When describing Project Compass, the process of replacing Avista’s customer information system (CIS), we tell them it was like a heart transplant.

For utilities, the CIS is at the heart of our ability to operate as a business and talk to our customers intelligently. CIS supports many ancillary systems at the utility, which made replacing it a complicated and critical effort.

Project Compass was an intense, four-year undertaking that also included implementing a work and asset management system and a new customer bill. We learned a great deal and offer some thoughts for utilities that are attempting a similar journey.

A Need for Transition
Avista’s legacy system was a 20-year-old, homegrown CIS, on a mainframe, written in two code languages that are hardly used any longer. Not only did we encounter increasing costs to maintain out-of-date technologies, but we faced significant risks of important processes failing.

We had invested in our old CIS long after it had reached its useful life. We simply reached the point that if we were to add new functionalities, and avoid the compounding business risk of continuing with the legacy system, we had to replace it.

In addition, we weren’t able to offer the technology our customers are now using. It was as though we were carrying around a brick phone when the rest of the world was carrying around an iPhone. Twenty years ago, when we developed our CIS platform, most people didn’t have home computers — let alone access to the Internet, smart phones or iPads. Today, mobile is a major channel that customers use for information. As the next generation becomes the majority of our customer base, communicating with a phone call is becoming less of an option.

We needed technology that offered a more interactive relationship with our customers, such as automated meter information, energy-efficiency programs, real-time billing, automated notifications, self-service options and other services.

Know Your Purpose
Avista provides energy services and electricity to 369,000 customers and natural gas to 329,000 customers. Its service territory covers a population of 1.6 million and spans 30,000 square miles in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and parts of Oregon. Our customer service has received national awards and high ratings year after year.

Therefore, we knew that we needed a CIS that could deliver the exceptional service our customers have come to expect. It also had to provide new, customer-friendly features, as well as stability to our operational and asset management procedures.

Involve Leadership
To embark on a project of this scale, leadership buy-in is critical. The reality is that on day one of this type of project, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it will cost or what its impact will be. And you still may not know on day 150. You need a leadership team who remains committed, even when the breadth is unclear.

The reality is that on day one of this type of project, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it will cost or what its impact will be. And you still may not know on day 150.

We had that backing from our officer team from the first day we started Project Compass in 2011 (see page 8 of Western Energy magazine’s Fall 2011 issue for more about how Avista got the project started and what our expectations were). They recognized that this project was essential to the future and health of the company.

Build a Strong Team
The next step was to create a dedicated project leadership team. Avista leadership removed both of us from our current jobs in technology and customer service, and Project Compass became our full-time role for four years.

We created a Project Management Office (PMO) and ran it as a separate business. We approached our project as though we were building a critical software product for Avista, and it was up to us to be successful with little or no interruptions to serving our customers or our business.

A strong PMO, which included representatives from key business units, was important to the project’s success. We met weekly to talk through issues, challenges and progress. Even if we had nothing new to share, we still met — we never once skipped — and what we found was that we always came away from that meeting with better information. Our PMO members shared their knowledge and expertise to help us figure out the scope of the project. It also gave team members a chance to learn the new systems firsthand, which was invaluable when we went live with the new systems.

We leased an offsite location to minimize interruptions and create a team environment. We developed a high level of camaraderie, celebrated together, and supported and recognized one another.

Find Experienced Partners
We sought help from outside sources, starting with other utilities that had gone through a similar CIS project and asset management implementation. They served as an important resource for questions and troubleshooting.

When we developed a Request for Proposals, we hired TMG Consulting to lead us through the process. For our new systems, we selected Oracle Customer Care and Billing (CC&B) and IBM Maximo Asset Management.

In total, we worked with more than 30 vendors on Project Compass. A lot of these were existing relationships, but we also spoke with other companies that installed similar products and sought out their vendor recommendations.

The project managers from IBM, Oracle and other vendors became extensions of our team. Just having these two large vendors in the same room helped tremendously.

Raise Companywide Support
A technology implementation of this scale changes many familiar company work processes — not only communications with customers, but how employees interact with one another. It may even change a company’s culture. It requires governance and support from all areas of the business to stay in alignment with the original project goals. Working closely with enterprise technology employees as well as with business and operations helps dissolve department silos. It helps work teams to become more interactive and to be more appreciative of one another’s work processes and contributions.

We knew that we needed help managing such a large change and getting everyone on board. That’s why, early on, we dedicated an Organizational Change Manager as a critical, full-time team member. The OCM helped us build an internal business approach and managed our communication, training and coordination issues.

We wanted our employees to be part of this journey, and to feel ownership of Avista’s new technology. One way we did that was to hold a contest to name the project. Employees submitted project names, which helped foster companywide awareness. The winner received an iPad.

Project Compass represents how new technology is helping Avista create a new direction. The name is still used, even though the project has wrapped up. We also created a logo for our project identity. Having a name and a brand gave us a way to talk in a recognizable way about the project’s progress.

Scott L. Morris, Avista’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, talked about Project Compass at quarterly employee meetings, which helped reinforce the project’s top-level support. We posted quarterly updates on our internal website and sent monthly e-postcards to employees, providing important project updates.

With frequent notifications, we ensured that Project Compass was never forgotten. It had a name, a purpose and a significance that continues today.

Stick to Your Scope
Again, Project Compass spanned four years from design to completion. The design phase, which started in 2011, required a full year to complete. In addition to affecting every customer, the CIS had to meet a number of regulatory requirements across three states, for both electric and natural gas services.

We needed time to build the budget, as it required a lot of input and planning. This is where having good vendors and partners were helpful. They served as excellent resources in validating our thinking.

Deciding on scope was important. Our challenge was to stay focused on the true requirements of the project, which required installing two major systems: CC&B and Maximo Asset Management. Both installations are not generally undertaken at the same time. However, due to how our legacy system was built, we couldn’t install them independently.

We looked for like replacements. New systems inherently offer new capabilities — some of which were great opportunities that were incorporated, and others we had to decline. You simply cannot do everything and reach the finish line in a timely fashion — you have to control the appetite for change requests.

Avista also had to link the new systems with a large number of existing company systems. These included outage management, automated phone system, supply chain and financial systems, company website and dozens of other systems. In all, we had more than 100 integration points between CC&B, Maximo and 60 systems. There were 4,000 requirements we had to meet over a two-year period. It was a complicated and deliberate process. This is an area where team support, continuous encouragement and celebrating small successes were key in helping keep everyone on track and motivated on the challenging tasks.

Sticking to the project scope required daily attention. If one initiative didn’t meet a deadline, it could throw everything off — affecting budget, scope and timeline. Each day, we reviewed our teams’ schedules to determine what was feasible.

Invest in Going Live
We partnered with Mosaic to develop a training program for Avista employees, including Web-based courses, classroom training, self-directed system practice and other planned activities. We even implemented a “train the trainer” model to help educate super users who could provide support in their units when the system went live.

Noncustomer service employees received CC&B training and nonoperational employees received Maximo training. This training was crucial to a successful launch.

That training was a huge investment for Avista. We trained over 790 employees, devoting over 34,000 training hours across the company. But the alternative — having the two new systems go live before our employees were ready — was not worth contemplating.

In addition to training, the other area not to scrimp on as you prepare for go live is testing. Test and retest. It’s the only way to identify and eliminate process errors and other issues. Our business team identified over 7,000 test cases. We executed them repeatedly, working out the bugs. We spent more than a year just in the testing phase, running more than 50,000 tests on every task, from adding a new account to creating a bill.

We performed three dress rehearsals, simulating what it would take to go live. We worked in shifts, over the weekends and around the clock, as if it were live. We measured each step. We learned how much time it took to convert the data and identified opportunities we hadn’t considered before. We learned that some processes took more time than we thought, so we identified where we needed more support staff.

After each rehearsal, we conducted an evaluation so we could improve. For example, during the first rehearsal, the meters did not upload daily to the system as we expected. Part of that is the result of having a large number of meter systems, and the process had been somewhat manual. We were able to adjust so that by the third dress rehearsal, we were able to go live.

Ready for Go Live
We kicked off our “go live” on Thursday night before the 2015 Super Bowl, in which the Seattle Seahawks, Spokane’s hometown team too, were playing. By 2 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, the systems were up and running. It went so well, that we were able to send our team home to watch the game, which was a rewarding feeling.

Then, just nine months later, on November 17, 2015, we experienced the largest storm to hit our service area in Avista’s 126-year history. Hurricane-force winds pummeled the Inland Northwest. Trees fell over, crushing houses and cars, toppling power lines and Avista lost power to almost half (180,000) of its customers. Avista crews, along with mutual-aid crews, contractors and support staff, worked around the clock for 10 days to restore power.

At no time is customer service more important than during a crisis. It is when our customers need us most. That storm was the real test of Project Compass, as its magnitude was beyond anything we could have predicted (or prepared for) during our testing and dress rehearsal phases. Our new systems performed exactly as we would have wished. Our CC&B batch performance worked, and we were able get all our bills out. Under our legacy system, billing would likely have been suspended for several days.

Like all utilities, that meter-to-cash function is critical to our business. When billing goes down, you have to make it up through late billing, pro-rated billing and estimated bills. It gets messy very fast — both for Avista and for our customers.

In addition, our customer service remained stable throughout the storm. We were bombarded with calls. With Project Compass, our customer reps no longer have to switch back and forth between systems. They have quick, easy access to each customer’s complete information.

Keep Adapting
While our new systems are stable, we still are working to repair the remaining smaller defects, as well fielding the many requests for new capabilities that were not part of the original project scope.

The backlog of requests will never go away. There always will be new features requested and required as existing tasks are completed. We will have to identify and adapt to customer and operational needs, as well as to new regulatory requirements. It’s a natural evolution of healthy, growing systems.

Pat Dever is the director of application and system programming for Avista Utilities. Pat served as Avista’s co-executive sponsor for the utility’s new Oracle CC&B and IBM Maximo system installations. He has 16 years of experience in software development in energy trading and risk management, utility operation and back office systems; and 18 years of experience in software development in other industries.

Vicki Weber is the director of energy delivery business technology for Avista Utilities. She served as Avista’s co-executive sponsor for the utility’s new Oracle CC&B and IBM Maximo system installations. Vicki has 35 years’ experience in the utility industry in various fields of electric, natural gas and telecommunications.