McCain Foods’ Journey to Self-Service Analytics Includes Strong IT Role

by   |   January 30, 2014 6:00 am   |   0 Comments

Roman Coba of McCain Foods. MicroStrategy photo.

Roman Coba of McCain Foods. MicroStrategy photo.

LAS VEGAS—Five years ago, if a plant manager at French-fry maker McCain Foods Limited wanted to know how they were doing compared to the company’s other 50 production facilities around the globe, they would have had to do what most manufacturing plant managers still do: put in a request to IT and wait.

Today, that same manager simply needs to walk out onto the production floor and look up at a giant LED screen. On that screen they can see exactly how well they are doing based on meters that compare their production lines to every other line worldwide. Outside of actual workstations, the areas in front of these displays are the most heavily trafficked in all of McCain’s plants.

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“It’s important to see where we started from,” CIO Roman Coba, told about 3,000 attendees at the MicroStrategy World 2014 conference in Las Vegas on January 29. “We started this journey about five years ago. We were a company that lived on 18,000 physically produced paper reports, we had about 3,000 access databases around the world, and every time someone looked at something, it happened 24 hours ago.

“So you try to figure out how you are going to make decisions if it happened 24 hours ago.”

Today, all that has changed at the $7 billion manufacturer. The company has one database and has standardized its reporting on MicroStrategy’s enterprise business intelligence and analytics platforms. It also has rolled out the company’s new self-service desktop analytics offering and visualization tools so super-users around the global enterprise can begin to make decisions based on quantifiable metrics instead of hunches and gut-feel.

Coba said the privately-held company has seen an evolution in the use of analytics tools: from standard queries that go thought an “IT-rules-the-world-and-you-can’t-do-anything-unless-we-tell-you” mindset, “to an environment now where  we’re allowing people to go do their own things.”

IT Role and Data Governance
That doesn’t mean there is a loss of IT management, because the work happens using data in a controlled environment, Coba said. He cautioned attendees that, while putting analytics in the hands of key decision makers is a great way to empower them to make better decisions, they have to use a dataset approved by IT. Without that, people could be making decisions based on data from anywhere — a potentially dangerous situation in a company that relies on heavy equipment and lots of moving parts.

Based in Toronto, McCain makes one out of every three French fries consumed in the world today, has a billion-dollar transportation division, Day & Ross, and employs 22,000 people in 160 countries. Giving carte-blanche access to analytics and data in this environment could quickly spin out of control.

Governance issues, and losing control of data quality management, make him “scared to death” of self-service analytics, Coba said. But he added such tools represent “a great opportunity to give people that power no matter where they are or what they do and that’s where we are evolving too”

Yet, now that the genie is out of the bottle people only want one thing: More.

“We’re starting to evolve to a point that as you give them a little more, they start to get hungrier and hungrier and hungrier and you just can’t keep up, so you have to put the power of the tool into people’s hands and let them do what they need to do to make their lives easier as well as gain those insights,” said Coba.

Concerns aside, Coba said the business benefits are real — and measureable. Since introducing analytics into the company’s DNA, production has gone up by “double digits” and down time has been cut by an equal percentage.

Worker injuries have been drastically reduced by giving safety managers the ability to dive into data not only from their own plants but from operations worldwide. This has their total incident rate from a 7 rating (which is very bad) to a 1 (which is very good), he said.

Focus on Worker Safety
Safety is an interesting case in point where bringing together all of the analytics Coba and his team have deployed to date has really paid off. Not only do safety managers have access to a lot of new and accurate information they also use a visualization of the human body that shows them where injuries are most likely to occur at their facility and at what rate going forward.

“So the head of the safety team in, say, the western U.S., they would use the visual desktop capabilities to do their own analytics and drill down further and look at trends,” Coba said in a one-on-one interview after his talk.

Coba said his IT organization also has benefited. Not only is IT freed up from having to produce and manage so many paper reports, the analytics applications enhance IT’s credibility within the organization. IT is now viewed as an enabler of innovation, and fewer managers and directors bypass IT to get the tools they need to do their jobs.

“If you’re a CIO in the room, I guarantee you see shadow systems developed, you hear the complaint of ‘You guys are too slow, you’re not agile enough and I just can’t wait for you’,” he said.

While acknowledging that it is the rest of the business that enjoys the biggest benefits from empowered analytics users, Coba cautions that analytics and data are still the domain of IT.

In fact, when some managers threatened to download analytics and visualization capabilities from a MicroStrategy competitor, Tableau, his retort was, “That’s great. What are you going to plug it into? Because I’m not going to let you plug it into anything.”

This remark actually drew applause from the audience, highlighting the frustration and desire of both users and IT to access more powerful decision-making tools while being able to manage those tools in a way that makes them productive, not destructive.

“IT can’t do everything but they can actually produce a governance model that sanctions the data, sanctions what you can do with it that keeps our risks to a minimum and allows the business units to be satisfied,” Coba said.

Allen Bernard is a freelance writer based in Columbus whose work has appeared in many technology publications including and the Economist Business Intelligent Unit. He can be reached at abernie182@gmail.comPlease follow him on Twitter at @allen_bernard1, on Google+ or on Linked In.

McCain logo on home page via McCain Food Limited.

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