Ethel’s Fax

How a $150 fax became a component, configuration item, asset and service, all in one day.

Over the years I have compiled a library of stories I use to help explain problems, concepts and methods to fellow service management professionals. Recently, I was encouraged to share my story about ‘Ethel and her fax’. I use this story to illustrate the challenges an IT organization faces when they take their configuration management ambitions out into the real world of business operations. As they say in the movies, the names of the company and those involved have been changed to protect both the innocent, and the guilty.

It seemed a normal Monday morning for Ethel. She was a permanent fixture at the company, having received her fifty years of service award the previous month. Ethel was the sales processing department, and nothing happened in sales unless it went through Ethel’s hands.  The fax burst into life with the yet another order. It had been a busy morning for orders. Ethel sipped her morning tea as she waited for the order to appear. Her job was simple, to take orders received via the fax and enter them into the sales order system.

A single piece of paper came out and gently slid into the receiving tray. Ethel picked it out and confirmed it was blank, again. She wrote the time and date in the top right hand corner, and placed it in a nearby manila folder labeled ‘blank sales orders’. “That’s the fifth today,” she said to herself.  In all there were 23 blank sheets of paper in the manila folder. They represented orders from sales representatives selling fertilizer and similar consumables to local farmers. The average value of items on each sales order was typically upwards of $25,000.

Ethel finished her tea and called the Help Desk, again. “Do you have any news on when I can expect the ribbon to be replaced in my fax, it ran out last Wednesday?” she asked.  As soon as she put the phone down it rang. It was another call from a sales rep asking for a status on his order. Ethel had no record of the order on the system and referred them to the Help Desk.

That afternoon Sam arrived from the Help Desk with a new fax ribbon. He apologized, explaining the fax was an old model and ribbons were hard to come by. He mentioned something about it being handled differently if the fax was a piece of IT equipment, and stored in the ‘CMDB’, whatever that was. Sam finished the installation and started to run a test. He overheard Ethel answering a call, from what seemed like a very irate sale representative.

With the fax working, Sam called the Asset Management team on his cell phone to check something. “So it’s not in your system either, because its worth under $500, thanks Susan”.   With Ethel off the phone and another situation referred to the Help Desk, Sam asked another question, this time of Ethel.

As Ethel explained the likely consequences to the farmer, sales representative and the company of sales orders not being processed on time, or at all, Sam’s jaw dropped. Before she could finish, Sam was gone, sprinting down the corridor back to the Help Desk area.

Ethel arrived the next morning at her usual time, tea in hand, to find a beige colored machine not five feet from behind her desk and chair. Four feet high and six feet long it was the biggest piece of computer equipment Ethel had ever seen. The label on the side said ‘Caxton 3000 Color Laser Copier and Printer’. As she read the name, the machine lit up like a Christmas tree and paper started stacking at the back, at an alarming speed.

Sam stood nearby beaming with pride. “Good morning Ethel. What do you think? It’s a copier, printer and fax. No more ribbons, and it has a one-gigabyte of memory, prints over one hundred pages a minute, and sixty in duplex mode – amazing! “. The rest of Sam’s explanation was drowned by the ‘whoosh-whoosh’ noise of the Caxton 3000, eagerly responding to the additional workload resulting from being network connected to every one of the 120 desktops that shared the third floor with Ethel.

“Problem solved, impressive eh?” Sam continued. Ethel watched as a complete stranger went behind what she now understood to be the high-speed automatic collator and stacker with optional binding module, and walked away with an armful of print. “So where do my faxes actually come out”, Ethel asked innocently.  She couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere in that pile of paper entering the elevator was a sales order or two.

Meanwhile at a meeting on the twentieth floor, representatives from the Asset, Configuration, Procurement and Service Management teams were involved in a heated discussion concerning who had what responsibility over the latest piece of enterprise equipment – the Caxton 3000.

Retrospective

At this point I would take the opportunity to fuel the discussion with clients surrounding the challenge of managing the ‘service infrastructure’, and ask them question such as:

  • Why do you think Ethel’s fax slipped under the collective radar of the management systems?
  • Did anyone ever understand and document the full impact of the issue?
  • To what extent did the Caxton 3000 actually fix Ethel’s issue?
  • How should the Caxton 3000 be managed, is it a component, customer asset, asset, service asset, configuration item, or all the above?
  • What would you recommend the teams do to make sure this does not happen again, and that other parts of the business don’t share a similar fate to Ethel and her fax?

The difference between the theory and practice of service management is often experience. I’m one to believe that if the service management teams had just a bit of targeted coaching and mentoring, this kind of situation could have been averted.

Meanwhile, share a special thought for Ethel, who is likely still sitting there today, with a huge piece of machinery making an annoying ‘whoosh-whoosh’ noise all day, just five feet behind her.