Mobile Tech Extends the Life of Legacy Systems

Fifteen years ago, after I had joined a supply chain vendor as a developer, I encountered a product called Jwalk (a unit-testing tool for the Java programming language). After a week of training with the software, I was given a funny little dongle that had to be plugged in the back of the PC to activate the software.  The ultimate goal was to create a good-looking user interface (UI) that would enhance the user experience (UX) for the old character based green screen of the iSeries AS 400.

Since I was new to the company, I understood little of the user aspects of the decision to adopt this technology, and I focused heavily on learning the technical intricacies of the organization's warehouse management system (WMS). Back then, the Internet had started impacting enterprises and everyone was focused on using it to enhance business. One big application was Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), and another was to web-enable legacy apps to allow them to be accessed by any PC through a browser. By shifting to a browser, users no longer needed proprietary software to access the mainframe. In the case of the iSeries, IBM Client Access software offered PC-based access to the system on the warehouse floor prior to browser-focused solutions. 

We were tasked with customizing the organization's offerings with a new and streamlined UI to meet customer requirements. In the end, only one customer asked for it—and that customer used it only briefly. That's because no one could figure out a value add, cost savings, or productivity gain that could be had from it. In fact, adding the UI created latency in the system, which actually degraded the user experience. Clearly, it did not make much sense from a supervisor perspective in a distribution center environment. Web-enablement was a solution in search of a problem. 

Fast forward to a common operations scenario: an operator is visually scanning barcodes and punching in numbers on a keypad. A tool that would allow input without multiple keystrokes would deliver a boatload of value that would get plenty of attention.

Just yesterday, I was talking to a former senior vice president of supply chain at a leading retailer. He's a man that has done some phenomenal things in his career. This gentleman, an accomplished leader with a military back ground, has done the whole nine yards: ripped apart legacy systems, installed new systems to address core problems, worked through all the chaos that results from it, and, most inspiring, has maintained a child like curiosity and enthusiasm for the subject of supply chain improvement.

He was willing to offer insightful opinions, culled from having seen the functioning of multiple end-to-end supply chain networks. His supply chain, a network of distribution centers, picks 40 million units a year. Imagine reducing the pick time for every pick by 15 seconds, by using scan guns that respond faster, avoiding unproductive travel, achieving instantaneous communication, and documenting mishaps to provide an opportunity for fruitful troubleshooting. The total savings, assuming a modest $12 per hour pay scale amounts to two million dollars annually. Even achieving some fraction of the potential savings is notable. In this case, a faster and friendlier UI/UX is critical—and worth paying the price.

Of course, the tangible monetary benefits are just the start. This kind of improvement improves the culture of the organization, giving people the feeling of being competent and technology savvy.

It makes them believe that their jobs are easier and lives are better because they can effectively collaborate, share information and work better as a team. That is the kind of team spirit you want to foster in your organization.

Here's the bottom line (and CIO's should take special note): just because you have legacy systems, you don't need to go through the pain and price tag of a forklift upgrade to take advantage of new technologies. There is an opportunity to extend the life of those legacy systems with the latest mobile devices (such as a smart phone or tablet) in order to improve business outcomes and give users a great experience. Of course, mobile devices can be made to work with new systems as well—but you don't need to wait until then to get on board with the newest handheld technology. 

Please let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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