By Barry Sackin, SNS 2017-06-15 09:41:40
Best practices for effective operations Big D(ata) in the Big D(allas) » Even small districts can apply helpful advice learned in the management of a massive technology transition. In the Dallas Independent School District (ISD), the Food and Child Nutrition Services (FCNS) operation is just completing a major update of their technology systems. What they’ve done, how they did it and how it’s impacting their programs are valuable lessons for districts of all sizes and locations. This article, the first of two, covers the procurement and implementation of the new Information Technology (IT) solutions in Dallas. The next article, scheduled for later in 2017, will review other aspects of their tech systems and discuss how all the pieces are coming together to improve school nutrition operations. Yes. Dallas ISD is a big district—that’s “Big “with a big “B”. It’s the 15th largest public school district, serving approximately 160,000 students at 224 sites. But if you head up school meals in a small district, please don’t stop reading. What Dallas did is scalable; even small districts can benefit from their experience. Time for a Change A school meals operation has an unusual place in the school environment: It is a profit-and-loss business operating within a fund-based system. With a budget of more than $100 million, Dallas FCNS is a good-sized, independent restaurant chain. While many school districts maintain central control of all IT systems, FCNS administrators convinced the powers-that-be long ago that the school meals operation merited its own IT department, working jointly with the district’s IT administrator. FCNS boasts a first-class team of IT professionals, headed until recently by Riyad Alsaid, director of technology. When Dora Rivas, SNA past president, was named Dallas FCNS executive director in 2005, she inherited an IT system that had been state-of-the-art when it was purchased by her predecessor. Nine years later? Not so much. After all, technology changes with astounding speed. The personal computer was born in 1982; the earliest web browsers debuted a decade later. Would it surprise you to learn that the original iPhone is only 10 years old!? In 2014, Rivas and Alsaid realized it was time for a change. They began by developing a plan to evaluate their existing systems, identify strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, work with all stakeholders to develop a wish list of capabilities for a potential new system. What the evaluation process discovered was that there were processes that the existing system did not do well—and a long list of things it didn’t do at all. Some of the problems stemmed from the fact that the architecture of the old program was a “distributed model.” That is, each school site was self-contained, transmitting data daily to the central office. There were no accurate inventory records. Daily meal counts didn’t reconcile. There was no central control over menus. All data was localized. Meal sales were recorded using only a single “meal served” key on the POS terminal. High on the wish list for a new system was full integration of the front-of-the-house (FOH) POS sales systems with a comprehensive back-of-the-house (BOH) system that could incorporate menu planning, production, inventory, purchasing and other primary functions. To make this tech dream come true, Rivas and Alsaid assembled a team of key stakeholders. If your operation doesn’t have the benefit of an independent IT team, and you are working on a tech upgrade with district staff, be sure that you or someone on your management team is one of the stakeholders intimately involved in the project. Getting What You Want In January, 2015, Dallas FCNS issued a request for proposal (RFP). A review of this particular RFP (available at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus) is worthwhile, because although specific to Dallas, it is an excellent example and framework for other districts to follow. It provides a comprehensive statement of needs and criteria for evaluating and scoring the companies that responded. [Editors’ Note: See “To Bid or Not to Bid,” September 2016, for a deep dive into the differences between RFPs and bids.] There are several components to the Dallas FCNS technology RFP. First is the list of functional requirements, answering the question: What does the system need to do? Another component of the RFP goes beyond the basics, asking: What else will the vendor bring to the table? What additional functionality is available beyond the minimum requirements? (A “Value Added Comparison” tool is another of this month’s web extras found at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus.) A third component requests details and expectations regarding service and responsiveness—the Dallas team understood that they would need considerable support in migrating data history to a new system. Finally, the RFP requested the price; a good RFP will balance fiscal responsibility with best value. When the proposals were received, two companies floated to the top, including the current vendor. The project team focused on learning more about the offerings of the competing company, including taking a baker’s dozen staff members representing all functional areas of operations and administration on a field trip—all the way to Atlanta to observe the system in operation. (Smaller districts can follow this example with fewer team members making neighboring district visits. But the value of direct communication with current customers and observing a working program is an important part of the process.) Seizing the Opportunities In the end, Dallas FCNS selected a suite of products from the new company. It includes five programs: a POS system, BOH application package featuring menu planning, inventory, production planning, records management, etc.), student accounts management, online meal applications and payment processing. The five programs share a common interface and are fully integrated. What exactly does this mean and what are the advantages of this type of tech integration? The fundamentals are simple: All databases reside on the central office’s servers rather than at individual school sites. It means that communications are constant and instantaneous. It also means that all sites are working with a common database. But there are other benefits to consider. A longstanding debate in the K-12 school nutrition community is about the purpose and benefit of the POS system. At its simplest, the system records meals. But the potential power of a POS lies in the ability to identify not only when a meal is served, but applying that information to manage costs, inventory, production and purchasing. To do this, schools must move beyond a single-entry-key system to record a meal served and use a system in which cashiers enter every item on a customer’s tray. Dallas opted to take advantage of these capabilities in its new system. It’s in the BOH applications where the centralized database and the high-speed, real-time network make the biggest differences. Dallas FCNS offers just about every meal program possible: breakfast, lunch, supper, summer, FFVP and more. Prior to the tech transition (and the change in federal nutrition standards), the director of nutrition was planning more than 20 separate menus using a two-week cycle, with seasonal variations. These relied on scheduled communications to the different production and serving sites. But with new menu planning rules in place, the monitoring and managing of 220 sites became an even more daunting task. With the new BOH module, however, all menus are managed on the central server. Every day, site managers call up menus, recipes and production worksheets. When changes or updates are made by the central office to a recipe or menu, sites receive email alerts and have instant access to the revision. Likewise, when site managers enter their production plans, their files are updated on the central server. If they need to make changes, particularly in the fruit/vegetable groups (based, for example, on student preferences, available inventory, equipment breakdowns or prep labor constraints), they have access to a list of acceptable alternatives that won’t unbalance their weekly menu requirements. Mistakes are minimized as the system throws up alert “flags” whenever a changed menu fails to meet federal requirements until the menu is compliant. Improved inventory management is another benefit the Dallas team is seeing since updating its technology. When making the transition, the project leaders decided against exporting existing data files. Instead, they took the time to enter all menus, recipes, products, price contracts and ordering guides directly into the system. Each time a school came on line with the new system, the staff did a full physical inventory of every item in their storerooms, freezers and coolers. This provided an accurate starting count and it eliminated any items from the database that were no longer purchased or used. Plus, with the new integration of inventory and production, an accurate perpetual inventory was created. Managing Change Dallas went from zero to full implementation within 15 months, with nary a hitch. How did they do it? It took commitment and an amazing amount of planning and organization, thinking through every step needed to make this transition smooth and painless, with the least disruption possible. The FCNS team made several critical decisions early. First, they took ownership of the process rather than assigning that responsibility to the vendor. During contract negotiations, they established their expectations for the services the new vendor would provide and how responsive the company must be. Second, they determined what steps they could manage inhouse and identified services that would need to be contracted. For example, to get that clean-slate inventory, they contracted with the tech vendor to assign two full-time staff to this process alone. At the beginning of the transition, the vendor actually provided six staffers to support the roll-out and training. Third, the Dallas team developed a reasonable, albeit aggressive, roll-out plan that built in some flexibility to allow them to react and adjust as necessary. The first phase was transitioning to the new POS system using a core group of well-run schools that represented the full range of meal prep and service models. They selected sites with progressive and supportive managers and staff, as well as some locations that might need a little more hands-on help. This tested their ability to bring everyone along on the tech transition journey. After extensive initial training, a startup calendar was developed, featuring benchmarks and progressive training. It took just three weeks for the pilot sites to be up and running. (A “go-live” calendar and milestone timeline are available as web extras; visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus.) It’s important to note that all of these steps can—and should—be applied in smaller K-12 operations. One thing that was a bit unusual in the Dallas plan was the choice to write their own user manuals. While most tech vendors tend to provide manuals with the contract, they are frequently more complicated than what everyday users really need. The Dallas IT team recognized this problem and opted to write their own, straightforward how-to manuals. They even created one-sheet laminated cards to address the most common questions and problems! Train, Train, Train Thorough training of all staff is absolutely essential for a tech transition. This is one area where any district should not look to save money—and doing it right can be pricey. Every individual who would interact with the system received comprehensive training sufficient to master the tasks they were assigned. Central office staff, area supervisors and site leads had a full week of classroom training, followed by three days onsite with district and vendor staff. Cashiers spent a half-day in the classroom/lab and had onsite assistance. Both the Dallas team and the vendor credit this investment of money and resources with the smooth roll-out of the new technology. Cashiers had one of the most significant adjustments, transitioning from eyeballing trays for the components of a reimbursable meal to entering each menu item separately. Dallas reports that the vast majority of cashiers adapted to the new system within a few days, helped by side-by-side training support. Site leads were paired with peers when their school made the switch. Even after the extensive training, some of the concepts remained challenging for certain individuals and having a peer partner with a non-judgmental perspective helped to bring everyone along at their own pace. Probably the most important thing that Dallas has done in making the transition to the new IT system is creating a “culture of commitment to the goal,” reports Alsaid. “This was a team effort. Everyone had buy-in and participated in the process.” A Worthy Investment At press time, the tech transition for Dallas FCNS was expected to be complete by the end of the school year and the school nutrition team will move into a more routine use of the system, while working collaboratively to develop further enhancements in the coming months. [SN’s follow-up article will include more on this topic.] The Dallas team estimates that its investment in the tech system, plus the extensive development and training, represents approximately 1% of the operation’s revenue over the two-year implementation period. That should be a good benchmark for other districts, even small ones, to consider as they review options and budget for upgrades. The technology contract is for three years, with two one-year extensions allowable. The thought of having to go through this process every five years may be daunting. But it’s possible for a district to work with the state agency to allow a non-competitive contract extension for an additional number of years. Justification for this would be the investment that has been made and the fact that there is no third-party support for what was installed. The possibility of a long-term relationship mitigates the cost of purchasing and implementing a new system, amortizing those costs over a greater period. Don’t lose sight, however, of that speedy rate of technological change! Be sure your vendor is staying current with new and updated offerings. CHECKLIST FOR TECHNOLOGY CHANGE » Evaluate your current hardware, software programs, database and system architecture. Are they meeting your needs? Are they providing you with the information you need? » Make a list of what is working well and what isn’t in your current system. » Evaluate your architecture. Do upgrades in the district open up opportunities for growth and improvement in your own department? Do they support a different approach to your IT needs? » Assemble a team of stakeholders from all levels of the school meals operation. » Make a technology wish list of must-haves, important features, valuable additions and ideal functions. » Post a Request for Information (RFI) to identify currently available options. » Develop a Request for Proposal (RFP). » Narrow your search to the top two or three respondents. » Do a thorough vetting of these finalists with, if possible, visits to sites where all of the programs you envision for your operation are being used. » Select your vendor. » Negotiate all of the programs and services you expect. » Plan your implementation roll-out in detail. » Populate your database. » Train, train, train. » Start with a representative sample of different prep and service sites and work out all the kinks before launching a general roll-out. » Train, train, train. » Don’t shortchange the investment by skimping on training and support. BONUS WEB CONTENT Big D(ata) in the Big D(allas) This month’s online extras include many of the tools Dallas used in procuring its new technology, including its RFP, added-value comparison tool and timelines. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Barry Sackin is a K-12 school nutrition consultant, author and speaker. His clients include Heartland School Solutions, the technology vendor currently contracted by Dallas ISD’s Food and Child Nutrition Services operation. Note: Dora Rivas and Riyad Alsaid have both left the school district. The new executive director is Michael Rosenberger, formerly of Irvine ISD.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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