From a color-coded whiteboard to a proprietary online scheduling software that reduced errors and improved on-time delivery.
Back End Development / Dev Ops / Digital Product Strategy / Front End Development / Innovation Strategy / Systems design / UX/UI Design / Web Application Development
Pasco Machine Company is a family run machine shop that’s been in business since 1921. Pasco is well established. It’s successful. And, for the past 99 years, it’s been operating by pen and paper (then whiteboard and whiteboard markers). The machinists knew their old scheduling process — which involved a color-coded index card system, in-person status updates, and two full-time project managers manning the whiteboards — needed an update. They knew that digitizing could increase efficiency and save money. Beyond that, who knew?
We did! When Pasco invited us to tour their shop, we were excited to see the perfect case for digital innovation: an operationally savvy legacy business that was working with a ton of data by hand and had a clear goal (in this case, reducing the headcount required for scheduling). Our expertise would definitely deliver on that goal — and could even spark further innovation. At the risk of this sounding like the “How We Met” section of a wedding website, we’ll just say: our partnership with Pasco was a match at first meeting.
- Custom web app development
- Database architecture
- Information architecture
- Dev ops
- UI & UX design
- Impact mapping
- Process optimization
- Product strategy
- Back-end dev
- Front-end dev
- Project management
- Dev ops
- Product management
Pasco asked for something digital to replace its scheduling system and prevent increasing its manpower from 2 to 3 — they just weren’t sure what that could be, exactly. No worries. Give us a goal as we’ll go from there.
To this day, developing custom software for Pasco’s operations is one of the most interesting problems we’ve solved. While factory manufacturers batch-process hundreds of thousands of the same part, machine shops like Pasco have much smaller runs. Instead of churning out 600,000 of the same door knob, Pasco might do a run of six valves when a pipe breaks on a farm, and even fabricate one-off parts no longer manufactured by the supplier or, say, a Formula One car in need of a custom component. Unlike the predictable and repeatable process at the door knob factory, each of Pasco’s projects takes a different amount of time and requires different tools, purchase orders, and machinists. Needless to say, scheduling is complex.
Pasco needed a flexible process management system that could plan jobs, manager workers, set priorities, and provide visibility into all areas of the business. In four months, we designed, developed, and deployed a sort of “super calendar” that could do it all.
We build honesty and trust, then solutions
Asking for what you want when you don’t know exactly what you want takes honesty and trust (and some practice). Even in new partnerships it’s important for us to begin the conversation in terms of why and who instead of what and how. A mutual understanding of why and who is what shifts the client/agency relationship into a true partnership — and what allows us to focus on understanding and solving a problem instead of blindly implementing a technical request.
We started building that trust with Pasco on day one. In our first discovery meeting, we asked why Pasco wanted to build a new scheduling system and who would be impacted. Their answer, which started as “some sort of calendar,” became so much clearer: “We want an efficiency tool that reduces the number of people required to manage scheduling — and that our whole team loves to use.” It didn’t take long for Pasco to get really good at this formula. Instead of asking, “Can we add a new section for purchasing?” they’d share, “The project managers want to see when a job is at the purchasing stage so they can buy the necessary supplies without any time lag.”
When we have the context of the why and the who, we’re more equipped to think about all the solutions that are available. There’s almost never just one. Knowing that a key metric of success for Pasco’s new tool was something “our team loves to use” let us rule out a subscription to Asana and a really robust Google spreadsheet. (It had crossed our minds. Custom software is expensive and risky and we’re never afraid to say, “What you really need is already built — by Google, no less!”) But in our discovery meetings and tour of their shop, we learned Pasco’s processes were too complex to use an out-of-the-box solution without some major hacks and annoying workarounds. Likewise, knowing that project managers simply needed increased visibility to a specific stage of a project led us to use existing tags to create a new work center, a solution that was much faster and cheaper than building a separate purchasing center into the workflow.
Bilberrry did a really good job of helping us figure out our actual problem and the best way to solve it. Kylie Story, Project Manager
Getting to MVP ASAP
There are two truths to software development. One, building never stops — you’ll always need to maintain and improve the software. And two, you’ll never be at 100% on launch day. No client or agency, no matter how many years of experience they have, knows what 100% actually is before they’ve rolled it out, used it, and iterated. Delaying launch until you’ve hit that mythic 100% point is futile, and ultimately keeps the data you need to get there just out of reach. (It’s also about as opposite of agile as you can be.) We get to “good enough” as fast as we can and start using the product.
We launched the MVP of Pasco’s process management software at about 85% — it had all the critical core functionality we knew it needed, but we wanted the last leg of development to be based on feedback from real users, not hypothetical brainstormers (us included) who may think of a lot of things, but never imagine what’s actually needed. For example, when the Pasco team started using the MVP, we discovered a fast, easy, and necessary wishlist item we could prioritize on our roadmap: a “filtered view” of all jobs at different stages. Adding it instantly revealed the need for something else: a clear indication of when someone was in a filtered view.
We launched the MVP 16 weeks after our first meeting, got feedback from real users over the next few months, and have been maintaining the full-production version ever since.
Can a nexus of innovation still be called a calendar?
The software we built looks like a calendar, but it’s so much more. Pasco’s custom scheduling tool became a launchpad for new efficiency innovations both large and small. Case in point: in the new system, machinists update their project as they complete a phase. Since they’re already adding notes, it’s natural to include where they left the tool they used for the job. No more searching the next time they need it. Anyone who has ever walked around their home looking for their car keys knows how revolutionary this kind of small efficiency is.
Pasco has experienced all sorts of these efficiencies and innovations. This is in part because the old way is disrupted, and everyone is thinking about best practices and future potential, in part because a huge burden of work is lifted, and in part because the software itself does something that can be applied to another area. Innovation isn’t a single brick in a wall; it’s more like a snowball that gains speed, momentum, and size.
One of the great joys of our job is seeing the impact of our software: a legacy business adds smart tech to one area of the business and unlocks innovative thinking throughout the rest. In early 2020, we started designing a custom enterprise planning tool with Pasco — their existing ERP is slow and because it’s an off-the-shelf solution, it can’t really be tailored to truly execute two of Pasco’s essential processes. When we’re done, one software will be used to manage Pasco’s full suite of resources: inventory, orders, invoicing, scheduling, time tracking and reporting. What an exciting challenge. We’re using the same approach we did to build our super calendar. Stay tuned.