Manual Forms Keeping Your Organization in the Dark Ages? The CA Dept of Water Resources Can Show You How to Get Beyond That
In this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast, I’m joined by Wendy Underhill, Field Chief of Maintenance at California Department of Water Resources and Rich Padula, Founder of Mirata Software for a conversation about everybody’s favorite things: paperwork, manual forms, and how ditching manual forms can play an outsized role in improving business processes.
For starters, while we are well entrenched in the digital era, paperwork often remains a painful part of the business process. One of the main culprits? Manual forms. I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean, as we all encounter those dreaded manual forms on a daily basis.
Whether a company is dealing with HR and onboarding forms like job applications, work authorizations and timesheets, or more sophisticated forms like construction safety procedure tracking, or proof of inspection forms, or other field maintenance forms, manual forms continue to be a nuisance. And yet in far too many instances, we hang onto them. So, what can organizations do to overcome this hurdle? That’s exactly what Wendy, Rich, and I will be discussing on today’s episode.
Our conversation started with Wendy setting the stage with the business challenges she faces in her 20+ years with the California Department of Water Resources. As the Field Resources Manager, Wendy had significant challenges with the paper forms they were using in the field, and she launched an initiative to change that. We explored:
- The challenges of managing a field services team who need to complete forms while in the field quickly and easily.
- What Wendy and the CDWR were hoping to accomplish with their initiative to move away from paper and manual forms.
- How Wendy and team solved their problem with cumbersome paper and manual forms.
- How Rich and Mirata Software, and their unique approach to digital forms, played a role in CDWR’s success.
- Wendy rated the complexity of her requirements for a software solution at 10:10, and we discussed how many solutions she might have needed had she not found Mirata. Wendy also shared that the CDWR is now exploring other uses for Mirata Software, based on the resounding success she’s had with it.
We wrapped the show with Rich talking a little about user experience and how he and his team work to make sure that when customers are making a shift from manual/analog processes to digital, they can help make sure they are not slowing things down for the end-user when implementing Mirata.
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Shelly Kramer: Hello and welcome to the Futurum Tech Webcast. I’m Shelly Kramer, principal analyst and founding partner here at Futurum Research. And I am joined today for a very interesting conversation by Rich Padula, the founder of Mirata Software, and Wendy Underhill, who’s the field chief of maintenance at the California Department of Water Resources. And that is no small job these days. We are going to have a conversation today about everybody’s favorite thing, paperwork. I gotcha, didn’t I? Paperwork, manual forms and improving business processes, I know it kind of makes your head hurt to think about it a little bit. But that’s the purpose of this conversation, because these things don’t have to be arduous.
While we’re entrenched in this digital era, paperwork still exists and in many times it’s a painful part of the business process. One of the main culprits there, of course, is manual forms. And actually, if you’re like me, when I run across a situation where I’ve got a manual form, I inevitably think, oh my gosh, there has to be a better way. I know there’s a better way. Let’s get to a better way. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. Whether a company is dealing with HR and onboarding forms like job applications or work authorizations and time sheets, or more sophisticated forms like construction safety procedure tracking or proof of inspection forms or field maintenance forms, or you name it, manual forms are a nuisance. And we’re going to talk today about what organizations can do to overcome this hurdle. And I think you’re going to walk away with some really valuable information. With that, Rich and Wendy, welcome. It’s great to have you.
Wendy Underhill: Thank you very much.
Rich Padula: It’s great to be here.
Shelly Kramer: One of the things that I’d love to do is just to learn a little bit more about you before we dive into our conversation. Wendy, share with us a little bit if you would, a little bit about your career path, your background, how you came to be where you are now. Love to hear your story.
Wendy Underhill: I’m in my 29th, almost 30th year with the Department of Water Resources. It’s a state agency and we’re divided into divisions. I currently work for our division of operations and maintenance, though I started out my career in our flood management division. Started as a civil maintenance apprentice, and after graduating that became a civil maintenance journey worker for a few years. And then when we implemented the SAP system in 1999/2000, I worked on that project. And a couple of years after we went live with SAP, I actually got a call from our DTS, or Division of Technology Services, and got asked to go work for them. I worked as the lead for the plant maintenance module in SAP for 14 years, and then decided it was time to go back to the field organizations and went to work for operations and maintenance. And I’ve been, started out there as a mechanic and then went into planning and scheduling. And now I am the field division manager for the maintenance management office.
Shelly Kramer: Awesome, awesome. Great journey. Rich, what about you?
Rich Padula: Yeah, I started out my career a long time ago, building on my college experience in industrial engineering and computer science. I started out really just looking for ways to improve business processes with technology. And that’s what my whole career’s been about in the enterprise software world. I worked for one of the large consulting companies right out of school, and then I started my own consulting practice where we really just look for efficiencies and introduce new technologies to just make manual processes and just make businesses flow better.
And then I started a software company based on that in the mobile application space for big businesses, being able to eliminate paperwork and put that on mobile devices. And this is back in the 90s so we didn’t have iPhones, we didn’t have all the cool Android phones and tablets. We were working off of laptops and new fangled Windows CE devices and stuff, palm pilots. Anyway, we-
Shelly Kramer: I remember those.
Rich Padula: Yeah. Anyway, we built a nice company based around really how do we make it efficient to build and develop those mobile applications and tie them into large systems like SAP. And we built the company up and we focused on a lot of work orders and sales and inventory and things like that. And the company was actually acquired by SAP 10 years ago. Since then I’ve been helping other companies grow, startups grow. I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship up at Northwestern University here in Chicago, which is where I went. And a few years ago we got together, we were talking to some of our old existing customers and they said, “We have paper everywhere.” And I said, “What do you mean you still have paper? Shouldn’t that be gone by now?” And the answer was, “No, it’s too expensive. It’s too hard for us to be able to digitize that.” That’s when we put our thinking caps on and came up with Mirata to really focus on enterprise grade digital platforms.
Shelly Kramer: Got it. And a much needed thing that is. Wendy, California Department of Water Resources field maintenance. That’s a big job. Tell us a little bit, if you would, about some of the challenges that you and your team were facing with your paper forms and why you launched an initiative to change that.
Wendy Underhill: I should probably start by saying that this initiative to move over to Mirata Forms is being done in conjunction with going mobile. We’ve been using the SAP system for 22 years, and doing maintenance, obviously, otherwise water would not be flowing. We’re responsible for the California aqueduct and all the pumping and generating plants that service that aqueduct. Most of the population of California, especially Southern California, relies on us for safe delivery of water.
We have a multitude of different crafts working on maintenance. We had been using the SAP system and delivering maintenance instructions to them using the long text on operations, which is part of standard PM module availability. And those instructions got printed out or they would print out other instructions that they had available to them through whatever other software there they were using on their own computers locally. And they would fill this paperwork out, they would hand it back into us. It would be all oily and dirty because it had been out on the plant floor, and half the time you could read their writing and half the time you couldn’t. And half the time they filled half of it out and half the time the other half didn’t get filled out.
Some of the time it got turned back into their supervisors, but definitely not anywhere near a hundred percent. The supervisor was then supposed to send it to the planner scheduler who was supposed to then scan it and add it as an attachment to the operation on the work order. Well, it didn’t work. It worked for us, but it was certainly not ideal. There was little to no functionality with the long text area in SAP. We needed to be able to deliver instructions that included pictures, instructions that included a lot of other functionality, and that just wasn’t available to us. And we have to collect these instructions or these worksheets and deliver to these work lists because we have compliance issues, we have safety issues-
Shelly Kramer: Absolutely.
Wendy Underhill: We want to be able to use this information to improve our asset life. The whole maintenance management section is part of our asset management program. And we’re trying to become safer, we’re trying to become as compliant as we could possibly be. And I mean, that arena is just growing by leaps and bounds in this industry. So we really needed a way to deliver viable work instructions, viable test instructions, viable inspection instructions, and safety information to our staff.
Shelly Kramer: And to your staff in a way that they could access it through a mobile device, a tablet-
Wendy Underhill: Exactly.
Shelly Kramer: … while they were in the field doing their work. And that to me, is the beauty of these kind of solutions, is that paper forms… I’m thinking about some of the things you said ranging from the handwriting to incomplete forms. The beauty of online forms is that a lot… You know how you fill out an online form and you hit submit and it won’t accept your form because you haven’t completed all of it or whatever? So, it seems to me-
Wendy Underhill: Right. Exactly.
Shelly Kramer: … like that’s a wonderful benefit. So tell me then… Okay, so we know the problems, the challenges, everything else that your field team had, the things that you were looking to solve. What did you do to solve this problem? I’m guessing it has something to do with Mirata.
Wendy Underhill: Yes. So, our mobile implementation uses SAP Asset Manager, as Rich mentioned, the portion of their company [inaudible 00:10:16], the mobile SAP basically, mobile maintenance and SAP, that’s what we were implementing. And so, we already had a relationship going with Mirata and Haven Site. And I was ecstatic to hear that they had come out with a form solution. I had been looking at other form solutions as I had attended various conferences and knew that we needed to do something. Because to me, the ability to deliver these work lists on the tablets with great functionality was vital and just as important as issuing the tablets and going live with asset manager. So it was 50% of our project basically, and I didn’t have a solution when we started looking at asset manager. So, that’s what we were trying to achieve.
Shelly Kramer: Got it. So Rich, I know that you have taken kind of a unique approach to digital forms and solving the problems that your customers have. I’d love to hear more about that.
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Rich Padula: Kind of how that goes.
Shelly Kramer: I like that, project never.
Rich Padula: So what we did is, we really looked at it and we took a new approach to it. We really wanted to make sure we focused on the most difficult things. If we can make the hard things easy, then the easy things are that much easier as well. And so, we looked at forms from about 50 different companies and said, “Give me your hardest forms, not the easy ones.” And we went through that and we analyzed, what’s the best way to do this? And we really built a platform that makes it easy to build those complex forms and add the logic that you need so a business user can use that.
And also the other big challenge is integration into existing systems. So when you have to go in and out of a system like an SAP, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do.
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Rich Padula: So, we make it easy for that to happen. And we really focus on the scalability as well, in terms of the number of users and the quantity of data, because that’s what the least large enterprises need. They’re big, right?
Shelly Kramer: Right.
Rich Padula: They’re big, they’re complex, and security obviously to big utilities and everybody is that. So, that’s really what we did. We provide the power that they need, but it’s easy enough for the business users to use. So that way we can enable the businesses to really allow them to keep up with their ever-changing needs. So we enable that citizen development community, yet we make sure that IT has the ability to manage all that data access and security. So it’s a real win for enterprises.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. We’re seeing… And this is not a new phenomenon by any means in terms of the rise of citizen developers and how important that is. We did some research in the last year actually, on looking at the state of automation. And in that particular research, we found that 84% of organizations said they’re willing to support citizen developers, and in many instances have citizen developer programs underway within their organizations.
And we’re also seeing that same report, 39% of organizations who say they would support citizen developers designing, coding, and implementing their own bots without IT implementation. And so what’s so important there is, going back to your project never, when IT has to drive everything, when everything I need to accomplish as a business leader has to wait until someone in IT has time to do it, it’s incredibly frustrating. And it can result in a lot of delays ways because there are a lot of things in an organization that require IT’s attention that they might prioritize over what it is I’m trying to do, or what it is Wendy’s trying to do.
So Wendy, I would love to get your thoughts on the citizen development community and how that plays a role with what you’re doing.
Wendy Underhill: Yeah. So I mean, as I mentioned, I mean, I used to work for technology services section. And they have a million other things that they’re doing and they don’t have the staff, they just don’t have the resources to develop the sheer number of forms that we have been creating and need to create. So we were looking for a solution that we could…. We needed to be able to create our own forms. We needed to be able to publish those forms and control the form environment ourselves within my group so that we didn’t have to involve our technology services. So other than setting up the initial platform, technology services really know has no… They’re not required in order for us to create, test, and publish a form and attach it to whatever it is we’re attaching it to, to an SAP.
And one of the things I didn’t mention on the previous segment, but another big piece for us was the ability to be able to collect the data from the forms. I mean, it’s not a question of just having somebody fill out a form, but if you’re collecting, especially in the maintenance world, if you’re collecting a bunch of data on the form, what pressure readings or whatever it is as part of the inspection, you want to be able to use that data to inform your decision making process around your assets.
So for us, we have staff now, many staff members that have been trained into how to create the forms. My staff is managing the naming convention for the forms and stuff like that so that we have control over it because we’re going to have thousands of them eventually. But DTS is not involved, which is huge. So when you say citizens development, for us, it’s having our own maintenance management group be able to manage these forms and help our end users, who are the people that are the engineers that are actually creating these forms. They have that capability now, which is awesome.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, that is awesome. So on a scale of one to 10, how complex would you say your requirements are as it relates to a solution like this?
Wendy Underhill: 10. We are a utility company, so we deal with… And for us, it’s not just an electrical utility company. We’re dealing with electricity, we’re dealing with giant amounts of water. And so there’s a lot of regulatory processes that we have to follow. There’s a lot of data that we need to capture. We’ve got, I don’t know, 150,000 assets that we’re tracking. Safety is a huge issue for us. And so one of the ways in which we’re using the forms is for our lockout tag app process, because of the safety regulations around using electricity, or working with electricity and working with water. We use the work clerk management portion of SAP, which is all around OP 2 procedures, which is lockout tagout or safely clearing equipment. And we’ve developed a myriad of forms to take that process, also from a paper process, into an electronic process, which not only gives us the ability to then have that, from a legal standpoint, be a lot more controlled, but also makes it safer because the forms can include scanning things like barcodes or QR codes to make sure that the right pieces of equipment are getting blocked and tagged out.
So it’s not only a data collection. And I mean, we can have a very simple form that has two lines of instructions, or we could have some forms that have two or 300 work steps that people have to go through. So it runs the gamut for us.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. 10 out of 10. So if you didn’t have Mirata, how many solutions do you think you would need to implement in order to do what you need to do?
Wendy Underhill: Well, I mean, I don’t know number wise, I’m guessing it would be several. And the reason for that is that Mirata forms is natively compatible with the SAP system for us, which is our CMS system. And so the platform itself, if we were using other solutions, would probably cause an IT nightmare because of the connections we would have to make back and forth with the SAP system.
Shelly Kramer: Right, right. And nobody’s got time for that kind of nightmare. Rich, let’s talk a little bit about user experience. So I think that there’s always tradeoffs when you’re making a shift from a manual analog process to the digital process. How do you make sure, from a solution standpoint, that you are not slowing things down for the end user when they’re implementing Mirata?
Rich Padula: Right, yeah. Shelly, you’re absolutely correct. So it depends on the solution. What we don’t want is the user to be shackled by the technology. You have to enter all of this stuff and it slows you down. So it’s really about working the way they work, in the way that they work. And so user experience is the biggest priority in this, and that’s what we really focus a lot on.
So we do this by allowing them to work on any device. So any form can run on any device. So we have a mobile client, so they’re doing operator rounds, and other inspections, just using an Android tablet. They have their web clients, so a browser, so that forms can be routed up to the supervisors and they have access to it from their desktop. And then we also have an embedded client that can go into other applications such as SAP’s asset manager. And so work order related forms are right there inside the same application. So they don’t have to go back and forth to two different applications.
And the other thing we do is we give them more information than they have today. Because a piece of paper doesn’t have a whole lot of information on it. So it’s a win-win. They get more information out at the point of performance. So they’ll have access to manuals, and think digital manuals and things like that, and reading histories and information that is critical for them at the point of performance. And in exchange for that, we get to have all that data back for us and for management then to have better visibility and better process improvements. Just everything just works better that way.
Shelly Kramer: Well, and it also seems like a key part of the value proposition here is the ability to meet customers where they are. And knowing that there are unique individual needs throughout the organization and being able to deliver to that different range of needs, I think, is one of the keys to success really for any tech solutions these days.
Rich Padula: Totally agree.
Shelly Kramer: So I’m going to wrap up this conversation with a question for both of you. I’m going to start with you, Wendy. If somebody’s listening to our conversation and they’re thinking, “This makes a lot of sense and I’m not doing exactly what she’s doing, but I’ve got some of the same challenges,” what do you recommend they do to start?
Wendy Underhill: Well, look at Mirata. Mirata for a solution, obviously.
I mean, we looked at our scope, we looked at what is it that we’re trying to achieve here? And basically created a checklist to say, this is what, this is our ideal. This is what we would like to be able to provide for our technicians, or whomever is using these forms.
And think about the amount of time and effort that you go to, to maintain paper forms. And the potential time savings or other benefits that you could get by using electronic forms. I’d start looking at all those questions, and thinking about what the possibilities are for your situation or your company. I know that for us, we’re starting working with these forms in our maintenance world, but I can also see a great use for these forms and the other divisions that we have at Department of Water Resources.
And I’m pretty sure that once other folks from the other divisions start seeing our folks using these, then our footprint in Mirata is probably going to get bigger.
Shelly Kramer: And Rich totally hates to hear that, I know.
Wendy Underhill: I hate to interrupt here, but one of the other things that we didn’t mention here, Rich didn’t, I don’t even hear him mention it, that another great benefit here is that these forms can be used online or offline.
Shelly Kramer: Oh, that is a big benefit.
Wendy Underhill: Even if you’re working way out in the middle of nowhere, which is where a lot of our staff are, there’s absolutely no internet connectivity, no cell connectivity. You can download a form, fill out the information, save it, and then submit it once you get back into some kind of cellular or internet range. And the device that you’re using basically holds the data, and the form holds the data until such time as you’re in range. So it’s not a limitation based on, I have to be next to some kind of a cell tower or whatever.
Shelly Kramer: Well, and that’s a significant part of the value prop, I think too. Especially because, of course, it only makes sense given what it is you do, field management, water operations. I mean, of course people are going to be out in more rural areas and things like that. So that makes perfect sense.
So Rich, what about you? Where do you … And I will say this, I’m a strategist. So I always start by looking at the end of the process. What does success look like? What am I trying to make happen? And then I work backwards from there.
So what’s your best advice for somebody who’s hearing our conversation, who’s thinking, this stuff makes a lot of sense. What do they start thinking about?
Rich Padula: So I think what you want to start, it’s kind of the reverse of where Wendy was headed. Right? She said we’re starting here in the maintenance, and then we’ll go to other areas. So you want to start with the end in mind. We know that the era of big data and analytics is here. So we know that the more data we have, the better our models are going to have. And so, let’s figure out how we can capture that. That’s a strategic initiative of every company, right?
Along with, so that’s one, right? We want to focus on, how can we capture data? Even though we might not use it today, we’re going to need it a year, two years, three years from now. The other thing is, how do we do visibility and process performance through there? So if all this work and all this information is sitting on paper, we can’t see it.
So we don’t know that we’re ahead, or we don’t know what the score is in a lot of these areas, right? So that’s what we really want to do, is look for that, follow the paper. When you see a lot of paper, let’s focus in those areas.
And so think strategically, and implement it tactically. So think about, this is something that our whole company has this problem. All these different departments, like Wendy was talking about. Let’s figure out the most important ones to start with. In this case, the field maintenance area here at DWR.
But rapidly, let’s think strategically so that we can say, okay, that worked. That’s great. Let’s go here, let’s go here, let’s go here. And make it a continuous improvement process.
Shelly Kramer: Well, yeah, and I find that with the deployment of really any tech solution, I mean, finding your best proof of concept use case is the perfect strategy. And sometimes it’s not the biggest problem that you have that you’re trying to solve, but it’s one that makes perfect sense. And this is the right, we know that we can go in here, and we can use this solution, and we can totally nail this.
And then what you have is, and Wendy, you mentioned this too, then what you have is a situation where all of a sudden people are watching going, hi, I want part of that.
And so all of a sudden you’ve got everybody knocking on your door going, who is that? How do I make it happen? How quickly can I? And so that to me is what’s exciting, is that when you can successfully roll out a proof of concept or several, and then create this excitement.
Because we as humans are not naturally, we don’t naturally embrace change. So I think a lot of times people approach change with skepticism. So I think that to me, that’s the exciting thing. When you can do that and you can get that excitement within the organization, and everybody wants a part of it. It’s like, this is a success story.
Wendy Underhill: Right. And so for some of our staff, just realizing that they no longer have to do double data entry is huge. Right? Because when we’re collecting data that we absolutely have to have, and not just on a piece of paper into another database or another system, the elimination of that double data entry is massive for us too.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. Well, and I don’t know about you, but data entry is not really a task that many of us look at and go, yay, can’t wait.
Rich Padula: Doesn’t help the bottom line. Right?
Shelly Kramer: It doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Well, oh my gosh, this has been such a great conversation. I want to close our show by saying that, first of all, thank you so much, Rich from Mirada Software and Wendy from California Department of Water Resources, you have been amazing and shared so much great information.
I will include, in the show notes to this conversation, a link to the SAP store where you can find the Mirata solution and get more information from there. We’ll also have an info sheet that we’ll include, that kind of gives an overview of the solution, and the various problems that it solves, and that sort of thing. And I’ll include a way that you can reach out to Rich.
So with that, I want to thank you both for spending time with me today. And to our viewing audience and our listening audience, as always, thank you for spending time with us. And I’m sure I’m going to be talking with the two of you again soon. Because this was a great conversation, and I’m sure that as this process progresses, you’ll have more interesting information to share. So thank you.
Wendy Underhill: Thank you.
Shelly Kramer: Thank you.
Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”