Transportation All-Stars

IT projects that ease the burden of regulation, whether by organizing a trainload of paperwork or assisting with compliance, mark the leading edge of the transportation industry. These Enterprise All-Star winners have successfully integrated new technologies into complex environments while saving their companies big bucks.

J.B. Hunt Transport offers advice about application development: Take the long road, and plan for the common, not the unique.

Transportation All-Stars

J.B. Hunt Transport | BNSF Railway

On the road with J.B. Hunt

This winner revs up with a flexible application architecture that is expected to deliver $30 million in savings over three years.

Plan for common, not unique, requirements. That advice, from Tracy Black, vice president of application development at J.B. Hunt Transport, could save you millions.

Black and the application development team at J.B. Hunt's Dedicated Contract Services (DCS) unit came to this realization the hard way. The team went through many ups and downs in a four-year, $6.4 million application development project aimed at addressing a serious problem within DCS - overly complex, decentralized account management. So arduous was the project, dubbed the Pace system, that DCS nearly scrapped it.

But persistence paid off. Today, DCS projects a $30 million, three-year ROI for Pace. And Pace has morphed from a custom-coding project to a flexible, componentized Web services-based system that gives field managers and customers account access anytime, from anywhere.

DCS used the Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition framework to build Pace, which runs on a series of BEA Systems' WebLogic application servers. A rules engine from iLog allows DCS to address unique contract parameters. Using the rules engine, field managers can easily create and manage individual accounts. And once DCS develops a rule, it can use it for other accounts, Black says.

J.B. Hunt earns distinction as a 2005 Enterprise All-Star for its dedication to get this project right - and the cost savings and business flexibility the company gains as a result. Via Pace, for example, the financial and operations teams receive alerts on deviations in driver pay and customer billing from negotiated contracts and act quickly to resolve issues.

"In the past these deviations might have gone unnoticed for years," says Kay Palmer, CIO at the Lowell, Ark., trucking company.

The long road

The Pace development project got under way four years ago, as DCS set out to remedy problems arising from business processes instituted long ago.

J.B. Hunt’s All-Star project leader, Tracy Black.

In the 1990s, the DCS unit spurred exponential growth at J.B. Hunt by customizing applications to address each customer's requirements for payroll, billing and management. "Each customer had a unique business model, and we thought that required different and dynamic applications," says Richie Henderson, vice president of marketing strategy and administration for DCS.

While the customization program boosted J.B. Hunt's market share, creating dozens of new accounts, it eventually took a toll on the IT group. By the late 1990s, IT had to manage and update more than 150 remote PC-based accounting systems. "We started to have problems controlling this decentralized environment - it was no longer cost-effective," Henderson says.

The company's bottom line also suffered. "We have a saying in our industry, 'Pay as you bill, bill as you pay.' With all this complexity, our payments and invoicing were getting out of synch. We lost the integrity of our financial model," he says.DCS knew it needed to streamline and centralize account management, but its initial attempts to do so, around the year 2000, met with disaster. He admits technology enamored the team. "We overbuilt," he says. "We tried to build Pace for the most complex situation - like trying to build a rocket ship to Mars right out of the gate."

Developers also faced resistance from DCS field managers, who wanted to keep the uniqueness of accounts and wanted every feature included in the new application. "The field wanted to be able to change parameters on the fly, and the architecture was just growing too complicated," Henderson says.Because the project had spun out of control, J.B. Hunt's executive management team was on the verge of canceling it. The company had spent millions of dollars, with virtually nothing to show for it, and "there was lost confidence among key executives," Palmer says.

In 2001, attempts to save the project by outsourcing it compounded the problem. "We quickly became disillusioned with what the service provider was offering," Palmer says, and the project was brought back in-house. However, working with the outsourcer made DCS realize core weaknesses within the team - it lacked knowledge of Java and rules-based logic. After bringing in a new project leader with these skills and educating project members, the team then switched gears and changed its expectations for the Pace system.

"Our turning point was looking at each account for its base requirements, not its unique requirements," Black says.

The team created a matrix of all the account features and then began to plan a rules-based system that accounted for the commonalties that saved time and money on application development. Using XML, the team integrated Pace with J.B. Hunt's MQSeries databases and PeopleSoft ERP application and built the Web component that enabled anytime, anywhere access with dedicated high-speed lines.

The result launched in 2004, and business units began reaping the benefits immediately. Besides the financial and operations teams, for instance, account managers use the system to improve performance. Account managers at remote sites can enter driver activity information and produce weekly driver pay reports, customer invoicing and customer performance reports. Customers are noticing a difference, Palmer says. "We're generating more accurate and timely invoicing for them and offering reporting functionality" and Web account access, she says.

Drivers also are benefiting. They can use their in-cab units to transmit data via satellite or cellular connections into the Pace system. And the centralized system helps J.B. Hunt comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It gives compliance managers the controls they need to monitor account activity, Henderson says.

Palmer says she is hoping Pace will have a tremendous affect on all J.B. Hunt business units. "We can have better decision support and quickly identify inefficiencies," she says. "This will drive down costs overall."

Gittlen is a technology editor in Northboro, Mass. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

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