Case Study: Workflow Management
System Streamlines Proposal, Design Processes at Siemens
Managing proposals is no easy task. Keeping track of which team member(s) should answer which questions, making sure proposal deadlines are met, and assembling the final document can all be a challenge.
Siemens Energy Management Systems in Brooklyn Park, Minn. develops software applications for large electric utilities around the world. Its local power company, Xcel Energy, uses Siemens software; so do utilities in many other countries, including China, Israel, Spain, and Poland. The company’s software gives the utilities an overview of their transmission networks so they can spot problems and reroute electrical power if necessary. It monitors voltage and frequency and adjusts generators in order to keep the utilities within federal specs.
Much of the company’s business originates with requests for proposals (RFPs), says Earl Roethke, senior manager for development, engineering, and testing. “Proposal management is a relatively costly, complicated thing,” Roethke says. “When you do large jobs, you have a time deadline. The customer wants the proposal by a certain date, and if you don’t meet that date, you’re disqualified. You will not get the business, even if you have the better proposal.”
If the proposal involves extensive software modification, business unit managers must decide whether the RFP is worth pursuing in the first place. If it is worth the effort, the RFP requires review by technical, legal, and commercial staff for potential problems. A complicated proposal can involve many people with many different areas of expertise, and it can take months to complete.
“We wanted to have a way of managing this process, to coordinate the activities of various people and to eliminate some of the manual effort that was involved in doing all this work,” Roethke recalls. Siemens Power Transmission & Distribution Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.—of which Energy Management Systems is a part—has a centralized e-business function that evaluates technologies and products in various areas such as automation and collaboration, then recommends specific technologies in each area.
For workflow management, the e-business team recommended a product called the Utimus Workflow Suite, from Ultimus Inc. in Cary, NC. The solution was appealing, says Roethke, because it promised management an overview and a quick assessment of how proposals were progressing. “You can go into the process instance at any point in time and bring up a map showing which steps have been completed, which steps are currently active, and who is working on those. You can see when each person received a task and how long he’s been working at it, so you know exactly who to go bug to find out what’s holding up the show.”
Moreover, he adds, Ultimus was robust and well supported. “The capability was very strong. The product was well reviewed and well recommended. I’ve been through the training; it’s very well done. They have a very active Yahoo support group—I get three or four postings a day.”
A prototype implementation at Energy Management Systems took only a few weeks, starting in the early part of last year. Fine tuning the system took a bit longer. “Like any development, you have to go through and test everything to make sure you’ve created all the links properly and that the database stuff is all right,” Roethke says.
The company split implementation into three chunks, corresponding to three types of proposals—automatic, standard, and complex. Automatic proposals require only a few steps and are created largely within Ultimus from preloaded text. Standard and complex proposals are progressively more complicated and involve more people, and, consequently, more tortuous processes.
The complex proposal process starts with an RFP from a customer. The salesman logs the proposal into Ultimus and the information is automatically routed to the appropriate business unit manager. The manager examines the RFP and decides whether it’s business the company wants to pursue. If it is, the manager routes it to the person in the organization responsible for managing the proposal process.
That individual identifies key people in the organization who need to review the RFP for potential problems. The reviewers get Ultimus checklists, attached to an electronic version of the RFP. Each person notes potential problems on the checklist and each can attach comments. Ultimus merges the forms and routes them to the appropriate managers, who examine the possible problems and make a final go/no-go decision.
“We break up the RFP,” Roethke says. “If it goes to a technical person, then he’s only going to see a technical checklist. If it goes to a commercial person in our accounting department, he’ll only see the commercial questions. We try not to burden them with questions that they don’t have the competency to answer. Once we’ve got this overview of the process, the appropriate business manager makes a decision: Do we bid or don’t we?”
If the decision is to proceed, management signs off in Ultimus, the project manager selects a team to write the proposal, and assigns sections to individuals with the appropriate expertise—again, using Ultimus to distribute the tasks. “Once they have completed their tasks, we [hold] a costs meeting, a technical evaluation meeting, and a pricing meeting, all driven by Ultimus,” Roethke continues. Finally, the finished proposal goes to the sales department, then on to the customer.
Installing and configuring Ultimus, says Roethke, was fairly straightforward. Ultimus offers tools that let planners lay out the process flow graphically, analyze the results and, once they’re finalized, imports them into a utility that helps build forms, link with databases, and map data from each step in the process. Currently there are 25 to 30 users in Brooklyn Park, connected via a corporate intranet to an Ultimus server in Raleigh.
A second Ultimus implementation, at a Siemens Power Transmission & Distribution plant that makes power control equipment in Wendell, N.C., is controlling processes connected with preparing engineering drawings for its customers. The implementation, which began last July, has gone through several overhauls as the company fine-tuned its processes, according to e-Business Operations Manager Randy Berger.
Both Berger and Roethke cite better metrics, used to support quality improvement programs, as a key benefit of the Ultimus workflow solution. In Wendell, “We’ve been doing Kaizen events in our factory for several years, and now we’re moving into our office areas, identifying processes and taking the waste out,” Berger says. In order to document improvement, you have to be able to measure it, he continues, and Ultimus provides the necessary tools.
“We’re an ISO 9001 certified business,” says Roethke. “The new ISO 2000 requirements demand that you measure your processes and, on the basis of those measurement, take action to improve those processes. We see Ultimus as a tool that allows us to gather data on our processes more easily.”
Roethke and Berger both see potential for expanding their use of the workflow management tools. At the software operation, only the proposal process is currently controlled by Ultimus. Roethke hopes to explore extending that to cover software development as well. Similarly, Berger sees no reason workflow management couldn’t be expanded to include the shop floor.
Bob Mueller is a writer and magazine publishing consultant based in the Chicago area, covering technology and management subjects.