ERP at work: Preparing for takeoff, one little bang at a time

If our estimates hold, we will complete our ERP project 18 months after we started searching for a new system. We chose carefully, after negotiating for six months. The contract is signed, the celebratory meal is a pleasant, high-calorie memory, and the final toasts to our success have been made.

Now it's time to make this thing work.

One of our first major decisions was the approach: big bang or little bangs? If we chose big bang, converting all of our branches and departments at once, everything would ride on one go-live event. Quick and clean as a scalpel, unless something went wrong. In which case, big bang could take on a much more sinister meaning. After reading so many ERP horror stories over the years, big bang looked to us like a digital version of Godzilla. If we cut the project into phases, however, Godzilla could be transformed into a bunch of harmless, insect-eating geckos.

There's a cliché in project management that says, "Good, fast or cheap: You can only have two." ERP and cheap is an oxymoron, and we swiftly eliminated fast by choosing to convert in several phases. So we're getting just one: good. We decided on the little-bang approach because it would reduce the size of the risks. There are downsides to the little-bang strategy: The project cost goes up and the time to implement increases, and the longer you play, the higher the odds that something will go wrong. But it's not as risky as one big bang.

Building out the phases

Our next step was to plan those little bangs, the increasingly complex and critical phases. These would include operating procedure analyses, training, site certifications, testing and a go-live event. Together they would result in a sure-footed project plan and a solid implementation that would lay the groundwork for making great decisions inthe future.

Procedures could prove to be the most challenging. Like buildings in an Old Western boomtown, some of our existing procedures are more historical artifacts than good design. In a very real way, our business operations are the result of -- and sometimes limited by -- our business software. This analysis is a fresh-start opportunity to do things better.

One of the reasons we chose our ERP partner was its commitment to Six Sigma. To quote officials at General Electric, an early adopter of this quality system, "Six Sigma is a highly disciplined process that helps ... focus on developing and delivering near-perfect products and services." One of the byproducts of this process is an extensive library of standard operating procedures. Our entire leadership team is committed to a strategy of not altering those procedures unless there is a demonstrable business benefit to doing so. While we all know there will be modifications, this guiding strategy will hopefully minimize them.

Our new system requires more than 400 operating procedures. Our internal team of 20 members, after training on the new system for a week, started working with 10 of our partner's experts to vet and refine this list. Our team is made up of front-line leaders who are spending half their time away from their usual productive roles, talking and planning. Keeping them engaged and not thinking about the mountains of paper growing on their desks is a constant concern. We also have to factor in vacations, sick days and a certain amount of distraction from emails and phone calls that must be returned.

Working with front-line people to redefine how they do their jobs is a fantastic opportunity to truly understand the clockworks of the company. Putting CIOs in harness with COOs makes the best team for bringing the power of technology to bear. (CIOs take note: This is also a great way to earn your place at the leadership table.)

Proceeding from the inside out

Early on, we decided that we wouldn't convert any real-time customer-facing functions in the first phase. If we screwed up, we wanted to keep it in the family, and then work like dogs to make sure it wouldn't affect the customer. Our back-office accounting functions will go live first. They also have the advantage of proximity to project resources. Delaying statements and check-printing runs is much less risky than explaining to a customer who didn't receive a shipment that we have a new computer system.

We believe the smartest dollars we will spend will be in training our own people, so training and consulting are the largest line items in our implementation budget. They represent about 40% of the total.

My experience with successful software training is a little like my experience with profitable Vegas trips. But I'm hoping we can beat the house through our commitment of time and money and the specialized nature of the software. We will train our trainers, who will train power users, who will in turn help train our front-line associates. Each branch will need to be certified before go-live. An overall testing rate of 80% or better and a positive subjective assessment by trainers will be required or the go-live won't happen.

About six weeks after training begins, we will do a mock go-live. If all goes well, we'll go live with a group of branches the following weekend. We plan to do this four times in six months.

It all seems so simple, doesn't it?

Since we conceded early on to not having the project done fast or cheap, we will concentrate on doing things right. If we miss our completion date by a couple of months, we will lose the benefits of the software for a sixth of a year. If we implement before we're ready, the company loses hard dollars, real customers and our partner's confidence. We have set aggressive goals and matched them up with high-profile metrics. We are meeting weekly, reviewing progress toward milestones and managing issues as they arise.

Now we need to address the true black arts: marketing and change management. We don't know exactly how we're going to market the project to our associates, just that we must. Our marketing department will come back soon with a campaign, probably involving T-shirts, pens and inspirational messages on too-sweet candies. But we'll all be "on message."

Then there are the days when I wonder if Dr. Wayne W. Dwyer or Dr. Phil is available. The pushback from individuals who don't want to change (even if it will make their lives better) will come in the form of 101 reasons why we've always done it this way. We'll hear about how there is no reason to change or why we can't do it that way anyway because it won't work. You get the picture. Just anticipating all that is keeping me awake at night.

We want to create cheerleaders who will sell this new ERP system as yet another reason for doing business with us. We want to engender an environment where success stories are being bandied about the water cooler. We have a strong team, a good plan and the right attitude. There is an almost tangible air of excitement in our meetings.

In a month I'll know a lot more about operating procedures -- ours and theirs -- and just how good the fit feels. I'll also know what magic the marketing guys have cooked up, and whether Drs. Wayne and Phil will need to come to the rescue.

Next: We'll hack our way through the jungle of standard operating procedures and customize our training.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. Write to him at ERPJourney@ciodecisions.com. This column originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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