At the end of the month, the company compared the process for reconciling the inventory using the database created by the distributors' online input with the manual process of reconciling all the paperwork that the distributors had filed over the past month. Not surprisingly, the automated process won hands-down. "We were done in about five minutes," says Zertuche in describing the impact of the automated process, "while the guy that actually does the reconciliation on paper was still adding up all the paperwork. We basically went from a three-day process to just running a report at the end of the month."
With the pilot a success, Blue Rhino rolled the system out to the rest of its distributor network. The company now has an automated ordering process that allows the distributors to work through the Web-based portal to order cylinders. The workflow allows Blue Rhino to set spending limits for the distributors and provide approval codes authorizing orders. When an order is placed through the portal, the system generates a notice to the receiving area for the cylinders, which the receiving area can then use to approve the shipment or reject it upon arrival if the shipment's contents differ from what's in the paperwork that the system automatically generates. The portal also allows the parties to generate the necessary bill of lading and, importantly, Department of Transportation documentation to accompany shipments of the cylinders back and forth — a key feature since it allows Blue Rhino to quickly update the necessary forms as the government introduces new documents or requirements.
The portal provides the distributors with a calendar showing incoming and outgoing loads of cylinders for varying timeframes (the month, the week, a given day), essentially providing them with a tool kit for running their business with Blue Rhino. On Blue Rhino's end, the constantly updated information on where cylinders are in the pipeline has given top management visibility into the state of the company's assets at any given moment. This has afforded them greater control over inventory, as they now have the ability to order and transfer inventory between the distributors as necessary to meet ebbs and flows in demand, according to Zertuche.
With the inventory and cylinder procurement processes behind them, Zertuche and her team have gone on to automate other processes at the company, including the IT change control management process, an internal process that allows Blue Rhino employees to request changes to internal systems. The main benefit of this process has been to help the company satisfy Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires that all internal controls with a direct effect on financial reporting be documented. This process also helps to segregate duties of employees. Elsewhere, the company's Customer Care department now has automated processes for ordering, replacing and shipping parts, as well as handling warranties, among other things. This process links up with the company's inventory system to track inventory numbers.
But Zertuche says that one of the greatest benefits the solution has brought to the company has been the greater degree of integration that the automated processes have afforded between Blue Rhino's dispersed facilities. "The system, being so visible and so easy to use, allowed production facilities to produce for other areas that they hadn't produced for before," she says. "So when there are areas affected by things like the hurricanes that we've experienced, and one production facility is not be able to service those distribution areas in total, it's much easier to automatically involve other production facilities to serve those areas. That's a huge win right upfront."