The first thing you think of is the control room of the USS Enterprise. The massive visual displays at the front of the room and the banks of computers facing them immediately beam you up to the deck of Star Trek's storied starship.
Then you see the people gathered around the screens at the front of the cavernous room. They're all gazing at the electronic displays, checking row after row of names and numbers — and then you think that perhaps you're in the operations room of a sports-betting parlor in a Las Vegas casino.
The screens are indeed scoreboards, and the room is in fact a control center — but it's neither the starship Enterprise nor a casino. Actually, the room is us West's network-reliability operations center, in Littleton, Colorado, and the screens and numbers track the vitality of the phone company's most basic offering: the telephone dial tone. Simply by looking at the names and numbers on the big boards, the 700 us West people who work in this room can instantly see how the company is performing — where customers in 14 states are having problems with their phones, and how many people are affected by the problems.
The proposition is a simple one: In an information economy, nothing is more essential — or more valuable — to a company than real-time information. Yet most companies don't design their workplaces to accommodate the widespread sharing or display of critical information. All too often, for example, office workers have computers on their desks, but the machines aren't configured to permit easy data sharing. Also, regardless of the machinery, the people who sit in front of those machines often hoard the data before them. And most companies never think of erecting a large-scale, public scoreboard that posts company or customer-critical information in a way that not only makes it readily available to all workers but also sends the unmistakable message that sharing information is everyone's job.
There are some notable exceptions to this lack of information sharing: At Chevron, a company with $1.3 billion in net income, employees often meet to share information and to exchange ideas in one of many visualization centers scattered throughout the oil company's San Francisco headquarters. These centers let people gather around enormous screens and project the data and graphics of their choice. For instance, Chevron geologists often use the centers to show locations of current oil fields and to display subsurface seismic surveys that will help them find new reservoirs of oil. In both cases, the aim is to boost the amount of oil the company can extract by using different technologies and drilling techniques. In other companies, scoreboards are designed to generate real-time performance monitoring. At Micron Electronics's factory, in Nampa, Idaho, which manufactures computers for direct sale, a large overhead scoreboard tracks defects, breakdowns along assembly lines, daily and weekly goals, and the company's stock price.
Still, very few companies have attempted to put information at the center of a space as large as the one at us West.
The big idea: "Five years ago, we saw all of the competition in the telecommunications business coming," says Barbara Anders, 46, one of the center's directors. "At that time, we had more than 100 minicenters scattered throughout our region, each of which tracked problems in one city or in one corner of a particular state. We hoped that by consolidating most of those centers into one megacenter, the people who worked there would learn the best ways to handle particular problems." The only way to do that was to make it possible for every employee to understand what crises were affecting the network at any given moment — which, in turn, led to the scoreboards that put information at the center of the company's space. "Businesses reorganize all the time, but often the only evidence workers see of the change is a new organizational chart," says Tom Powers, 39, a Chicago-based architect with the work-space consulting firm Space LLC, who helped design the center. "If physical modifications accompany the organizational modifications, it's easier to make change a reality."
From the outside, the center doesn't look like much. The beige corrugated-metal building, once a tire-manufacturing facility, sits in a bland Denver suburb. Apparently, the word on the building's aesthetic drawbacks got out early on: us West initially anticipated that 65% of its eligible employees would relocate to the site; in fact, only 35% actually moved to the new center. To preserve more of its workforce, the company eventually decided to allow some satellite centers to remain open in other states.
But workers who avoided the hassle of relocating may have missed out on all the technical wonders that the Littleton center has to offer. Here's how the center works: Eight screens show data on the performance of customers' phone lines. The screens, which are updated every five minutes, alert workers to the location and nature of specific outages throughout a 14-state region. The most serious problems — the ones that affect the largest numbers of customers — are shaded in red; less-severe outages are shaded in yellow and in green. Once they become aware of a problem, technical managers, who sit in the front row of the room, attempt to make their own diagnoses. They then call on the hundreds of experts who sit behind them for help in solving the problem.
Every major technical group is represented in the room, from people who monitor equipment alarms in the field to those who set up lines for new service. It usually takes only a minute or two for someone in the front row to find someone to help out. One morning, for example, a mysterious network gridlock showed up on the big board. That problem was the result of thousands of people trying to call one merchant that had just received a shipment of Beanie Babies. To solve the problem, managers put a control on the number of calls that went over that area's trunk line, allowing the store's neighbors to make outgoing calls.
By putting crucial, real-time data at everyone's fingertips, us West has learned several lessons that apply beyond their workplace. First, few businesses are immune to the course of current events. So in addition to the screens that track the company's current network outages, the center also has continuous feeds from the Weather Channel and from CNN — broadcasts that track the events that can cause big problems in the us West network. During bad weather, the Weather Channel helps on-site managers at us West predict where tornadoes may affect phone service. And CNN keeps the staff in touch with breaking news that can immediately change call patterns. A case in point: Last spring, us West staff in the Littleton center watched in horror as students fled screaming from Columbine High School, located just a few miles away. As awful as the news was, the information gave employees a lead on the breaking tragedy. Immediately, they began preparing for the flood of calls into and out of the region.
Second, us West has learned how access to information can offer employees a deeper learning experience. That is particularly true for the company's front-row technical managers, who are promoted from the "expert ranks" seated at the back of the room. "Managers have expertise in a couple of different fields, so we're constantly teaching one another what we know and learning from those who know more in other areas," says Kathleen Rhodes, a 31-year-old technical manager who has been a frontline worker for about a year and a half. That front-row experience virtually guarantees employees exposure to a broad range of problems across the company's system. "Being a technical manager helps employees to understand the overall concept of the network," says Barbara Anders. "Plus, they have to tap into every part of the organization to solve problems. People who work in the front row for long enough can do it all, because they've seen it all."
Finally, having access to so much information can help prevent future outages. us West saves most of the flashes of red and other indications of significant problems, and every Friday a group meets to figure out how problems first got started. Included in these meetings are such experts as technical manager Karen Eccli. Eccli, 49, and her colleagues — known as "the piranha ladies" for their ability to chew up data — are responsible for filing reports to state and federal authorities when an outage occurs. "We don't use names or even genders," Eccli says. "But because human error causes an estimated 65% of all service outages, we do want to recognize patterns. So if we can train people better or anticipate problems more easily, we want to know about it. The nice thing about meeting with everyone is that when someone isn't responding to an email about a recent problem, we can drag that person by the arm into our pod."
Ron Lieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Visit US West (www.uswest.com), Chevron (www.chevron.com), and Micron Electronics (www.micronpc.com) on the Web.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.