Special Reports

In many areas, computer system does its job just fine

Many Tacoma employees are not only comfortable with the German-made SAP software system installed 15 months ago, they also wonder how they ever got along without it.

It’s already saving the city time and money, they say – and they believe those savings will increase as more employees get comfortable with the software and delve more deeply into its capabilities.

“The best day in the life of the city’s previous systems was the day we turned them on,” said Business Systems Improvement Project director Karen Larkin.

The previous networks went downhill from there. “With SAP,” the thinking goes, “the worst day is the day you turn the system on, because it will only grow better and more powerful from that time forward,” Larkin said.

Some examples:

Sleek and streamlined: “Customers are just really pleased with how streamlined things are going,” said work-flow administrator Susan Kunkel, one of the lead system developers.

Before SAP, she said, many workers did transactions on paper that could get misplaced. Now, they put their work into the system where it not only won’t get lost, but it’s also accessible to anyone who needs to track it, she said.

Look Ma, no paper! Officials say the new system has already produced benefits. The ability for utility customers to pay bills online is among them. In the first nine months, Tacoma Public Utilities collected $6.7 million over the Internet, and enrollment in online services surpassed 20,000 customers.

It also has streamlined the way utility workers are dispatched to assignments. Rather than generating paperwork orders that must be handled by people at several stages, the system generates electronic work orders that are automatically dispatched to employees in the field.

Money-Saver: SAP has saved Tacoma money in the city’s accounts payable department, supervisor Jeff Christensen said.

“It’s really a quantum leap in the city’s ability to do business in an efficient way,” he said.

When bills come in, they can be electronically marked according to desired payment dates. The idea is to pay them right when they’re due – not a moment before. That way, the city avoids late charges while keeping as much money in the banks it can for as long as it can. That way it can earn more interest.

TimeSaver: At Tacoma Public Utilities, a laptop installed in the cab of Jan Chamberland’s truck spits out orders throughout the day. He no longer spends hours a week driving back and forth from work sites to the office to get more job orders.

With the new mobile dispatch system, Chamberland says, he looks at his orders for the day online and arranges his work according to the most economical travel time. When a new order comes in, his computer alerts him to the job.

And he no longer has to paw through pages of maps in thick books to figure out where utility lines are. Chamberland locates the lines so customers who are planning to dig on their property can avoid them. Now, he calls up detailed maps on his laptop.

He now can do up to 35 “locates” a day, compared with 12 to 20 before.

“It’s made us more efficient,” he said of the system. “I know there are some people in the city who are struggling. … It’s totally changed the way they do their job, and they just have to adapt to the change.”

MORE INFORMATION: South Tacoma resident Mark Craypo isn’t new to Tacoma’s online services, but he watched the information about his utility usage “become more robust” with billing history and consumption graphs once the SAP software was plugged in.

“It’s convenient for me who does everything online,” he said of the Web site, www.tacomaservices.org. “I can make comments, print out my information. It’s been very positive,” he said.

Some Web sites aren’t user-friendly, Craypo continued, but “they’ve made it independent enough, so it doesn’t matter what platform I’m using, Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, Windows, any flavor.”

He can access his utility information from just about anywhere, he said.

Taking care of business

Lots of Tacoma city business gets transacted every day by employees using the 15-month-old SAP software. Here are some examples of work done from fall 2003, when the systems were turned on citywide, through January 2005:

• 6,420 vendors were paid $791.2 million.

• 19,081 city permits processed since Jan 1, 2004.

• $106.6 million nonutility rate revenue recorded.

• 140 crews and technicians dispatched via wireless devices – an average of 900 orders per day.

• 279,955 customer service work orders created.

• 193,793 payroll checks issued.

• 1.7 million utility bills mailed.

• 61,193 utility payments totaling more than $10.2 million made online.

• 30,467-plus residents enrolled in www.tacomaservices.org, where they can pay their bills online.

• 4,166-plus online requests from residents for service.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659