CIO50 2020 #3: Kevin Drinkwater, Mainfreight
Kevin Drinkwater notes often, team members from across Mainfreight would ask for the technology function to deliver a range of functionalities.
“Sometimes these requests do not make sense to me, so I have asked the person/s to work it through manually on the white board or with props,” says Drinkwater, chief information officer at the global logistics and transport company headquartered in Auckland.
“If you can’t demonstrate it manually, then you can’t computerise it,” he points out.
“Doing so, it makes us all think differently as the demonstrator then has to think about it fully from end to end and has the opportunity to have that ‘Aha, that does not work’ or ‘I could make that work better’ moment. This is often demonstrated by an ‘Oh, I see what you mean.’”
He says at the same time, this gives the technology team the opportunity to better understand the challenge as the person demonstrating the concept may have a completely sensible concept.
“In which case, we have the ‘Aha moment’.”
“This methodology should also be used where people agree it is a good idea as demonstrating it manually will lead to an overall better outcome as you work it through,” says Drinkwater.
He says this happened when they were working on a very complicated concept to integrate their warehousing system with new and functional requirements from a very important set of customers.
His team set up a large room as if it were a warehouse, with pallet/picking locations. They bought a lot of different low cost plastic things as products to put in the warehouse.
“We then walked through the theoretical operation process many times to prove, change and enhance the concept before we attempted to document the functionality we need to programme,” he says.
Without doing this physically and learning from the exercise, we would have made many mistakes and potentially introduced a lot of issues and extra cost to the business, says Drinkwater.
“The manual process meant we knew and could demonstrate exactly what should be delivered.”
Drinkwater’s pragmatic but at the same time open-minded approach to solve a challenge his ICT teams are faced with extends to tech-enabled innovation at Mainfreight.
“Our overall philosophy with any innovation fits into two categories,” he explains. “Does it increase revenue or decrease cost?
“In other words does the innovation increase our overall profitability? In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is about increasing revenue by offering customers abilities and tools they can’t get from our competitors.”
This approach, he believes, is unique compared to other businesses their size, or businesses in general.
Often, the technology team is charged with seeking out the opportunities to find and introduce innovation, he says.
At Mainfreight, “most often, our concepts come from interacting with the business and customers,” says Drinkwater.
“Sometimes this happens at the Mainfreight lunch table. It’s part of our culture.”
“Our history has shown that we often innovate in ways that customers are not expecting and therefore expand on what they would normally expect from their freight company. In doing so, we enhance their business and make them value us more as well as making it harder for them to leave us.”
His team recently demonstrated this with two projects over the past year: their global business intelligence product Maintel, and the complete rebuild of Freman.
Intelligence across the supply chain
Drinkwater says their ability to share data/information internally and with customers about their supply chain globally has not always been that easy, especially where customers trade across regions and divisions.
He says this was the business driver behind the creation of Maintel, short for Mainfreight Intelligence.
Maintel accumulates key data from all of their systems worldwide and makes key intelligence across the complete business available internally and to customers.
“Whilst this may not be a new concept in itself, the way we are building the platform, the breadth of the where the data comes from, both system wise and geographically, and the outcome, makes it innovative,” he says. “In essence, it is a mashup of everything important to create critical intelligence.”
Maintel produces secure, fast and accurate information across their entire business, and presents it in a way that provides insight for them and their customers.
It utilises Power BI to gain multiple business insights across all levels. A sales representative, for instance, may want to know and show the customer about their freight that is exiting from Dunedin.
At the highest level, it could provide information their CEO needs before meeting a key customer in Zurich that uses their systems across the globe.
This view is available across the full range of devices with all dashboard displays being capable of a full drill down to core data.
He says Mainfreight continues to consolidate data from all their key operational, accounting and CRM systems into one location using Microsoft’s Azure Cloud environment using tools like Power BI to create dashboards that provide the intelligence.
Necessity, the mother of innovation
The Freman project, meanwhile, was borne out of necessity, he says.
It was the fourth iteration of their customer product, which began in 1991, and was past its use-by date.
Their transport customers in Australia and New Zealand use Freman as their freight management system. Freman provides products all the documentation and gives them insight into their freight movements and supply chain.
It is responsible for delivering over 60 per cent of Mainfreight’s consignment note and other freight electronically. It populates the data into the system, initiates the pickup of freight and continuously updates statuses of consignments.
“It was critical that we got the new Freman right,” says Drinkwater. “It was also an opportunity to make a step up in the benefits of the system to our customers.”
He explains that rather than rebuilding the interface in a new language, his team introduced a new architecture - using dockers and containers as the underlying structure, due to the increased flexibility and efficiency in producing and deploying functionality.
“Utilising dockers and containers was a bit more of a risk than we would normally take with such an important system, however it has so far proved to be well worthwhile,” says Drinkwater.
Since going live late last year, they have moved more than 35 per cent of their consignment volume to the new system and received very positive feedback from our customers.
Taking care of new business
Drinkwater also provides an environment for Mainfreight tech teams to work with other business units on emerging and disruptive technologies such as Internet of Things and machine learning. They also pilot or test these with their global customers.
Their Visibility Ultra product, being used by a global customer, taps AI and machine learning to provide critical information across the supply chain, whether the freight is carried or controlled by Mainfreight or others.
This customer wants to expand the use of Visibility Ultra to all regions. It wants to monitor all their parts orders, which reaches to over one million orders annually. Mainfreight does not move any of the freight for these orders, so will essentially be accumulating the data of other carriers.
“We sell this product on a SaaS model and also provide a data quality team to monitor and fix the accuracy and timeliness of data from the carriers,” he explains.
The team also introduced IoT devices to track critical assets such as containers and segregation bins. The 300-plus devices deployed have been very effective and decreased cost to the business by not having to build more to replace the “lost” containers.
Drinkwater says they are currently trialling a blockchain application with a global shipping line.
At the warehouse, the teams have been using for almost two decades now voice activated picking and packing technologies.
A chatbot was “quietly introduced” on certain pages of their websites to allow retail customers to make the right decisions and include the right information when they require an online quote and/or want to arrange the pickup of their freight online.
Working through all these initiatives, Drinkwater says the team keeps in mind that “the biggest impacts we have these days relate to the criticalness of the systems we introduce.”
“The volume of transactions and the number of customers we have means that a wrong move can have a disastrous impact on the business. Therefore the key to overcoming this is planning, planning, planning! This also goes along with testing, testing, testing!”
He says planning and testing occurs at every step of the way, from the gem of the idea to the GoLive.
“It means that collaboration with all parties involved is critical at all steps along the way. However, the key to this is to not let this slow you down as we still need to deliver rapidly,” he stresses.
“If you achieve this, then you have solved the structural, operational and cultural impacts as they come up and therefore they do not accumulate into a hurdle or brick wall.”