The next BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer digital transformation case study explores how linen services industry leader AmeriPride Services uses big data to gain a competitive and comprehensive overview of its operations, finances and culture.
We’ll explore how improved data analytics allows for disparate company divisions and organizations to come under a single umbrella — to become more aligned — and to act as a whole greater than the sum of the parts. This is truly the path to a digital business.
Here to describe how digital transformation has been supported by innovations at the big data core, we’re joined by Steven John, CIO, and Tony Ordner, Information Team Manager, both at at AmeriPride Services in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The discussion is moderated by BriefingsDirect’s Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Let’s discuss your path to being a more digitally transformed organization. What were the requirements that led you to become more data-driven, more comprehensive, and more inclusive in managing your large, complex organization?
John: One of the key business drivers for us was that we’re a company in transition — from a very diverse organization to a very centralized organization. Before, it wasn’t necessarily important for us to speak the same data language, but now it’s critical. We’re developing the lexicon, the Rosetta Stone, that we can all rely on and use to make sure that we’re aligned and heading in the same direction.
Gardner: And Tony, when we say “data,” are we talking about just databases and data within applications? Or are we being even more comprehensive — across as many information types as we can?
Ordner: It’s across all of the different information types. When we embarked on this journey, we discovered that data itself is great to have, but you also have to have processes that are defined in a similar fashion. You really have to drive business change in order to be able to effectively utilize that data, analyze where you’re going, and then use that to drive the business. We’re trying to institute into this organization an iterative process of learning.
Gardner: For those who are not familiar with AmeriPride Services, tell us about the company. It’s been around for quite a while. What do you do, and how big of an umbrella organization are we talking about?
John: The company is over 125 years old. It’s family-owned, which is nice, because we’re not driven by the quarter. We can make longer-term investments through the family. We can have more of a future view and have ambition to drive change in different ways than a quarter-by-quarter corporation does.
We’re in the laundry business. We’re in the textiles and linen business. What that means is that for food and beverage, we handle tablecloths, napkins, chef coats, aprons, and those types of things. In oil and gas, we provide the safety garments that are required. We also provide the mats you cross as you walk in the door of various restaurants or retail stores. We’re in healthcare facilities and meet the various needs of providing and cleansing the garments and linens coming out of those institutions. We’re very diverse. We’re the largest company of our kind in Canada, probably about fourth in the US, and growing.
Gardner: And this is a function that many companies don’t view as core and they’re very happy to outsource it. However, you need to remain competitive in a dynamic world. There’s a lot of innovation going on. We’ve seen disruption in the taxicab industry and the hospitality industry. Many companies are saying, “We don’t want to be a deer in the headlights; we need to get out in front of this.”
Tony, how do you continue to get in front of this, not just at the data level, but also at the cultural level?
Ordner: Part of what we’re doing is defining those standards across the company. And we’re coming up with new programs and new ways to get in front and to partner with the customers.
As part of our initiative, we’re installing a lot of different technology pieces that we can use to be right there with the customers, to make changes with them as partners, and maybe better understand their business and the products that they aren’t buying from us today that we can provide. We’re really trying to build that partnership with customers, provide them more ways to access our products, and devise other ways they might not have thought of for using our products and services.
With all of those data points, it allows us to do a much better job.
Gardner: And we have heard from Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) the concept that it’s the “analytics that are at the core of the organization,” that then drive innovation and drive better operations. Is that something you subscribe to, and is that part of your thinking?
John: For me, you have to extend it a little bit further. In the past, our company was driven by the experience and judgment of the leadership. But what we discovered is that we really wanted to be more data-driven in our decision-making.
Data creates a context for conversation. In the context of their judgment and experience, our leaders can leverage that data to make better decisions. The data, in and of itself, doesn’t drive the decisions — it’s that experience and judgment of the leadership that’s that final filter.
We often forget the human element at the end of that and think that everything is being driven by analytics, when analytics is a tool and will remain a tool that helps leaders lead great companies.
Gardner: Steven, tell us about your background. You were at a startup, a very successful one, on the leading edge of how to do things different when it comes to apps, data, and cloud delivery.
New ways to innovate
John: Yes, you’re referring to Workday. I was actually Workday’s 33rd customer, the first to go global with their product. Then, I joined Workday in two roles: as their Strategic CIO, working very closely with the sales force, helping CIOs understand the cloud and how to manage software as a service (SaaS); and also as their VP of Mid-Market Services, where we were developing new ways to innovate, to implement in different ways and much more rapidly.
And it was a great experience. I’ve done two things in my life, startups and turnarounds, and I thought that I was kind of stepping back and taking a relaxing job with AmeriPride. But in many ways, it’s both; AmeriPride’s both a turnaround and a startup, and I’m really enjoying the experience.
Gardner: Let’s hear about how you translate technology advancement into business advancement. And the reason I ask it in that fashion is that it seems as a bit of a chicken and the egg, that they need to be done in parallel — strategy, ops, culture, as well as technology. How are you balancing that difficult equation?
John: Let me give you an example. Again, it goes back to that idea of, if you just have the human element, they may not know what to ask, but when you add the analytics, then you suddenly create a set of questions that drive to a truth.
We’re a route-based business. We have over a 1,000 trucks out there delivering our products every day. When we started looking at margin we discovered that our greatest margin was from those customers that were within a mile of another customer.
So factoring that in changes how we sell, that changes how we don’t sell, or how we might actually let some customers go — and it helps drive up our margin. You have that piece of data, and suddenly we as leaders knew some different questions to ask and different ways to orchestrate programs to drive higher margin.
Gardner: Another trend we’ve seen is that putting data and analytics, very powerful tools, in the hands of more people can have unintended, often very positive, consequences. A knowledge worker isn’t just in a cube and in front of a computer screen. They’re often in the trenches doing the real physical work, and so can have real process insights. Has that kicked in yet at AmeriPride, and are you democratizing analytics?
Ordner: That’s a really great question. We’ve been trying to build a power-user base and bring some of these capabilities into the business segments to allow them to explore the data.
You always have to keep an eye on knowledge workers, because sometimes they can come to the wrong conclusions, as well as the right ones. So it’s trying to make sure that we maintain that business layer, that final check. It’s like, the data is telling me this, is that really where it is?
I liken it to having a flashlight in a dark room. That’s what we are really doing with visualizing this data and allowing them to eliminate certain things, and that’s how they can raise the questions, what’s in this room? Well, let me look over here, let me look over there. That’s how I see that.
Too much information
John: One of the things I worry about is that if you give people too much information or unstructured information, then they really get caught up in the academics of the information — and it doesn’t necessarily drive a business process or drive a business result. It can cause people to get lost in the weeds of all that data.
You still have to orchestrate it, you still have to manage it, and you have to guide it. But you have to let people go off and play and innovate using the data. We actually have a competition among our power-users where they go out and create something, and there are judges and prizes. So we do try to encourage the innovation, but we also want to hold the reins in just a little bit.
Gardner: And that gets to the point of having a tight association between what goes on in the core and what goes on at the edge. Is that something that you’re dabbling in as well?
John: It gets back to that idea of a common lexicon. If you think about evolution, you don’t want a Madagascar or a Tasmania, where groups get cut off and then they develop their own truth, or a different truth, or they interpret data in a different way — where they create their own definition of revenue, or they create their own definition of customer.
If you think about it as orbits, you have to have a balance. Maybe you only need to touch certain people in the outer orbit once a month, but you have to touch them once a month to make sure they’re connected. The thing about orbits and keeping people in the proper orbits is that if you don’t, then one of two things happens, based on gravity. They either spin out of orbit or they come crashing in. The idea is to figure out what’s the right balance for the right groups to keep them aligned with where we are going, what the data means, and how we’re using it, and how often.
Gardner: Let’s get back to the ability to pull together the data from disparate environments. I imagine, like many organizations, that you have SaaS apps. Maybe it’s for human capital management or maybe it’s for sales management. How does that data then get brought to bear with internal apps, some of them may even be on a mainframe still, or virtualized apps from older code basis and so forth? What’s the hurdle and what words of wisdom might you impart to others who are earlier in this journey of how to make all that data common and usable?
Ordner: That tends to be a hurdle. As to the data acquisition piece, as you set these things up in the cloud, a lot of the times the business units themselves are doing these things or making the agreements. They don’t put into place the data access that we’ve always needed. That’s been our biggest hurdle. They’ll sign the contracts, not getting us involved until they say, “Oh my gosh, now we need the data.” We look at it and we say, “Well, it’s not in our contracts and now it’s going to cost more to access the data.” That’s been our biggest hurdle for the cloud services that we’ve done.
Once you get past that, web services have been a great thing. Once you get the licensing and the contract in place, it becomes a very simple process, and it becomes a lot more seamless.
Gardner: So, maybe something to keep in mind is always think about the data before, during, and after your involvement with any acquisition, any contract, and any vendor?
You own three things
John: With SaaS, at the end of the day, you own three things: the process design, the data, and the integration points. When we construct a contract, one of the things I always insist upon is what I refer to as the “prenuptial agreement.”
What that simply means is, before the relationship begins, you understand how it can end. The key thing in how it ends is that you can take your data with you, that it has a migration path, and that they haven’t created a stickiness that traps you there and you don’t have the ability to migrate your data to somebody else, whether that’s somebody else in the cloud or on-premise.
Gardner: All right, let’s talk about lessons learned in infrastructure. Clearly, you’ve had an opportunity to look at a variety of different platforms, different requirements that you have had, that you have tested and required for your vendors. What is it about HPE Vertica, for example, that is appealing to you, and how does that factor into some of these digital transformation issues?
Ordner: There are two things that come to mind right away for me. One is there were some performance implications. We were struggling with our old world and certain processes that ran 36 hours. We did a proof of concept with HPE and Vertica and that ran in something like 17 minutes. So, right there, we were sold on performance changes.
As we got into it and negotiated with them, the other big advantage we discovered is that the licensing model with the amount of data, versus the core model that everyone else runs in the CPU core. We’re able to scale this and provide that service at a high speed, so we can maintain that performance without having to take penalties against licensing. Those are a couple of things I see. Anything from your end, Steven?
John: No, I think that was just brilliant.
Gardner: How about on that acquisition and integration of data. Is there an issue with that that you have been able to solve?
Ordner: With acquisition and integration, we’re still early in that process. We’re still learning about how to put data into HPE Vertica in the most effective manner. So, we’re really at our first source of data and we’re looking forward to those additional pieces. We have a number of different telematics pieces that we want to include; wash aisle telematics as well as in-vehicle telematics. We’re looking forward to that.
There’s also scan data that I think will soon be on the horizon. All of our garments and our mats have chips in them. We scan them in and out, so we can see the activity and where they flow through the system. Those are some of our next targets to bring that data in and take a look at that and analyze it, but we’re still a little bit early in that process as far as multiple sources. We’re looking forward to some of the different ways that Vertica will allow us to connect to those data sources.
Gardner: I suppose another important consideration when you are picking and choosing systems and platforms is that extensibility. RFID tags are important now; we’re expecting even more sensors, more data coming from the edge, the information from the Internet of Things (IoT). You need to feel that the systems you’re putting in place now will scale out and up. Any thoughts about the IoT impact on what you’re up to?
Overcoming past sins
John: We have had several conversations just this week with HPE and their teams, and they are coming out to visit with us on that exact topic. Being about a year into our journey, we’ve been doing two things. We’ve been forming the foundation with HPE Vertica and we’ve been getting our own house in order. So, there’s a fair amount of cleanup and overcoming the sins of the past as we go through that process.
But Vertica is a platform; it’s a platform where we have only tapped a small percentage of its capability. And in my personal opinion, even HPE is only aware of a portion of its capability. There are a whole set of things that it can do, and I don’t believe that we have discovered all of them.
With that said, we’re going to do what you and Tony just described; we’re going to use the telematics coming out of our trucks. We’re going to track safety and seat belts. We’re going to track green initiatives, routes, and the analytics around our routes and fuel consumption. We’re going to make the place safer, we’re going to make it more efficient, and we’re going to get proactive about being able to tell when a machine is going to fail and when to bring in our vendor partners to get it fixed before it disrupts production.
Gardner: It really sounds like there is virtually no part of your business in the laundry services industry that won’t be in some way beneficially impacted by more data, better analytics delivered to more people. Is that fair?
Ordner: I think that’s a very fair statement. As I prepared for this conference, one of the things I learned, and I have been with the company for 17 years, is that we’ve done a lot technology changes, and technology has taken an added significance within our company. When you think of laundry, you certainly don’t think of technology, but we’ve been at the leading edge of implementing technology to get closer to our customers, closer to understanding our products.
[Data technology] has become really ingrained within the industry, at least at our company.
John: It is one of those few projects where everyone is united, everybody believes that success is possible, and everybody is willing to pay the price to make it happen.
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