Saturday, March 29, 2008

Taken for saps in the Trash Industry: Garbage in, garbage out? (Or is it "Garbage Out, No Garbage In?")

If large IT companies can't even get software for hauling garbage correct, why is there so much faith that they can automate healthcare?

While not directly related to healthcare, I see many familiar themes here that I've also seen in healthcare. Could this be the future of enterprise healthcare IT as well? Garbage in, garbage out? (Or is it "Garbage Out, No Garbage In?") Also, since healthcare organizations are choosing this same vendor (including some very prominent ones), this story is of potential importance to our profession.

If the details in this story are even close to factual, SAP would have violated just about every fundamental principle of good software design and resilience engineering, social informatics, and common sense.

I think of stories like these as cautionary tales. They might help counterbalance the mass exuberance regarding complex, expensive enterprise health IT. There certainly are precedents. For example, the essay "Shhhhh! 10 Secrets the EHR Companies Don't Want You to Know" contains familiar themes relevant to the trashy software story below:

SAP sued by trash hauler Waste Management
By Linda Loyd
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
March 28, 2008

The nation's largest hauler of garbage is suing software developer SAP America Inc., of Newtown Square [PA, near Philadelphia - ed.], and its parent, SAP AG of Germany, alleging fraud and false representations about waste-and-recycling software that it called "a complete failure."

Waste Management Inc., of Houston, is seeking to recover more than $100 million in expenses, plus unspecified punitive damages.

That isn't exactly trash money.

... The suit was filed last week in the Harris County, Texas, District Court. SAP is the world's largest business-software company. Its Americas division employs more than 2,000 in Delaware County.

I wonder how much of SAP America's development and programming work is outsourced to foreign countries (Germany, China, India etc.)? The common belief in this industry, it seems, is that people in foreign lands can be remotely managed in writing extremely complex software for managing extremely complex businesses in other countries (and, in the case of healthcare, entire professions) whose cultures they probably do not understand, since all businesses are just collections of "processes" that can be catalogued and automated like a global Model-T assembly line.

In 2005, Waste Management was looking for new revenue-management software to handle such tasks as billing, collections, pricing and new-customer setup, the lawsuit said.

SAP said its waste-and-recycling software was a "tested, proven, out-of-the-box solution" that could be rapidly implemented without need for any customization, the suit said.

Alert! In this paragraph we see violations of the major tenets of software engineering, resilience engineering, and common sense (common, at least, to anyone not infected with greed and the 'Silver Bullet-based Religion of IT-Enabled Transformation.")

The Waste Management IT personnel who fell for the "Plug and Play" lines should themselves be fired. No complex software is ever "out of the box" when ported from environment A to environment B. To say so, or to believe so, is bull. (In healthcare, that holds even for different medical specialties and service lines even within one organization.)

These representations were false because a "U.S. version" of the software had never been tested at a U.S. company, according to the court filing. Before 2005, it said, the software had been licensed to "a limited number" of small European firms.

And herein is the fatal flaw that is the "wage of hyperconfidence in computers" as all-powerful "solutions" to the world's business and professional problems. Europe, America ... trash hauling is trash hauling, no? Medicine is just a business like any other, right? After all, how hard can it be to accomplish nuclear fission on your kitchen table if you have all the right components?

SAP purported the software would save "hundreds of millions of dollars in increased efficiencies and revenue," the suit said.

Just as similar enterprise software will "revolutionize healthcare?"

Instead, it was "nothing more than beta software - software still in development and utterly incapable of running the operations of an American waste and recycling company," it said.

Waste Management said SAP presented "fake mock-up simulations," although the demonstrations were represented to be the actual software.

Dear Waste Management IT and management personnel,

This is the oldest trick in the book. (I could have smoked this out in ten minutes if you'd let me. Maybe you should have read my website on health IT problems?)

Waste Management said senior SAP executives, including SAP America president and chief executive officer Bill McDermott, participated in the "rigged and manipulated" demonstrations. "These fake product demonstrations occurred at numerous locations and on many occasions during an eight-month time period in 2005," court papers said.

Waste Management signed a licensing pact with SAP on Oct. 3, 2005. "Almost immediately the SAP implementation team discovered significant 'gaps' between the software's actual functionality and Waste Management's business requirements," the complaint said.

"Gaps?" Put more succinctly, it seems the software was garbage. (When something goes wrong, always blame the computer...)

In addition, the suit alleged, SAP originally promised that a pilot phase in New Mexico would be running by Dec. 15, 2006, but "it is not even close to being completed today."

Could this reflect SAP's own "irrational exuberance" about their IT, or was it simply a lie to get a contract signed, real, quality deliverables be damned?

Waste Management said it was seeking recovery of more than $100 million in project expenses "as well as the savings and benefits that the SAP software was promised to deliver."

They may get the former (i.e., money), but lots of luck on getting the latter.

Finally, if anyone on the plaintiff side wants to hire me as a consultant familiar with IT malfunctions and malfeasance, I'm ready and willing.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

Medicine is just a business like any other, right?

I think this fits well into corporate-think. Apparently the world is simple . . . there are "labor units" to be exploited on one hand, "consumer units" to attract and exploit on the other.

If SAP can put band-aids on their 'bugs', they can probably put some 'lipstick on their pig' and enter the world of healthcare informatics.


Anonymous said...

I worked at WM in their IT department - not anymore. The answer is that yes they can and did fall for a sell job. Who believes - NO CUSTOMIZATIONS? Come on! It is incompetence on WM's part.

Don't forget that WM tried to write this on their own and gave up after 10 years and another $100million.

Garbage is an far easier business model than health care - I agree - just put health care in the governments hands - you'll see incompetence on a scale never before seen or imagined!