Listen to Betty

It’s dysfunction all the way down.

Computerworld  |  Shark Tank
Computerworld / IDG

Manager at a beer distributor discovers that a barcode scanner wand can be attached to the tablet computers used by the warehouse crew. This is a great thing, since the warehouse crew routinely mistypes information when moving stock in and out of inventory. Scanning both the product and the shelf number would reduce the high error rate to zero. 

Manager immediately takes his idea to the big boss, bragging about how much time and effort he is about to save the company. Then he goes to the Accounting Department to get IT’s input. 

Wait, what? Beer distributor, cheapskate boss, a one-person IT department consisting of a woman who works in Accounting? Yes, if you’re a Shark Tank fan, you’ve read about Betty, the accountant/tablet savior, before. This true tale of IT, says the pilot fish who sent it in and who has forever been grateful that he never worked at that beer distributor, took place a few years before Betty’s last straw. Like Hollywood, Sharky is now doing prequels.

The manager explains his plan to Betty, and she tells him, “This idea needs some work.

“The product’s UPC code can be scanned while it is at ground level on the forklift, but the shelf heights are floor level, and then 5, 10, 15 and 20 feet. The scanner you want to buy has a range of inches, not yards. The top three shelves are out of range.”   

“Can we just make the barcodes on the upper shelves bigger, so the scanner can see them better?” 

“Nope, but you can get scanners with a longer range.” 

“Great, let’s do that!”

Then Betty shows him how much barcode scanners with the necessary range would cost. The big boss isn’t going to pop for that. After all, this is a company that has hundreds of employees, moves millions of dollars’ worth of inventory every month, and relies on one lone accountant as its entire IT department.   

On second thought, let’s not do that, says the manager. 

Betty suggests some alternatives, like putting the barcodes for all five shelves at eye level and clearly labeling them, so workers can just scan the code corresponding to the shelf they put the inventory on. Manager doesn’t think that will work. The warehouse crew has trouble typing in the shelf numbers now, so he has no confidence in their ability to count to five when selecting which barcode to scan.   

You may have heard that a company’s culture is largely determined by the top management. Dysfunction at the top seeps down so that there’s dysfunction at every level. But if you ever needed proof of this, here it is: The manager decides to go with Plan A, simply rejecting the advice he had sought out. He orders the cheaper, short-range wands and tells the print shop to make giant barcode labels to hang on the upper shelves for testing. 

And that first test? A miserable failure.   

The manager knows his neck is on the line, but he has a solution: He hands the job off to his assistant and tells the big boss that he did so because the project is going so well. Now it’s the assistant’s neck that’s on the line instead of his.

With the deadline fast approaching, and zero dollars remaining in the project’s budget, the assistant goes to Betty for help. Betty repeats her advice about barcodes at eye level, and the assistant runs with it. 

The last of the shelf labeling is completed by the assistant and the night shift just a few hours before the next day’s go-live demonstration for the big boss. When the boss arrives, the assistant triumphantly scans the UPC on a pallet of beer and the barcode for the corresponding shelf. Then he shows the big boss that the item is now in inventory, at the correct location. The boss nods — and steps past the assistant to congratulate the manager for a job well done. 

Betty’s next sequel is in turnaround. Meanwhile, send Sharky your true tales of IT life at sharky@computerworld.com. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter and read some great old tales in the Sharkives.

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