The University Record, November 16, 1992

ITD team is first non-Hospitals group to complete entire quality process

By Jane R. Elgass

Nine Information Technology Division (ITD) staff members had two reasons to celebrate last week, and did so at a reception Nov. 11 at ITD’s Network Operations Center (NOC) on North Campus.

The Network Operations technicians and supervisors celebrated completion of their work as members of a Quality Improvement Team and the fact that they were the first ITD team, indeed the first non-Hospitals team on campus, to successfully complete the entire Total Quality Management process.

Their 13-month journey took them from training sessions to prepare them to work as a team, through analysis that identified 53 possible areas that could be improved, to work on one issue that they felt would have the broadest impact and the greatest immediate effect.

The NOC manages three computer networks—UMNet, the campus network; MichNet, connecting Michigan’s universities and other institutions; and NSFNET, which is the primary academic backbone for the Internet, connecting more than 1 million computers worldwide.

The North Campus headquarters resembles a Department of Defense situation room—walls ringed by large color monitors, staff in a central area, each monitoring the displays, watching for an alert that signals a malfunction of some sort somewhere.

It’s a high stress job, likened to that of an air traffic controller by Dale S. Johnson, one of the team’s co-leaders.

NOC staff must identify problems and correct them as quickly as possible. They are extremely dependent on a great deal of background information and were frustrated because that data was stored in multiple ways in multiple locations, some of it outdated.

“It was time-consuming and frustrating to work on this basis,” Johnson notes. “There was too much time being wasted trying to find the right information. It took us six months to train new staff members just because there were too many places to look, too many ways to do the same thing.”

The group identified three areas related to the problem:

—Timely technical updates: Letting staff know what problems were on a daily basis, the “bug du jour,” as Johnson calls it.

—Documentation problems: Much of the information was “folklore,” or written but outdated, or correct but no one knew where to find it.

—Training issues: The field changes rapidly. Training and retraining sometimes has to be done on an almost daily basis, difficult in a situation in which 24 staff members work seven different shifts.

The team decided to focus on technical updates as the area that would have the fastest positive impact on their work and the service they provide to members of the networks.

At one of the group’s last meetings, members identified three types of improvements that resulted from their work: standardization (lasting impact), one-shot successes and other accomplishments.

Among those with lasting impact:

—Training sessions and discussion of current symptoms and resolutions will become a formal part of technical presentations at monthly meetings.

—NOC staff now will be part of discussions with engineering staff in determining the best way to resolve problems.

—“As-it-happens” training is now a standard operating procedure. Instead of fixing a problem in the shortest possible time, the problem also is viewed as an opportunity for a training exercise.

—Postmortems are a regular part of the evaluation process. Johnson says this aspect of the NOC staff’s job had been “contentious” in the past. The postmortems are now conducted by peers, rather than being an evaluation thrust on staff by management.

Some of the one-shot accomplishments:

—Instituted the use of videotapes to exchange training information with corporate partners.

—Held a two-day training seminar for 20 two-partner teams.

—Created standards for postmortems and wrote software to standardize and guide the process.

Several other accomplishments are not easily measurable, but have and will do much to enhance staff members’ daily work.

—Many have incorporated various TQM meeting tools—agendas, feedback mechanisms and rules of conduct—in other activities.

—All of the team members gained “a major understanding” of how the NOC operates.

—The staff now is more likely to tackle problems on a team basis, rather than having “cowboys” do quick trouble-shooting.