Supply chain management professionals often have to be very skilled and savvy when it comes to advocating for the implementation or modification of a company-wide software application.  The reasons are painfully obvious.  Supply chain business processes span the entire value-chain of the firm and often include mission critical applications such as fulfilling customer orders, managing and balancing customer demand to constrained supply and supporting individual customer service needs.

With that context and personal experience, I was a amused to read the many write-ups in both traditional printed and social media concerning the recent cutover of the combined reservation systems for both United and Continental Airlines.  If you have not read these accounts, the short summary is that with the formation of United Continental Holdings, the new parent for both United and Continental, the merger plan mandated the combining of both companies’ reservation systems. After the usual combined task force evaluation, it was decided that the Continental platform would be the designated single platform.

Readers whose responsibilities or dependencies include any company’s order management system can well relate to the high anxiety levels attributed to any required change to that company’s single face to customers.  That concern especially comes to light when two companies with different mission critical applications or operating units need to come together and present a single face to customers. Consider that anxiety applied to a system that literally has to perform seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.  There is no buffer time for changes, let alone a major conversion.

In the case of United-Continental, reports indicate that the planning task teams orchestrated four different rehearsals to help identify the major issues or needs prior to the actual conversion. Multiple team meetings, action items, and contingencies were obviously identified.

This weekend, the conversion actually went live early on Saturday morning, and as these complex and time sensitive initiatives often transpire, there were fallout issues.  Throughout Saturday, customers had problems interacting with terminal kiosks and locating reservations. United employees were unfamiliar with the Continental system’s features and information screens.  Flights were delayed, connections were missed, and readers probably heard or read the news stories of a botched conversion.

If any readers were directly impacted, than you already have first-hand impressions of what occurred.

A Tuesday article in Wall Street Journal noted that 85 percent or more of the airline’s flights departed on-time from the merged airlines five U.S. hubs by Monday afternoon. On-time arrivals topped 90 percent.  Also reported were statements by United that the airline’s performance was continuing to improve, but telephone lines remain jammed. As we pen this posting, we ran and inquiry on and viewed an 81 percent on-time status for the airline.

Like many of these complex conversions, issues will eventually get resolved and operations will return to normal.  Yes, customer satisfaction has suffered, and if you were one of those flying passengers impacted, you can certainly relate to the first-hand inconveniences and frustration of what occured.

Rather tnan taking a finger-pointing perspective, Supply Chain Matters will opt for a supply chain management systems frame of reference perspective.

As supply chain professionals who have to deal with such systems all the time, we have keen awareness  the complexity and risks of such a conversion.  Consider the far-fetched analogy of the task of having to change an engine in a 737 aircraft while it is still flying. Lots of planning, backup contingencies, and yes, something may well go wrong, but we will do our best to not let the entire system crash.  The consequences of failure are unacceptable.

Let us therefore cut some slack for those IT and operational folks at United-Continental.  They had to perform a complex task on the most mission critical enterprise system, the one that touches most all customer and employee interactions.

Supply Chain Matters feels the takeaway from this incident and many others before it remains the same.  When it comes to mission critical systems and high availability applications, even the best planning can result in unforeseen events.  Having back-up plans, a positive team attitude, sensitivity to customers and a “let’s get it done” attitude can be the difference.  Proper roles and clear responsibilities , particularly in communicating timely status often help alleviate stress and anxiety among stakeholders and customers.

Finally, readers who know of IT and functional professionals who deal with mission critical systems every day should take the time to express appreciation for the work they need to get done every day, let alone a major system change.

For our part, Supply Chain Matters extends a shout-out to the United-Continental reservation system conversion teams for their hard work and dedication to a rather difficult challenge. While in the end, all did not go as well as desired, the task itself was one that many other industry teams would shrink from.

Bob Ferrari

Note: The author has no affiliation with United-Continental other than being a frequent flyer.