Manufacturing Business Technology: Can you tell me a little bit about the supply chain issues ProTrans was dealing with prior to the implementation of BI tools?
John Woods: ProTrans International is a third-party logistics service provider that offers complete network optimization and proven quality solutions to the manufacturing industry. Information reporting plays an integral role in ProTrans’ ability to support its clients. Prior to implementing BI tools, ProTrans relied on a manual reporting process, but as we began experiencing rapid growth, existing reporting processes could not support the increasing volume of required reports. ProTrans existing method was to generate manual custom reports when requested by customers. Reports took three-to-four days to deliver, which was unacceptable.
Long reporting cycles made it difficult to share information with customers and delayed the delivery of critical metric data to staff. ProTrans felt that the time spent generating reports could be better used analyzing metrics and information to help them correct or improve their customers' logistics processes. We knew something had to change, so we sought out an effective BI solution, which we found in Information Builders. We used the tools to create a self-service application for internal use, eliminating manual report writing, and providing an active dashboard to accommodate customer reports.
MBT: How difficult/costly/long was the implementation process for Information Builders' WebFOCUS platform?
Woods: ProTrans purchased Information Builders’ technology in early 2011. The initial development effort lasted about six months, primarily creating the data integration environment, which pulls transactions from an internal warehouse management system, transportation management system, and international freight forwarding system into a cohesive reporting repository.
We continue to enhance the BI system, and development and innovation continues to this day. As we go through the BI learning curve, we are making an effort to get the right business stakeholders involved, determining what insight they lack, and doing the upfront analysis to uncover the important trends in our data. Once they see what we can deliver with the fundamental infrastructure, they will be able to envision the potential for additional analytics. Just as online retailers can create unique offerings by analyzing the trends and habits of web visitors, ProTrans will be able to tailor its freight management offerings by predicting the services a given customer is likely to need. For example, if they are moving freight from the U.S. to Mexico, they are likely to need brokerage and customers clearance services.
MBT: What were some of the challenges that went along with the implementation?
Woods: Our leading challenges during the implementation cycle were two fold:
- Figure out how to replace time-consuming manual reporting processes with a BI platform that supports the strategic use of information across the business
- Improve service to customers by creating a BI architecture that can provide timely and complete shipment information
Eight people received BI training from Information Builders. The time spent was an investment in the future: ProTrans felt that the time spent generating reports could be better used analyzing metrics to improve its customers' logistics processes. We used the BI tools to enhance its operational reporting cycle, develop dashboards for internal personnel, and create a BI portal for customer use.
MBT: How long did it take for ProTrans to start seeing the results they were looking for from the implementation?
Woods: Once the data repository was in place, the initial reports and dashboards were quick to develop. We began to see results within a few weeks. ProTrans’ Sales, Finance, and Operations departments, as well as its corporate management team, now use WebFOCUS to access and analyze vital information. A series of secure and intuitive dashboards provide immediate insight into performance indicators related to users’ individual roles. Additionally, WebFOCUS supports a self-service application that allows top-tier customers to view all aspects of their business.
Users were previously limited to standard and static reports, but WebFOCUS has given them increased flexibility when it comes to information manipulation and analysis. Now, information is moved into a SQL Server-based repository, where users can easily retrieve and analyze it via the WebFOCUS dashboards. These dashboards combine visual charts and graphs, as well as reports, highlighting critical performance metrics in core areas of the business. A wide array of filters and multiple drill-down options make it easy to investigate trends or issues down to the lowest level of detail – individual shipments. As a result, users can determine not only what is happening, but why.
Each department is seeing substantial benefits from WebFOCUS. The Finance dashboard provides improved tracking of expenses, revenues, margins, and billing timeliness. Information can be filtered by carrier, customer, service type, region of origin or destination, and other criteria. Users can also drill down from summary reports to more detailed data to understand the factors behind certain trends.
Moving from static reports to parameter-driven ones gives us insight that we simply didn’t have before. We can manipulate information in countless ways, to find exactly what we are looking for. And if we note a problem – for example, that margins have dipped – we can drill all the way down to see exactly where the problem lies.
The Operations dashboard delivers complete visibility into damages and facility metrics such as total pieces shipped and cost per piece. One crucial report displays positive and negative trends in on-time deliveries, with conditional formatting to highlight consignees that are exceeding or failing to meet targets. Another provides details about line haul utilization (the percent of each trailer’s capacity being used). This information is critical, because wasted trailer space can negatively impact profitability.
In the past, this metric data was often 45 days old by the time our staff got it. The dashboard lets them see what’s happening right now, so they can immediately react when something isn’t right.
The executive team relies on the BI tools to achieve strategic goals and keep all facets of the business running smoothly. The Management dashboard includes many of the metrics featured on the other dashboards, as well as other KPIs. We maintain a corporate vision document, which outlines our most critical objectives. Performance indicators like volume calculations, which ensure we reach revenue targets, are incorporated into WebFOCUS so our entire management team can track progress towards them.
MBT: What are some critical questions companies dealing with similar issues should ask when looking at investing in various BI tools?
Woods: Companies dealing with similar issues should consider the time and effort they are currently putting into reporting practices, data aggregation, etc. and then ask themselves where the time could be better spent. BI technology is a long-term investment that will save your company significant time, money and resources. It will help streamline fundamental business processes, allow you to glean more value from your data and, ultimately, better serve your clients.
For more information on ProTrans, visit www.protrans.com.