The Many Features of Stanford's Housing Maintenance Software

Anyone who has ever seen Fox Broadcasting’s successful animated series The Simpsons, has an immediate reaction when they hear the name Homer. Patriarch of the family, Homer is known for his bumbling idiocy; love of heavily salted, deep-fried snacks; and loud "d’oh!" when things don’t go his way. Rest assured, however, the bungling, bald head of the Simpson family shares only a name with Stanford University’s new, custom-designed software program. The Housing Operations Maintenance Enterprise Resource (HOMER for short) is actually one smart cookie.

HOMER to the Rescue

Two full years in the making, HOMER rescued Stanford’s facility maintenance staff from some pretty archaic systems. "About seven years ago, we were using a series of clipboards with five carbon copies per board," remembers Stanford project manager Barry Reuter. "We would track work orders and manage a staff of 35 by manually shifting those five printouts around."

Stanford’s 300-plus buildings, which include student housing, dining and sports concessions, total more than three million square feet. Ninety-five hundred students frequently generate 110 service requests a day. Obviously, the "clipboard and carbon copy" method needed to go digital.

Reuter reached for a facility management software package off the shelf. While in the process of customizing the program for Stanford’s needs, the software company went out of business. This left Reuter and his staff with a half-customized program that he dubbed the "data roach motel." "Data checked in but didn’t check out," he remembers with a laugh. The University limped along with it for two years until HOMER was ready.

Several factors drove Reuter and his staff to commission a completely custom software package. First, the facilities department works exclusively on Macintosh computers, and the market offers few choices for that format. The programs that were available didn’t match the department’s workflow, so there would have to be a heavy level of customization anyway. Interfaces had to be user friendly for the computer-shy, while the program also had to be sophisticated enough to access student requests on the Web. Reuter also wanted field employees to access the system via hand-held computers. This long lists of needs, coupled with the institution’s proximity to the talents in Silicon Valley, made commissioning its own program seem like a natural choice.

Now Reuter had to sell the cost to the administrators. While he wouldn’t give out dollar amounts, Reuter does admit that writing your own program "is a whole different ballpark in terms of up-front costs." When pitching his idea, he put together a careful business proposal that included a six-month case study. "The proposal focused on how this program would meet long-term needs," he says. "When you look at HOMER’s cost across time it doesn’t seem so big."

Once he got the okay, Reuter conducted some 130 interviews. Knowing that there are two sides of every scheduling issue, he received input from both his staff and student end-users. Staff members were asked to be forthright. "We knew that they were probably cheating the old system to get their work done so we asked them what they did," says Reuter. He found out that some workers would hold work orders out for a time or not pay attention to the computer-generated timetables because they knew how to get their jobs done better than a machine.

Agreeing with his staff, Reuter made sure that HOMER does not force time parameters on work orders. Instead, HOMER distributes critical information in formats that are appropriate for each user. "HOMER uses a workflow and set of processes that are natural and modeled after the way people really work," says Rodger Whitney, associate director of housing and dining services. "Service requests and job dispatching are automated, and each technician has access to job details, including supply lists and request priority, which allows them to determine the best way to get their job done."

A variety of people use HOMER. Primary users include the students who make service requests; field employees including facility managers, dining services managers and maintenance technicians who complete the repairs; dispatchers and shop supervisors. HOMER disseminates data to appropriate "roles." Users have their own "role" but can assume other roles while in the system to view different data. This arrangement provides maximum flexibility in Human Resource planning.

Can-Do Components

HOMER’s functionality is centered on the distribution of information in formats that are appropriate for each user. These key components include the following.

A Web Fix-it Page. Students access HOMER on the Stanford Intranet via any of the campus computer clusters or directly from their rooms via Stanford’s Ethernet connections. The request initiates a work order that is routed to the appropriate facility supervisor. The system automatically generates a return receipt acknowledging the request. The system also notifies students of any significant delay.

Task Navigator. One of HOMER’s most important pieces, this allows the facilities supervisor quickly to build work orders, including default schedules, parts lists, location- or equipment-specific requirements, budgets, safety concerns, health and safety compliance requirements and other details. The system automatically routes work orders to the appropriate shop.

Labor Balancer. This tool allows shop supervisors to schedule their staff effectively. Supervisors view assignments and job status by employees, including due dates for all outstanding jobs, expected labor minutes per assignment and priority. Using simple click-and-drag motions, supervisors assign and reassign tasks and can also plot "what if" scenarios (for example, how to assign a job if a worker calls in sick).

Field-use Keypads. Engineers and maintenance specialists in the field access HOMER via hand-held Newton computers with simple pop-up, push-button menus. The staff typically checks in three or four times a day to pick up schedule changes and messages. A built-in clock tracks how long it takes to complete a task, and employees may reassign themselves in the field. "Engineers used to jot notes, then enter them into the system later," says Reuter. "This puts the tools where the work is happening, making for a much more efficient system."

Part Order Manager. By entering bar codes, HOMER automatically tracks supplies and parts. As part of a larger Planned Maintenance Program, purchase orders are automatically routed to the Stanford Purchasing Department.

Hazard Processing. This component alerts workers to hazards by task and location. Hazards may be minor, like reminding workers to wear boots in the basement, or significant, such as warnings and instructions on handling asbestos removal.

As if HOMER weren’t already the facilities phenomenon, the additional news is that it’s just getting warmed up. Designed to be as extendible as possible, HOMER will soon add the MIS group for computer problems and the housing administrative offices.

Amy Milshtein is a freelance writer from Hillsboro, Ore., with experience in higher education issues.

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