Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Lessons in Delayed Maintenance - What Small Businesses Should Learn from Southwest Airlines

Lessons in Delayed Maintenance

What Small Businesses Should Learn from Southwest Airlines

By now, you've heard the statistics on the Southwest Airlines meltdown from the 2022 holiday season.

More than 15,000 flights cancelled. Millions of passengers stranded all over the country. Old, outdated software left flight crews stranded as well as passengers. Disruptions started December 21st and lasted through the New Year.

Pilots and flight attendants have been asking for software updates for over a decade. 

SWA estimated that they lost $800 million in December due to the incident. And they plan to lose at least another $300 million when the dust settled. In all, that's over one billion dollars lost . . . due to delayed software updates.

Note: These losses are not due to ransomware, or any of the various malware attacks you've heard about. They are due to using old, outdated software to run an otherwise modern company. Believe it or not, there are some real lessons here for small businesses. 

First: Delaying maintenance and updates never saves money.

Most people know this from maintaining (or not maintaining) their house or car. You can rotate your tires on a schedule . . . or pay for new tires long before you should because all the tread is worn off of one side of your tires. You can paint one or two rooms in your house each year, or wait until the entire house needs to be painted.

Waiting (delaying maintenance) always has an extra cost. Replacing things "before their time" means that you end up buying more of those things than you should need to. Delaying small jobs until they become one big project adds a layer of project management. This is often invisible because you end up being the project manager. But don't kid yourself that your time is free or has no value.

There are endless examples of this with software. I have had several clients that didn't want to buy regular software updates for some critical software. Eventually, after four or five generations of updates, they were forced to buy the updates. And guess what? They had to pay for all the updates they missed as well as the current version. So they lost five or six years worth value because they continued to use the older, outdated version with fewer features. 

Second: Many short-sighted decisions result in short-term savings and long-term expenses.

Imagine that you have a leaky roof. There's always the problem you see (the water dripping) and the problem you don't see (the water damage inside your attic). You can play the roofing tile version of whack-a-mole and continually patch pieces of your roof. But if you delay too long, you have to fix more than the roof. Now you need to replace plywood or even rafters that would have been fine if the roof were maintained in a timely manner. 

One of the great benefits of "keeping up" with anything is that you don't have to play catch-up. More often than not, the catch-up project involves fixing things that would have been just fine with regularly scheduled maintenance. 

Many small businesses delay getting the latest hardware or software, thinking they're saving money. But most of the time, the eventual move to modern software requires that they also upgrade the computer hardware or operating systems, or both. Keeping up is always cheaper than catching up in this case. 

Third: Delayed maintenance and updates often results in catastrophic failure.

If you do just enough to get by, the result is usually not a big problem, it's a catastrophic problem. A great example here is yard work. You don't trim the tree on a regular five-year basis. It's never a problem . . . until it crashes through your roof or catches on fire because it's grown into the electrical wires.

We've all seen this with computer systems. You keep replacing parts until the only thing you haven't replaced is the biggest, most important part. And it just gets older and slower every year until it fails. Eventually, everything breaks. With regular maintenance, it lasts a lot longer. But there's a limit. 

Fourth: Your service partner can usually help you figure out how to make updates as part of a long-term plan.

If you have no choice but to be frugal, a good adviser will always save you money. Again, homeowners and car owners often learn this lesson as well. One fix might be very expensive, but another will give you a good solution that is forward-looking and costs a lot less. For example, a repair with a five-year roof certification might last until your mortgage is paid off, and then you'll have the cash flow for the roof replacement you need.

With certain car engine problems, a "top end rebuild" refurbishes the key components involving the heads and valves, but helps you delay a total engine rebuild. Under the right circumstances, this kind of repair will save a lot of money and dramatically increase the life of the engine.

A good computer consultant can save you a great deal of money. Too often, business owners want to spend money on the obvious things they see, which is natural. But a good consultant can help you understand all things that you can't see, but which are critical to your company's productivity and profitability.

There are things you can maintain at a less rigorous pace. Some things (like printers and monitors) can last almost forever. So they don't need to be on the same schedule as servers and backup systems. 

It used to be the case that businesses waited until there was a catastrophic failure (e.g., the hard drive) and then replaced everything. Today, we have a much more modular world, thanks to cloud services. A very common "upgrade" today is to move older, slowly-dying systems to cloud services.

That's where a good consultant can really help you make the most of your technology. A great example is your old backup system or onsite storage. You don't have to move everything to the cloud at once. Keep that backup going as long as it works. But you have to understand that it will die one day. Plan now to move the backup to a cloud service when the day comes. You can legitimately save money by using the current system until it fails. Then, don't replace it: Move the service to the cloud.

This is, ultimately, what a managed service provider does. They take control of your technology and manage the maintenance. Just like your car, your technology will last longer and give you greater value if you invest in scheduled maintenance.

When people think they're saving money by waiting until something breaks, I refer to that as "Saving the wrong pennies." There are good ways to save money and extend the life of your technology, and there are bad ways to save money, which won't extend the life of your technology.

If you wait until something breaks, and then you fix it, you are guaranteed downtime. Your company is guaranteed to be losing money. With proper preventive maintenance, you can avoid catastrophic failures. You make more money because you never have the unscheduled downtime.

Engage your technology service provider in a conversation about your technology. After all, it's literally their job to help you make good decisions about you technology.

Save the right pennies.

Feedback welcome.

Note: No, I will not be your technology consultant. But I can help you find one. Drop me an email and tell me where your business is located. I know people.


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