Running With the Big Dogs

Two of the innovations that single out Time Warner Houston as system of the year are the way management has motivated tech manpower and how they’ve handled the challenge to quickly introduce advanced services.

The system, which passes 1.7 million homes in Houston and 62 neighboring communities, has an installed base of Motorola Inc. set-top boxes. But executives wanted the features embedded in competitor Scientific-Atlanta Inc.’s Explorer 8300 boxes. Versions of that set-top have digital video recorders and HDTV tuners.

The solution gave Houston the best of both worlds: an engineering overlay. That allows the division to keep the 500,000 Motorola set-tops it has already deployed in the field, while meeting demand for a more advanced box. To date, consumers have ordered 45,000 S-A DVRs, according to Keith Coogan, vice president of operations. The system began deploying the overlay technology late in 2004.

Houston Takes the Lead

The overlay had been available for some time, but Time Warner Houston became the first major system to deploy it, says Burchall Cooper, vice president and general manager of product strategy and development for subscriber networks at S-A.

“Having a system as large and complex as Houston [adopt the technology] added credibility,” he says. “They helped us resolve any issues with the technology.”

The overlay solution made sense because Time Warner needed the competitive advantage afforded by the S-A boxes but the company didn’t want to pull the Motorola stock. That would be too capital intensive, Coogan says.

Plus, “you gain a competitive foothold between Motorola and S-A, and that’s never a bad thing,” Coogan says.

“Ron [McMillan, Houston division president] probably sleeps better knowing he has choices,” says Michael Harney, corporate senior vice president and president of subscriber networks for S-A.

“While Time Warner has used overlay technology in Houston, Motorola remains a strong and committed technology partner and our companies continue to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship,” Motorola spokesperson Angie Britt says. “We continue to discuss how Motorola may best work with Time Warner on next-generation opportunities such as the seamless convergence of video, voice and data.”

Headaches Avoided

Operators are fearful that the use of an overlay can force them to hire more staff to answer more calls. And it could add confusion over differing consumer interfaces. But Coogan says none of those issues have surfaced. Engineering the headends was time consuming, but ultimately it went smoothly, he says.

Most of the high-end boxes have been self-installed, saving Time Warner the cost of most truck rolls, Coogan adds. Of the first 28,000 deployed, only 400 required technical assistance and many of those were from technophobes who didn’t want to attempt the install.

S-A also stepped up with marketing dollars to support the deployment of the advanced services set-tops.

Despite the integration of a competing vendor, Houston retains a good relationship with Motorola and will buy other solutions from them, including high-definition DVRs, Coogan says.

As for S-A, the Houston experience has led to greater acceptance of the overlay. So far 12 systems have launched it, mostly other Time Warner Cable operations. Those markets include St. Augustine, Cape Coral and Lake City, Fla.; Beaumont, Harlingen and Laredo, Texas; Terre Haute, Ind.; Clarksburg, W.Va.; Houma and La Place, La..; Dothan, Ala.; and Ft. Benning, Ga. Other deployments are pending but not ready to be announced, the company says.

“We’ve taken a few customers to Houston, and they always come back impressed,” says Harney.

S-A executives estimate that 140,000 set-tops have been deployed in overlay systems, with 120,000 of them DVR capable.

While Houston has been a hardware innovator, management has also focused on standout programs with its manpower, too. The company sets a high bar for its 800 technicians, and those workers know it.

The technical ranks participate in the “Big Dog” program. Each worker is judged by the number of calls made, with deductions made for fix-it callbacks. The process results in a three-digit score.

Big Dog Results Posted

In the staging areas, the results are posted, so everyone knows who the No. 1 Big Dog is. And everyone knows who No. 800 is. “Those at the bottom get managed out through peer pressure,” says Coogan, noting that no one wants to be teamed with poor performers.

Top performers get rewarded with a great carrot: The top 10 and their spouses are treated to an all expenses-paid trip to Cancun, Mexico.

The 2004 winners received their reward in February.

“It was 88 degrees in Cancun. It was 40 when we left Houston. They were pretty happy,” Coogan says.

It can be a big group — support staff such as dispatchers and group leaders can qualify for a chance for the trip, as well. But Coogan clarifies those winners aren’t Big Dogs, but honored “members of the pound.”

Events are held throughout the year, such as a recent crawfish barbecue and an upcoming Big Dog Day at a Houston Astros Major League Baseball game.

The program has proven very popular.

“We ask, 'What’s your ranking? Are you going to Cancun with us next year?’ Even when I go to pole-climbing school, they already know about it. One guy came up to me and says 'My name’s Winston. Remember me, I’ll be going with you to Cancun next year,’ ” Coogan says.

A Stable Workforce

With all that pressure to perform, the workforce still is pretty stable. Coogan says the screening process tries early on to weed out applicants who aren’t “people persons.”

“We try really hard to wash them out early on,” he says.

Program enhancements are always under consideration. Coogan says he’s trying to arrange a special Big Dog truck for each year’s winner to drive.

The program is funded out of Coogan’s department budget. The executive says the expenditure is worth it if the company can provide superior service, such as the ability to offer two-hour service windows, a standard that Houston hits 89% to 92% of the time. “And we’re still shooting for 100%,” he says.