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Establishing Enterprise Monitoring Baselines

Our technology dependent lives

Enterprise monitoring gets a great deal more air time these days than it ever did in the past. Perhaps it's because our technology dependent lives have become some so reliant on the availability of systems and infrastructural services. Have things improved? How would you know?

In reality, monitoring systems themselves are nothing particularly new. Consider the pressure valve on a steam boiler. At the most rudimentary level, the object of the valve is to release pressure. The way you decide whether or not to release pressure is to observe the gauge that indicates the boiler's pressure. Steam engines have been around for hundreds of years and gauges to monitor them, probably almost as long. The thermostat on your house heating system, the temperature gauge on your car's engine, the battery life monitor on your phone; they're all monitors, perhaps not "enterprisey" but you get the idea.

Most of us, no doubt will have seen one or more of the many Hollywood blockbuster movies that features some drama that involves gauges and monitors. Of course the recent unfortunate circumstances at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster were of particular importance globally because of the seriousness of the events and the fact that as the disaster unfolded the news was relayed across international networks following the Tsunami. More important here, is the need to consider that if there was not some sort of monitoring it would have been impossible to comment on the significance of the reactor temperatures and other factors until the fires and explosions had already occurred. The process of testing air quality, water and milk quality and the general radioactivity characteristics of the community all represented some level of monitoring also. But effective monitoring was only really measurable against some sort of yardstick - a baseline.

So I think we therefore can accept that monitoring is a worldwide ubiquitous phenomenon and one that not only mankind has embraced but also the plants and trees. Autumn and spring after-all are a factor of the length of the days and plants and trees react accordingly by shedding old foliage or generating shoots and foliage anew. So nature it seems perhaps has a baseline too.

Why bother with a baseline?
To be effective any monitoring activity however needs a base-line. Determining baselines is key to effective monitoring. In its most basic form, a performance baseline is quite simply a set of metrics used for the monitoring to define the normal working state of whatever it is that you are monitoring. Engineers typically use performance baselines for comparison to trap changes in state that could indicate a problem.

Setting an appropriate baseline also provides early indicators that usage or consumption or even throughput demands are pushing available capacity, thereby giving support and planning resources the opportunity to plan for upgrades. Aligning performance baselines with existing SLAs (Service Level Agreements) can help the organization stay within capacity parameters and identify problem areas that are falling out of compliance.

The challenge is in determining what constitutes a relevant and appropriate baseline. As you can image, for many things, there is no absolute answer with respect to baselines. Even mother nature sometimes gets it wrong, when trees start sprouting leaves at about the right time in the season and then an unexpected cold snap occurs and nips those shoots in the bud with a frost and effectively stunts or stalls plant growth for the season.

Establishing a baseline is key though for effective implementation of anything new. If for example, your plan is to replace your organization's paper forms processing technology with an electronic forms solution with workflow, based on a technology like that provided by Winshuttle, you need to understand some basic metrics about what you are trying to do and what your expectations should be around general performance and operational function.

There are no standard baselines
There are no generalized standards for baseline monitoring that you can unfortunately simply overlay on your organization. Just as every custom built boiler has its own baseline and every range of boilers differs from every other range, every automotive engine has a different optimal performance baseline, so too, every organization has its own baseline that is unique.

There are industry standards that can help, like CoBIT, ITIL etc, and some of these make monitoring tool recommendation also, but a lot of these constitute heavy lifting in terms of highly integration solutions and infrastructure that a given organization needs to have in place.

A different but effective approach that should be considered is one that involves determining your minimum expectations in terms of effectiveness. We will have no more than two orders waiting to be processed at any point in time, we will have no more than three process exceptions per 100 orders, we will not have order lines canceled due to lack of product availability etc.

The choice to build infrastructure that pushes and pulls data from your ERP system, whether it be from Microsoft Excel or an InfoPath form has been made based on the fundamental assumption that the existing approaches will improve by some measure. What are those improvements?

Data processing may improve in quality, speed or process rigor and all of these can be measured. As a part of the capital investment process there is usually the requirement of some sort of justification for the project, and this can be a great starting point for your baseline - this usually indicates some sort of yield or return on investment metrics. Part of your baseline activity is also the assessment of how long the current approaches achieve their objective, or fail.

Taking an inventory of all the things you believe are important is therefore your starting point.

Priority and measurability
The next step is determining a priority for those items, which are the most important ones and which ones can be reasonably measured. Having a baseline that state, "our users will be happier" may seem to be an odd, one, however it is a reasonable one, if reworked and considered as a response to a periodic survey with a measurable success criteria such as: 95% of all new users surveyed agree that they prefer the new form. While this is not necessarily an enterprise monitorable response, it is something that you could build into your process at the close out of the form, and have a window appear that asks whether the form process was easy or hard and whether they would be likely to use it again in the future. Storing every response in a database can then become part of your monitoring metrics.

At the end of many SKYPE VoIP calls for example, a call quality poll is presented to help in assessing the quality of the encoding algorithms and application performance.

The last factor to consider is how long should you baseline for? The answer to this is not very categorical, however it is important to remember that if continuous improvement is your objective a protracted baseline gives you the best data. Usually this is at least something that has a high number of samples with enough diversity that you have outliers that would skew the process if looked at all inclusively. The important thing about the baseline that should be considered though, is that over time, the characteristics and parameters of the baseline are likely to change. The starting baseline for example may move, after the new system or approach has been adopted, and in fact the new approach itself may become the baseline for future enhancements and improvements.

When talking forms design, some thoughts to consider on form and workflow performance are the following:

  • Form generation time: how long does the form take to render on launch - with paper, it's how long does it take you to find the form...
  • Form completion time: how long on average does it take to complete the form - this assumes that the person completing the form has all the information that they need, to hand.
  • Form routing time: how long does it take to close out the process and pass control to the next person in the chain
  • Notification time: how long does it take for the submitter to be informed that their form is en route and how long does it take for the next person in the chain to be notified also - failures or protracted delays here, may speak to a number of factors, but you should define the expectation that you have for these.

Softer metrics like those previously cited, like non-conformance, number of forms rejected due to data quality etc, are a little harder to put system monitors around, but you should try to monitor them anyway. With so many of the form and workflow activities now being stored in openly accessible relational databases like SQLServer there are a great many more ways that the data can be evaluated than ever before.

If you have some interesting baseline variables you'd like to share then please do let me know, I would love to hear about them.

Further Reading:

More Stories By Clinton Jones

Clinton Jones is a Product Manager at Winshuttle. He is experienced in international technology and business process with a focus on integrated business technologies. Clinton also services a technical consultant on technology and quality management as it relates to data and process management and governance. Before coming to Winshuttle, Clinton served as a Technical Quality Manager at SAP. Twitter @winshuttle

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