Two ways we are speeding up development of digital solutions

Arjan van Limborgh
Arjan van Limborgh
28 August 2020

In the maritime industry it can take months, sometimes years, to manufacture vessels and equipment that meet customer needs and comply with SHEQ standards. However, we’ve noticed that our customers’ expectations have changed. Today you can check your borrowing capacity for a mortgage without leaving your home, you can book and check in for your flight with a few simple clicks on your phone, and you can track your pizza online from order, to baking, to delivery.

Driven by new (digital) products and services in other industries, and the velocity with which these are developed, our customers expect us to rapidly deliver new ways to maximise uptime and performance, reduce total cost of ownership and improve their experience.

And for us at IHC, innovation is not just physical – digital innovation is equally important. We’ve been developing digital solutions for years to the highest standards. To keep up with the evolving needs of our customers and contribute to the agility of our business units, our team in Digital Business has focused on two key ways to accelerate the digitisation of IHC.

1. Doing things right

The agile methodology for software development has been around for a while, so too within IHC. In Digital Business we fully embrace this iterative way of working based on incremental value delivery. We are rigid in applying this mindset in order to be adaptive to the circumstances. Our projects consist of two-week development sprints, after which we demonstrate working releasable solutions, and review them with internal and external stakeholders. The feedback obtained is addressed in the next development sprint, while the benefits of the released software immediately drives return on investment.

One of the solutions we have created is a mobile application that gives a customer access to their list of vessels, the related parts and documents. When we created the solution, the development team focused primarily on presenting a lot of information intuitively. During the review, customers appreciated the result, but additionally requested for a search function. Even though this seems quite obvious, it’s easy to overlook the functions that are right in front of you. So we released the product and immediately started the development of the search function. More importantly, by incorporating customer feedback, it immediately generated buy-in for the solution, making it much easier for it to be adopted.

Many years ago, IHC started with the unification of processes and supporting systems. This resulted in a strong foundation with which we can now rapidly build digital solutions. In addition, we build digital solutions on the Mendix platform for rapid application development. Working together on this platform, our business and IT teams create, iterate and release applications in a fraction of the time it takes with traditional methods. It also produces reusable software components that further reduce the development time of other new solutions.

Consider for example the list of vessels; these ‘entities’ reside in our ERP system that OneIHC has implemented. These entities are exposed to the digital solutions created in Mendix via one API and subsequently used in different apps, such as IRIS, Searchlight and Optimus. This unification and standardisation of the ERP system and the API contributes to a reduction of the development time for apps to just a few weeks.

2. Doing the right things

Each initiative we start with clearly defines the customer needs we want to address and the business objectives we intend to realise. For this, in our way of working, the role of Business Owner is paramount for two reasons. He or she introduces what the development team needs to realise ­– how it is realised is up to the development team. Secondly, the Business Owner needs to take helm of the decision-making process to maintain the velocity of the team. Through our experience, we learned that the more clarity provided by the Business Owner, the better the outcome of the team.

That said, the Business Owner is only as good as his team members, both in his department as well as the development team. In IHC we aim to make decisions based on facts, supported with evidence, which we obtain from experience working with the solution. While customer validation to generate the required customer insights is important, we also conduct research into the behaviour of the intended user groups. This data should help in answering vital questions, such as: to what extent is the solution desired by the customer? Is there a positive business case (is the solution viable)? And can we realise the solution given the constraints (is it feasible)?

Digital process development image 1

By immersing ourselves into the context in which the digital solutions are used, by taking the prototype into the field or observing user behaviour from a mirror room, for example, we’re able to build the right solutions.

And sometimes you have to admit defeat. That is ok; better to fail fast and learn than to create something that does not meet a real user’s needs. I personally had this experience when we tried to provide a solution to support a complex purchase-to-order process for one of our customer groups. Based on validation with customers of the first prototypes, it became apparent that the solution we proposed was too complex. So we had to drop it and go back to the drawing board. Ultimately, it is better to not develop anything at all, than to develop software that would not create the intended impact.

Conclusion

When we started digital development projects at IHC, some of the solutions took us close to six months to develop. Currently, we are able to release a minimal viable product in six weeks. We can generate more impact with the same team and the same amount of resources. But perhaps more importantly, the customers we work with are excited to be involved. They transform from being critical, perhaps even sceptical, to become our most loyal ambassadors.