AA case study

The AA (Automobile Association) is by far the largest motoring organisation in the UK. The professionalism and high standards valued by 12 million members in the event of a roadside breakdown is also a feature of more than 150 other AA products and services. Today, the AA’s support for its members stretches beyond its core range of breakdown services and even into Europe. These include; personal financial services such as, motor and home insurance, loans, a credit card, warranties and parts and labour cover. Its website (www. theaa. com) is a motoring, travel and leisure portal.

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The AA’s many publications include maps, accommodation and restaurant guides, and their Roadwatch system provides traffic and travel information. There are AA products/services to help people choose, buy and run a car; including service centres providing MOTs, repair and servicing. The AA gives both private and fleet motorists access to more than 3,000 replacement tyre outlets across the UK. In September 1999, the AA was purchased (for  1. 1 billion) by Centrica, the leading supplier of energy and services to the home in Great Britain.

The Problem In the early 80’s, the AA was in a position where the call-handling, recording and despatch systems were in a state of overload, unable to operate effectively. Something was needed to reverse worsening response times and falling customer satisfaction as expectations rose in the light of increasing competition. Due to new competition, greater call volumes, and the increasing number of patrols on the road, management felt they needed to examine their regionally networked scheduling system.

It was decided that the company needed a nationally based system, separating call handling and dispatch. The AA previously ran eight regional call centres with mainframe systems, but the 1980s computer and communications technology meant these were largely isolated from each other, so regions could not easily share the load during peak periods. From 1986 a new computer based system (called ‘Command and Control’) started to replace paper-based operations. This system cut the number of call centres from 27 to 7.

However this still did not solve the aforementioned problems, therefore (in 1990) the AA decided to go back to the drawing board and have a complete system overhaul. The Solution In order for this complete system overhaul to be a success there needed to be the nurturing of a new organisational culture, with the core of this culture being increased communication between management and users. A new radical system was put forward, in order to alleviate/combat the growing problems mentioned earlier, and also go beyond this and create a marked improvement in the service.

The project manager (Gary Meadows) and Nigel Brown (who provided the original system design) knew they would face numerous problems in implementing and making a success of such a radical new system, especially as the AA had a reputation of being risk adverse; and therefore not always open to innovation. Therefore they knew they had to act as ‘Project Champions’ and handle all potential hazards to the projects success in an effective manner. They knew it was fundamental to the projects success that they got the employees on their side.

As mentioned earlier this was best achieved through a process of change of organisation culture. The main area the Project Manager felt that needed to be addressed was the creation of a culture of communication. As the system was introducing such a radical change it was only natural to expect that there would be those within the organizational ranks who would be dissenting/sceptical towards it. Especially as it would mean the alteration of roles for many employees and suppliers, in particular, dispatchers, road patrols, and employees deciding which dispatchers to use.

The new system needed workers to act more flexibly and have a working territory change, which was now directed in a completely automated manner (unlike before where it was decided by the call centre). Through the change in culture emphasis was placed on the numerous benefits to the employees, and also keeping them well supported and informed, so as to win them over. This worked effectively and within 18 months of the system implementation users were acting as champions to the cause.

As stated earlier, Meadows and Brown knew they had to act as Project Champions in order for the AA Help system to succeed and again they recognized that communication was vital, not just to the employees but to the Board, especially knowing the AA’s tendency of being un open to risk and the system being so radical. They knew they had to handle this communication with the utmost tact and guile. This became especially apparent when the project was initially proposed, and ICL (who had strong AA links) did not feel the plan was achievable.

They devised a strategy of managing expectation by only offering as much as was needed to substantiate the project; in a sense drip-feeding improvements at regular intervals. The project began in the mid-1990s and the various facilities were introduced in six-month chunks. This maintained a sense of the project being a bunch of small easier decisions for the board to make rather than one major large strategic decision as regards a systems overhaul. The boards overall approval was eventually achieved when carefully selected experts showed support for the design.

Initially it was felt appropriate to have an experimental pilot (test run) of the system in the Lake District, chosen as it was the Project Manager, Gary Meadows own area and therefore he would protect and support the project more effectively. This was felt to be appropriate so as to see the real impact of the changes on a smaller scale, rather than rolling it out nationally and being more open to problems on a larger scale. This also allowed any problems/issues with the system to be resolved/tweaked by the team before it goes national.

This was seen as the correct strategy by the project team. The project was designed totally in house. User, member, business and technological factors were all taken into consideration when creating the design. Most of the key development work was done by AA IT staff, and an interdisciplinary team was created in the IT department for the project, including almost 60 people (25 programmers, and a mixture of users, technical support and external experts). The top-level project board had eight business and three technical representatives.

The sub-boards were half IT and half users. Ten users worked full-time on the project, and a small group will probably stay on it for years to come so as to constantly fine-tune the system. Systems were developed jointly by IT and user staff. A team of five users checked all software before it went live (this was to ensure it met the specification) however this final safeguard did not throw up that many problems due to the teamwork in the development stages of the project. Mixed teams of IT and users spoke to staff about the system.

There were regular briefings and also meetings for small groups or individuals, so as to get their ideas and to deal with their anxieties. If a conflict arose, management made the final decision. The AA used a self adapted version of the Prince Project management method, removing some of the bureaucracy; this proved immensely successful and is now being used for non-IT projects too. User involvement and the excellent interdisciplinary commitment/vision was a key to success of the project.