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The perfect consultant: A tale of printers


For every problem, there is a multitude of solutions. Helping clients to find the ideal solution for their issues, is what a consultant does. In this article, I’ll tell the tale of a very German printing problem, that may or may not have really happened. I’ll present three possible solutions, one of them I consider worthy of the ‘perfect consultant’.

Printing…? Like most IT professionals I have a love-hate-relationship regarding printers. These machines seem expensive, loud, slow and often unnecessary, on the other hand, finding a solution to the arcane art of printing (article in German), is always fascinating.

„It’s the form A97! It messes everything up! We have to print one per customer every single week. And it just has so many pages!“

How can a single form mess everything up? Here’s the summary from the client:

  • New regulations require weekly printing of these forms
  • The first person who comes in in the morning turns on the master switch, and the printer starts up
  • A single printer from the 90s serves the whole office floor. Nobody knows when their own stuff is printed out, because 80% of the time the printer is printing form A97
  • Other printouts are intermingled in the A97 forms, get lost and are therefore printed again, making matters worse

The poor consultant

A poor consultant would first replace the old 90s printer with a newer model, increasing throughput. He would of course tell everyone how to switch their configuration to use the new printer. Then he would keep the printer running at night. He would schedule all A97 print jobs to be performed at nighttime, when nobody is in the office. He would establish a process where the first person in the office picks up the stacks of A97 forms and places it somewhere safe, so that no other printouts are mixed in with them. The consultant would document the solution and maybe include some paragraphs on privacy matters.

Sounds like a good idea to you? Why am I referring to this person as the „poor consultant“? Because this solution does not scale. There is a limited number of hours per night, what if there is a significant increase in customers? Also, the solution has no fault-tolerance. If there is a power outage one night, or the printing gets interrupted for any other reason, the issue needs to be fixed the next day, causing the same chaos that was present before.

The mediocre consultant

The mediocre consultant realizes after talking to the staff, that the old 90s printer has actually served everyone well until the A97 form came into place. So he doesn’t touch the old printer.

He leases two new ones and puts them near or in the office of the people who are directly responsible for handling the form. If there’s a problem, they will immediately see the bright red printer displays. He outlines a more sophisticated monitoring solution, that the company can decide to spend money on, if necessary.

The new printers are A97-forms-only. A print server automatically splits the workload between all connected printers. The printers can be put on a timer to limit distractions, if necessary. The consultant documents the steps required to connect a third, fourth, … printer to the print server – and also how to remove a printer from the system again. He has now implemented some redundancy – even if the entire print server is down, there is still the fallback of the old 90s printer. The entire solution can be made SERENE. The consultant has a plan for monitoring and scaling and may have even improved workflows by keeping the printers nearer to the employees. Also, the changes don’t disrupt those who aren’t working with A97.

The perfect consultant

„New regulations require printing out these forms“, the perfect consultant was told, so he’ll first read these regulations. „Can we also e-mail the forms?“, he asks. No, that’s not good enough „Faxed maybe?“ – „A fax… Now that is a possibility.“ Fax software is much easier to scale than printers. It offers integrated monitoring. Physical printers use space, make noise, cost a lot of money, especially for toner and paper – all gone.

This solution even offers the possibility to outsource to an online service that sends out the faxes, depending on the SLA and some legal issues this might be the best option, as it shifts responsibility and taps into the expertise of the external provider.

The perfect consultant questions the initial premises, the requirements and axioms themselves, in a manner that is not annoying but seeking to understand and to find the ideal solution. In this case, A solution that goes beyond what the customer has asked for in terms of cost-efficiency and minimal disruption. Of course, he documents the solution alongside alternatives in a decision log.

When I first thought about the solution for this problem, I have to admit, I did not select the „fax“ solution – it did not even cross my mind. Now the story serves as a reminder to myself to always challenge the status quo, improve processes and don’t take something like „regulations“ or „requirements“ for granted.

Feel free to tell me alternative ideas in the comments.

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