Part I in this three part series explored the ubiquitous use of Excel spreadsheets to manage wireless site development projects. It discussed both the benefits and detriments of collecting data in spreadsheets, suggesting that the industry can do much better than continuing to suffer the downsides of managing by Excel. Part I concluded with a suggestion that there are alternatives to Excel that provide sufficient flexibility to account for the complexities of site development projects without sacrificing data integrity, accurate reporting and useful data analytics-all drawbacks of managing by spreadsheet, but essential to improving processes and reducing cycle times.
Part II explores the other end of the data management spectrum for site development. After Excel, the second most common solution comes in the form of enterprise-wide software tools. Wireless carriers implement these solutions on a national basis to drive data and process standardization across the company. In many cases, these software tools began as property management solutions with site development modules added after-the-fact in order to provide carriers a more comprehensive service offering. Some originated from more generic commercial property software tools later customized for the wireless industry. Others conceived with a wireless focus were initially developed for site management/lease administration applications and only later were expanded to include project management functionality. Last, but not least are the home-grown efforts initiated by the carriers themselves. The upside of these enterprise-wide tools is that they generally offer a stable repository and delivery system for structured, static data and documents. For example, carriers use these tools with reasonable success to store completed documents like leases, lease amendments, site photos, zoning approvals, CUPs and 100% CDs. These tools are also reasonably effective in storing and making accessible abstracted lease terms and in calculating rent streams for ongoing property management functions once a site is on-air. Some of these tools are also functional as high level milestone trackers for new site builds and upgrades.
Despite their benefits, where all of these enterprise solutions fall short is in handling actionable, detailed process-driven data critical to project management functions. In other words, the current software solutions employed by the wireless industry on a national scale fail to identify (let alone measure, monitor and manage) in sufficient detail the individual steps that comprise any given project, thereby rendering true project management impossible.
By definition, larger corporate solutions instituted to ensure data and process standardization across a national platform are slow to change. Standardized process flow and data collection ensure system stability and generate limited, but often important data across the company to assist upper level management in seeing broad trends, identifying major issues such as what is driving up site development costs and timelines and making decisions about how to better allocate resources. But system characteristics essential to standardization and an executive-level overview are generally at odds with the goals of regional personnel seeking to improve internal processes or adapt to real-time changing conditions on the ground. Enterprise-wide software systems lack the flexibility to customize process flows to meet specific regional or individual project needs. By design they capture high level milestones common to all upgrade or new construction projects, but require national-level decisions to change which milestones are captured, in which order and what information is collected for each milestone.
The second major drawback is that these tools, for security and other reasons, are not generally accessible to vendors as a means of managing their day-to-day work flows. Vendors are rarely granted access to national systems to update milestone progress, alter forecast dates or track specific items necessary to complete their work. Instead, site acquisition and construction vendors typically use their own software tools or Excel spreadsheets to manage their workflow, leading to the constant transfer of data from their reports to the site development manager’s master spreadsheet to the carrier’s enterprise-wide software solution. Manual data transfer by carrier personnel, and their vendors, is time consuming, and thus highly inefficient. It is also a major source of data errors, leading to confusion, wasted time, inaccurate reporting and less than optimum decision-making by project managers.
The third problem with national systems when used to capture dynamic project management functions is the lack of specificity endemic to these larger systems. An enterprise solution can track when a major milestone is reached, for example, “Leasing Complete,” but these systems do not typically have the flexibility to track in whose court the lease might be at a moment in time or for how long it has been in that person’s hands. A lease may be in the hands of the landlord for review or signature. It could be with the site acquisition vendor for initial preparation, modification (such as after a turn from the landlord), or waiting for a completed SNDA (which often is a condition precedent to the Carrier signing the final lease). A lease could also be with carrier personnel for business terms approval, legal review or final signature. A lease could also be held up waiting for a lease exhibit from the A&E vendor with construction drawings having their own separate sub-processes of preparation, review and approval. In order to manage the leasing sub-process effectively, one needs to know with whom the lease is currently, how long it has been with that person, what is the immediate issue holding up the lease and what other issues must be resolved once the immediate hurdle has been cleared. This level of detail is required not just for the lease in any new build or upgrade project, but with every deliverable (e.g., construction drawings, zoning applications, permitting applications, regulatory submissions, surveys, etc.) in the site development process. Without this level of detail bottlenecks are slow to be identified and project timelines expand as the information required to complete a step remains obscured and action items occur in series rather than in parallel. As importantly, lacking this level of detail the necessary process flow improvements are difficult, sometimes impossible, to identify, leaving the industry with the same inefficient processes year after year.
Because enterprise solutions cannot capture this level of detail and remain difficult to customize for regional and project-specific requirements, the more specific process management functions are captured using Excel spreadsheets or similar more flexible software systems. The result is carrier site development specialists and vendors are tasked with updating multiple enterprise-wide systems while maintaining multiple Excel spreadsheets for a given project. Errors abound. Accurate reporting is a constant struggle. Forecast dates are regularly pushed out, and pushed out again. Carrier personnel and vendor frustration grows as installation crews sit idle, on-air deadlines are missed and projects exceed budgets.
Today, and really throughout its history, the wireless industry sits in this uncomfortable Catch-22 where neither highly flexible, customizable Excel spreadsheets nor more stable enterprise-wide software solutions provide the industry with a solution that generates consistently accurate, sufficiently specific data necessary for both sound day-to-day project management-level decision-making and continuous process improvement, especially where it is most needed – in reducing cycle times and site development project costs.
We believe there is a way out of this Catch-22 by building a software bridge between Excel spreadsheets and the enterprise-wide solutions currently used by wireless carriers. Part III-Building a Data Management Bridge explores the characteristics and capabilities needed in a data management software solution to take advantage of the benefits, but minimize the limitations of both Excel spreadsheets and enterprise solutions, in order to provide a more complete useful solutions to carrier personnel and vendors in managing new construction and upgrade projects.