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Of Barbeques and Business Process Management

Did you enjoy last weekend's barbeque? You probably didn't give much thought to the business of getting that gas from the ground into the tank you picked up at the home center, but it's quite a process.

Did you enjoy last weekend's barbeque? You probably didn't give much thought to the business of getting that gas from the ground into the tank you picked up at the home center, but it's quite a process. Gas distributor Blue Rhino is now using business process management (BPM) software to make it a controlled, compliant and more cost-effective proposition.

Blue Rhino launched its BPM-managed process back in March 2004. Built on Metastorm's eWork platform, the inventory transfer process tracks monthly shipments of full gas tanks, inventories on hand and returns of empty tanks among the company's 200 distributor locations. The process previously involved a hodgepodge of inconsistent Excel spreadsheets and faxes, and the inventory manager had to make countless follow-up telephone calls to reconcile the information.

"With the old process, it usually took two weeks to close inventories each month because there were always data errors and discrepancies," says Keith Reichard, Blue Rhino's systems integration manager.

The new process is accessible to everyone through an intranet, and the company's SQL-based inventory tracking system is continuously updated as inbound and outbound shipments are logged in at distributor locations. Field personnel benefit because there's a simple interface in place of paperwork, and the system also prints out required bills of lading for each shipment that previously had to be prepared by hand.

"Now we give the distributors a two-day deadline for reporting at the end of the month, and it takes half a day to reconcile once we have the final numbers," Reichard says.

As a public company, Blue Rhino has also relied on BPM to support Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. For example, it launched an application change control process last summer that tracks why, how and when changes are made to the company's information systems. Most importantly, there are time stamps and tracking of all user requests, actions and approvals. "No task is completed unless it follows the proper approval workflow," Reichard says.

Blue Rhino is currently rolling out a production planning process to nine regional facilities where tanks are filled, reconditioned and refilled. The process tracks data such as employee hours, overtime hours and production per employee and per shift. Once all nine facilities are using the process, the company will have its finger on the pulse of every production facility, and the goal will be to drive the production cost per cylinder downward.

"The vice president of production will be able to run reports comparing and contrasting what happened in each plant," says Teddy Doohan, Blue Rhino's BPM developer.

For now, available intelligence is served up through a "gigantic HTML report" that can be run at any time, says Doohan. "We've never tracked some of these numbers before, so we're trying to figure out where we need to provide detailed analysis."

If only Blue Rhino could add a report for its consumers so they'd know when their barbeques are about to run out of gas.

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