Forging Strategic Synergy Between IT and Galvanized Steel

Charlene Oldham Forefront Exclusive, Foresight, IT Leave a Comment

As VP of IT and CIO at Trinity Industries, Tammy Gilbert discusses streamlining and transforming her department to make it the most effective business partner it can be.

By Charlene Oldham

As a heavy-duty manufacturer of everything from railcars to wind towers, Trinity Industries doesn’t seem the obvious testing ground for cutting-edge technology. But, as vice president of IT and chief information officer, it is Tammy Gilbert’s mission to discover how technology can even improve processes as elemental as galvanizing steel.

“You can’t get simpler than dipping steel in zinc,” said Gilbert, who explained the plant manager was initially skeptical about the value of new technological tools. “As it turned out, when we really looked at his business processes, particularly inventory and accounting, we were able to drive out over a month of invoice processing man time by just streamlining his technology. It’s really looking from the business inside, not from the IT out.”

Transforming Technology

That external focus has evolved as information technology departments everywhere moved from being seen as in-house troubleshooters to valuable business partners that could do more than repair printers and restore internet access. But Gilbert says IT departments still have to walk a fine line, balancing practical considerations with other departments’ desires to fix things fast.

“I think 15, 20 years ago, we were seen as an internal service provider and a bureaucratic provider at that. So the internal IT teams began to transform,” she said. “But we still have to be the voice of reason. We have to be the group that says, ‘We have to think about security. We have to think about business requirements, technical requirements, functional requirements. And those are bureaucratic concepts to a business that just wants to solve a simple problem.”

To balance bureaucracy and business sense, Gilbert pairs employees with decades of experience on plant floors with IT staffers who can look at processes with a fresh set of eyes and technology acumen. This has worked exceptionally well she says, because Trinity’s corporate culture already emphasized collaboration over competition.

“Here, what wins out over competition is the overall success of the company,” she said.

“Mobility is one of the first and foremost ideals. Everyone wants to be mobile. But what does that really mean in a manufacturing environment? So we’re looking at mobility in a different way. It’s more than just handing someone a smartphone or handing a tablet. It’s never going to be one size fits all.”
Gilbert also encourages IT employees to get out of the office and into the field whenever possible. Real-world experience makes it easier to empathize when the network at a plant goes down for a few days and people become frustrated when their work slows to a crawl.

First-hand experience also makes the tech team less likely to suggest new gear that might have few practical applications or may need to be customized to fit users’ needs and business goals. Instead, her staff is able to suggest specific applications that match particular business processes and make modifications based on field observations they’ve made themselves.

“Mobility is one of the first and foremost ideals. Everyone wants to be mobile. But what does that really mean in a manufacturing environment? So we’re looking at mobility in a different way. It’s more than just handing someone a smartphone or handing them a tablet,” Gilbert said. “It’s never going to be one size fits all. To me, it’s more important to know how the business operates than how the technology operates. So, first learn the business, then go learn the technology.”

Partners Inside and Out

Trinity is also more open than ever before to input from vendor partners who may be able to share best practices and suggest solutions that don’t occur to the internal IT team. Since joining the Dallas-based company in 2012, Gilbert has worked to move from strictly vendor-client relationships with providers including Dell and AT&T into strategic partnerships in which vendors offer innovative options that allow Trinity to improve quality and enable growth. In one recent instance, contract negotiators for AT&T were able to offer a solution that streamlined some of Trinity’s day-to-day voice, data and networking tasks, alleviating some of the workload on Gilbert’s in-house IT staff.

“We meet on a very regular basis with our vendor partners. If I have to come up with all the ideas, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. So what I need is a collaborative group of people who are going to bring together multiple ideas that are going to generate the best idea among them,” she said. “That’s not a relationship that was there in the past. So it’s been a complete change in the last year and a half.”

Critical Questions

tammy gilbertGilbert isn’t afraid to shake things up if it means a more-effective organization emerges in the end. It’s a lesson she learned from a female mentor at Sabre Holdings who had mastered the art of gracefully offering feedback, new ideas and even criticism, all without “ruffling any feathers.”

“She was a bold thinker and she never hesitated to question the status quo,” Gilbert said. “If you don’t stop and ask the questions, things become stagnant. And I learned to do that very early in my career thanks to her.”

Gilbert’s mentor also posed questions to her, often asking what she wanted to do. It took Gilbert a while to realize her role model wasn’t simply asking her how she planned to approach short-term situations.

“She was truly asking the broader question, ‘What are your aspirations in life and your career,’” Gilbert explained.  “I like to say about half my career happened to me, and the other half happened because of me, and that was the turning point.”

Before coming to that crossroads, Gilbert had been assigned many large projects because of her innate ability to organize and get groups of people moving in the same direction. But she wasn’t always equally interested in or qualified for every project she oversaw. Before moving to Sabre, she was asked to manage a project team at American Airlines that accomplished its goals, but busted its schedule and its budget in the process.

“Not only was it tough on me, it was tough on the entire team,” she said. “Frankly, I had zero project management skills. Organizational skills and project management skills are sometimes two very different things. And, in hindsight, I probably should not have taken that role.”

But the experience and insights from others encouraged her to examine her career, get some training and take steps to position herself on a path she eventually wanted to take. It also taught her it was okay to turn opportunities down, something Gilbert said all young executives hesitated to do in those days — especially if they were women — for fear another offer might not come their way. But times have changed and, as a supervisor, Gilbert makes it known that she respects those who turn down opportunities for solid reasons. As a result, she works hard to find the right role for them or the training they need to succeed at the next level.

“Be bold enough to turn something down,” she advises.

That advice extends even to job offers. Asking tough questions about corporate culture and growth goals as an interviewee was unheard of when she entered the field, but she believes it’s essential for applicants today to find the right fit. IT professionals looking to explore the latest innovative technologies might not be the best match for Trinity, but could be ideal for the startup down the street, and those who are as comfortable on the factory floor as in an office environment might love the mix Trinity offers. There is one thing both businesses have in common, though.

“Tech companies offer leading edge technology. Old-line companies offer opportunities for transformation,” she said. “But, clearly, no company wants to invest in someone who doesn’t want to be there.”

Gilbert’s Keys to Success

Over the course a quarter century in the rapidly evolving IT industry, Gilbert has been part of many turnarounds and transformations. In that time, she’s seen that the biggest pitfall to progress isn’t lack of vision or execution on the executive level, it’s failing to maintain open channels of communication between everyone from fellow executives to front-line employees.

“Not being aligned on what you’re trying to do, how you’re trying to do it and when. That will crater any transformation program faster than anything else,” said Gilbert, who earned a computer science degree from Texas Christian University in 1988. “I will tell you the death of a transformation program is lack of communication.”

The keys to success are repeat communications and open access to executives and other change agents. Managers must then make sure everyone understands and embraces critical messages and goals through discussions and feedback from roundtables, town hall meetings and surveys. Finally, those who demonstrate their own desire to change through actions and work habits should be recognized and rewarded, Gilbert said.

“It’s those two-way communication flows that are so important.”

Charlene Oldham

Contributing Writer at Forefront Magazine
Charlene Oldham is a St. Louis-based teacher and freelancer.

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