Union Pacific operates the second-largest railway system in the U.S., managing tracks across nearly half of the states in the union through remote and rugged states like Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. Key to keeping the trains moving is this elegant solution: mobile warehouses roughly the size of a semitrailer that can follow the heavy machines it uses to repair its track infrastructure.
From Clipboards to Barcodes
Until 2018, a mechanic would walk into the mobile warehouse, grab the part they needed, then write the name of it down on a piece of paper on a clipboard. “If they wrote it down, then ideally they’d also write down the machine they took it for,” said Ryan Litherland, systems consultant at Union Pacific. “If the storekeeper got really lucky, the mechanic would attach the maintenance order, too. At the end of the day, the storekeeper would take that clipboard, would try to read the handwriting, and then would issue the parts for work orders to charge them out.”
Litherland and his technology team were charged with bringing in a mobile solution that would align with the goals for the business, all while driving adoption among the storekeepers and mechanics.
Users at the Center
The typical user for this project was not very typical. “Our biggest implementation hurdle was narrowing down the locations of the warehouses. They may only be in place for a week or two,” Litherland said. “The workers’ schedules are not traditional.”
Litherland’s team relied on the Agile development methodology and a user-centered approach that iterated through design mock-ups to gather feedback from subject matter experts and end users before jumping to code the solution. Litherland admits this required a shift in Union Pacific’s development mindset. But it paid off as the business provided feedback on the final product along the way, which helped the IT team keep the project on track.
No Writing Required
Union Pacific’s new mobile solution has a built-in barcode scanner, which Litherland described as “a big win.” “Now that the warehouses are all barcoded, there’s no writing required. We limited typing where possible to further reduce mistakes,” he added.
Litherland shared details about how Agile development practices and the move to digital processes enhanced Union Pacific’s mobile warehouses in a conversation with Ann Marie Gray, VP of content strategy and research at ASUG. He also explained how the IT team plans to apply the principles that worked so well to future projects.
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