member used the online tool to create business process maps and workflows. Blueprint uses outlining - similar to outlining in Powerpoint - to quickly create a document process. It also has flexible layouts and automatic diagram generation, plus an online chat feature.

The process creators shared their online process documents with the other "stakeholders" in the business, to ensure all the processes were detailed and correct.

Steve Burge said users struggled to start with as they had never done anything like this before. But he added that they quickly took to the interface.

In addition, users could export processes to Microsoft Powerpoint, which meant that half of the Blueprint users did not have to be trained extensively. Instead, they could look at the workflows, and get a print out of just the "discovery map", for example.

The result of using wiki-style software to communicate and collaborate across the organisation has been transformational for Tillamook County Creamery Association, said Burge.

The BPM exercise has meant that it has been able to revisit all of its processes, measure their effectiveness, and perform root cause analysis on problem activities.

It has also meant the firm could drastically reduce process duplication, inaccurate data, and its usage of older IT platforms.

But more profoundly, said Burge, it has allowed the business to consciously move away from the traditional hierarchical view of management, with the corporate team and chief executive officer at the top, to a structure which is much more horizontal.

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