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Xerox's Field Techs Share Tips--Globally
Xerox's Eureka knowledge management system allows field service technicians to share solutions to problems that aren't covered in the company's documentation.
Posted Jun 2, 2000
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Around the world Xerox's DocuColor40 copiers were getting old before their time and no one knew why. By flipping pages through an intricate figure-eight maneuver the DC40 was the first copier to manage 30 double-sided copies a minute. But this revolutionary design was turning into a field service organization's worst nightmare, suffering from the kind of intermittent problem that drives technicians crazy. One minute the machine would work just fine. The next minute, the copier displayed a 3396 error code, indicating that it wasn't getting a signal. This problem of prematurely aging product would not do for a company that had saved itself from Japanese competition by mastering quality management only a decade before.

"Engineers working through the problem had tried changing just about everything," Don Dean, field engineer at the customer and technical support center in Fairport, N.Y. admits. Throwing parts at the problem didn't work. Xerox had already replaced half a dozen machines around the world and was faced with replacing one in Sao Paulo. After adding the freight and installation time, the repair would cost Xerox approximately $40,000--and a lot of customer goodwill.

A Golden Nugget

Meanwhile Gilles Robert, a service technician with Xerox Canada in Montreal, had solved the DocuColor 40 mystery about a month earlier. He discovered that under certain environmental conditions, two fifty-cent fuse holders had a tendency to oxidize, which led to slight voltage fluctuations in the five-volt signal that threw off the circuit. To repair the problem, the fuse holder simply had to be swabbed with a little alcohol once in a while.

As it happened, at the time the DocuColor was failing in Sa? Paulo, Tom Ruddy, Xerox's director of knowledge management for worldwide customer services, was in Rio de Janeiro setting up the Brazilian version of a system designed to help Xerox service techs share their expertise. Downstairs, exasperated technicians had called into the hotline from the customer site in Sa? Paulo after they had worked on the DocuColor machine for three days. Ruddy entered a few keywords into the search engine and the answer appeared on the screen: clean the fuse contact. The system Ruddy used: Eureka.

Decades ago, Palo Alto Research Center was founded by Xerox with the mandate of inventing the office of the future. And invent it did: the first personal computers, graphical user interfaces, local area networks, page description languages and laser printers, just to name a few. What makes PARC such a unique research lab is the way technologists and social scientists work together in cross-disciplinary engagement. PARC uses anthropologists and sociologists to understand how people do their jobs and work with others.

Johan de Kleer, manager of PARC's systems and practice laboratory where Eureka was developed, manages the research into "knowledge ecologies"--how knowledge is created and shared in organizations. "I view my job as creating a context and getting people to unleash their passions," he says, explaining that Eureka is a good example, as the system wouldn't have been created if his researchers weren't given the freedom to follow their passions. "People pursued Eureka before I ever approved it," he explains.


Organizational Behavior

Like most service organizations, Xerox repair technicians have their own language and culture. They constantly have to deal with impossible problems because over time machines erode in ways that aren't covered in the manual. They are so loyal to their customers that they'd often rather look bad in front of their managers than the public whom they serve. "As a mobile work force, they can avoid their managers but not the customers," Ruddy says.

Above all, they take pride in their work, especially in solving intractable problems that have stymied their peers. Through that friendly competition they determine the hierarchy-the pecking order, in anthropological terms-of their social structure.

"Whenever they got together on their two-way radios, at a parts drop or in workgroup meetings, they used to tell stories of the problems they solved themselves when the answer wasn't in their documentation," Ruddy explains. "The stories would get told around the water cooler, within a community of perhaps ten or 15 people, but it wouldn't get shared among the 24,000 service technicians we have globally."

Xerox needed a technology to share these stories in real time, so that when someone found a solution it would be accessible to the rest of the technicians the next day. However, researcher Olivier Raiman discovered when he studied Xerox's corporate culture in France in 1992 that its techs were unwilling to share their tips because their district's performance was judged against the others. But he also realized that the telling of war stories indicated that they actually wanted to share even though they said they didn't.

Eureka offered something that Xerox technicians couldn't resist: the chance to brag about their successes on a global scale.

The struggle to Build Knowledge Management

In 1995, Xerox piloted the Eureka system in France and found it saved an average of five percent of a technician's time when Eureka was used to diagnose a problem. It also saved an average of five percent in parts expenditures. With more than a million service calls per month worldwide, the results seemed promising.

PARC was then ready to deploy Eureka in a larger context, except that Xerox was issuing laptops to its field service technicians. PARC redevelop Eureka for a laptop PC environment that wouldn't tether repairmen to the network.

In 1996, Eureka was deployed in North America and has since been deployed worldwide. Today, out of 19,000 Eureka-enabled technicians, about 15,000 are active users, updating on a weekly basis. Ruddy estimates that service technicians know what a problem is right away on 80 percent of their calls, so they probably use Eureka approximately 20 percent of the time. They save approximately five percent on call duration and another five percent on materials per call. "It saves us on the really long-duration calls, where you are down to trial and error," Ruddy says. He estimates that Eureka will save approximately 150,000 calls with Eureka per year worldwide--worth $6 million to $8 million. Savings should actually be even higher, as Xerox has implemented the system in its call centers, increasing the expected number of users to 25,000 by year end.

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