Manage with Care

Enterprise dashboards help LCS managers monitor the health of the business.

by Logan Kugler, November 2011

While many businesses are information-driven, managers in healthcare organizations are often afflicted by data deluge. Patient demographic and clinical data, financial and reimbursement data, and care outcomes must all be tracked for various regulatory agencies. The list of datasources can be exhaustive. And the output can be exhausting, says John Ferin, CIO at Life Care Services (LCS), the nation’s leading developer and manager of senior living communities.

“We’ve always felt we were sort of a data-rich, insight-poor organization,” says Ferin, who recalls a conversation with LCS’s CEO when he interviewed for his current position. The CEO literally took a report, dropped it in Ferin’s lap, and said, “John, somewhere in this three-quarter-inch report are numbers that I should be paying attention to, but I can’t find them.”

It was a visually compelling way to make the point. Critical enterprise data could not be accessed or easily understood by LCS staff—least of all managers whose expertise falls outside of IT. LCS has both internal and external stakeholders—from caregivers to property owners—who need reliable access to business metrics, but they were not going to find the key metrics hidden among reams of paper.

Management at LCS turned to Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition to address this change, believing profitability depends on the ability to accurately predict performance. Generating predictions was a challenge for LCS managers in the past, but Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition is helping to transform LCS to an insight-rich organization. Previously they had to access as many as six systems for the data they can now view in unified dashboards. They even receive alerts when a critical change occurs in the system that demands their attention.

Creating Insight

Established in 1971, today LCS serves more than 30,000 residents around the country in more than 100 retirement communities owned or managed by the company. LCS employees and IT staff use Oracle software and hardware—including Oracle E-Business Suite for enterprise resource planning (ERP), Oracle Database 11g, Oracle Real Application Clusters, and Oracle’s Sun hardware—throughout the enterprise to deliver these services.

At LCS, the IT group led by Ferin has used these Oracle products to fundamentally change the way LCS operates. The Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition system in particular helps LCS management accurately track financials, sales, marketing, and the residential status of the clients LCS serves. “We call it LCS Insight because that was our goal—to take the data and turn it into insight,” says Ferin.

Prior to the Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition implementation, LCS had made several unsuccessful attempts to bring clarity to data that was dispersed across the organization. Ferin, who has now been with LCS for more than four years, says it became clear to him that the organization was underresourced in terms of the technology and staff on hand to solve the data problem.

Faced with a clear mandate from the CEO, Ferin set out to make a lasting change. The first step: hiring a business intelligence (BI) manager. Nick Hopkins stepped into this role in June 2007 and was later joined by two developers. It’s a relatively small department by most standards, says Ferin, but it has had a dramatic positive impact for LCS.

With technical staff on board, LCS set out to prioritize the areas that most needed focus. To aid in this process, a high-level BI steering committee was established that includes the CEO, COO, CFO, and other key players from across the organization. A project team rests underneath that structure.

With the right brainpower in place, Ferin could seek out the technology solution that was best suited to address the BI needs at LCS. “We wanted a solution that could reach deep into the number of operational databases that we run, that would also be very simple for us to use,” he says.

A Team Effort

The time frame was tight for getting the system up and available on a pilot basis to a user group representing senior management, says Hopkins. So the team took a structured approach to this challenge, starting with the identification of existing datasources and then ranking those metrics that were most important to management. An implementation consultant, BI Consulting Group of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was engaged to help out.

One of the technical challenges was drawing the data from disparate systems and moving it into the dashboards. Hopkins says LCS has used Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and mainframe database sources, each of which contains different bits of information that needed to be extracted every night.

Ferin’s team used Oracle Warehouse Builder as its extract, transform, and load (ETL) tool to create mappings and manipulate and import this data into a data warehouse. This warehouse includes data from three operational systems running on SQL Server, as well as financial and payroll data from Oracle E-Business Suite.“We’ve had very consistent performance,” says Hopkins of the data repository the LCS IT team built to support the Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition system. “It’s been able to reach out and get to those datasources that we need.”

In addition to refining the technical aspects of collating data and moving it into the dashboards, the group needed to consider how to best display the information to meet user needs. The solution was to deliver data “at a glance.”

“Within 30 seconds, we wanted someone to be able to log in to the system, view their community, and understand their performance with just a click of a button,” says Hopkins. To make the impact of the performance level even more immediate, key performance indicators (KPIs) were represented with red, yellow, and green stoplights. The initial dashboard was designed for senior management to quickly review performance across the organization, says Hopkins, and a pilot group of senior management was given access.

The rollout was iterative: Hopkins’ group created an initial design, senior managers offered their critique, changes would be made to reflect this input, and a new look or function would be returned to the group for another review. “Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition made it very straightforward to do that,” says Hopkins, who estimates that each section of the system went through three or four design iterations.

The result was the LCS Dashboard, an enterprise view for executives with insight into the performance of each client retirement community. The management team worked together to identify and prioritize specific KPIs and now monitors each of these against the metrics available in the system.

LCS manages properties for other owners, and most properties have oversight boards. These boards need their own dashboards as an overview of the performance of each community. So a special role-appropriate, secure view was created for external stakeholders. Ferin’s team went through the same iterative development process with input from a group of property board members.

With business always changing, Ferin’s team also recognized a need for continuing modification and enhancements to the dashboards. So early in the project, Ferin set a goal that the dashboards would have a new enhancement every 30 days. Part of the reason for this was to help maintain interest and awareness of the dashboards for a year after deployment. “We thought that the process would help give people a new reason to come into the dashboard on a frequent basis to see what we had changed,” he says. “After the dashboards matured, we were able to step away from that. Most of our data is now refreshed on a daily basis, which helps as well.”

Meeting Management Needs

Ferin and Hopkins report that interest and usage of the dashboards has been high. There are currently 580 active users, and there were about 6,000 unique visits in 2010. Users are consistently finding that the dashboards are instrumental in providing them with the intelligence they need to make sound decisions to drive the organization forward.

“Some of our management have actually changed their management practices around the dashboards,” says Ferin. “That’s success to us. We wanted to get to the point where they wouldn’t know how to manage without the dashboards.” And in many cases, he says, they’ve reached that point.

Joel Nelson, executive vice president at LCS, is a fan of the new system. Prior to LCS Insight, says Nelson, data was not easily accessible or always consistent. Today, he can see data from multiple systems on a single interface—and be confident the data is available and accurate. Nelson says the information helps LCS staff identify performance gaps and deploy resources needed for improvements. At a client or facility level, it provides consistent reporting so the board, senior leaders, and operational staff are looking at the same information.

The dashboards have dramatically improved speed and reliability. Nelson says he can now respond immediately to calls and questions. “If I get a call out of the blue from a banker that says ‘Joel, I’m concerned the day’s cash on hand is going to cause us problems on the renewal of our letter of credit,’ for example, I can immediately pull up the dashboard, and we can talk through the trends of that community’s financial performance and ultimately come up with a strategy on the spot and bring the issue to closure.” Previously his team would have to do research and retrieve reports before responding to such a request.

Nelson says the dashboards have also spurred healthy competition among LCS business units. Best practices are identified and used to enhance performance at multiple sites. “It’s given us the opportunity to recognize and reward those who are performing very strongly across the board,” he says.

Ferin notes the dashboards have also led to an unintended sales benefit. Access to operational data is now a selling point for securing new management contracts with retirement communities. “We’re able to show the dashboards they would have access to if they sign up with us,” says Ferin. “It has really turned into a fairly strong marketing tool.”

Into the Future

With the dashboards firmly established as a resource for business stakeholders, the LCS IT team continues to think of ways to use Oracle technology as a management tool. Ferin says the company is moving toward a “third generation” of delivering information—the first generation was paper reports, and the second generation is the dashboards. “The third generation is where the dashboard finds a business condition that people need to be alerted to and, using Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition functionality, the system will send an e-mail basically saying, ‘Hey, here’s something you need to be paying attention to,’” says Ferin. “That represents a significant benefit to management and to LCS.”

Oracle, says Ferin, has provided exceptional support not only from the product standpoint but also in terms of keeping LCS aware of new features and functionality.

Ferin and Hopkins agree that senior management support has really made the project possible. “Some of our best users are our corporate executives and senior managers,” says Ferin. “When they call up an operational manager and say, ‘I see from the dashboard that you’re having issues in this area,’ you can bet that operational manager is paying attention to the dashboard, too.”

This not only benefits LCS; according to Nelson, it benefits the industry as a whole. “We must become more outcome oriented,” he says. “The dashboard is allowing us to improve our performance standards and the services that we provide seniors. That’s the key. It’s an outcome-based system, which is a weakness for our industry. Oracle and the dashboard are helping us get there.”

For More Information

From Execution to Insight
Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition
Oracle Solutions for Data Warehousing

Logan Kugler has written for more than 50 national magazines including Biztech, Success, and PC Magazine.