Passing the baton made simple

How well-crafted activity triggers optimize workflow and satisfy customers.

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"Simplify, simplify, simplify." That's what Henry David Thoreau told his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, to which Emerson said something like, "I think one simplify would suffice." On our ERP journey, we have been searching for ways to simplify and lower the costs of doing business.

When we examined how we do business, we found that in spite of advances in technology, our dependence on paper wasn't diminishing. Reducing paper would permit us to manage our head count, minimize the dog-ate-my-order errors and increase our customer service -- and make more money in the bargain.

That's where activity triggers, workflow tools and dashboards come in.

In transaction-oriented businesses, the to-do lists constantly change because of shipping variances, price changes and pesky customer demands. Activity triggers are the heart of task automation; they help determine what's important. Just keeping track of customers' promises to pay requires a staff. Remembering to call a customer weeks after a sale when his special-ordered items have arrived requires our inside salespeople to sort through their call-on-receipt folder several times a day.

Activity triggers are like elves running around inside a computer, matching up promises with events and managing our individual work queues in the process. Workflow tools enable individual work queues to communicate with the others. They are the strings that tie our business activities together. When Mary sells that new widget we don't carry in stock and tells the customer it will be in on Friday, John in purchasing needs to know when it arrives so he can schedule it for next-day air shipment, and Mike in shipping needs to know so he can put in the will-call area for customer pickup.

The combination of activity triggers and workflow tools is what enables high-volume businesses to simplify, simplify, simplify by eliminating formerly paper-based steps. Like a relay team passing the baton, our employees electronically pass along their work without fumbles or delays. Instead of printing, faxing and following up with an e-mail or a phone call, important tasks arrive complete with supporting documentation. Rather than thumbing through sheaves of paper and trying to read scrawled notes, staff members receive onscreen reminders when important tasks are due.

Dashboards then let managers review key indicators and steer the ship. Like activity triggers, they help us focus on what is important, but from a 10,000-foot view. They graphically display key business information that tells us whether we are selling more or less over time, whether gross margins are going up or down and whether our credit policies are too lenient. They tell us whether we are heading in the right direction and act like lighthouses to keep us off the shoals. When we see that warning light, we can drill into the details and take corrective action.

Our new ERP system from Eclipse allows us to turn on activity triggers when we want (and our project team has been busy doing so). The software includes basic workflow tools as well. We will need to bolt on dashboards and customize views for each key role in the company. That work will keep us busy long after the basic ERP system is up and humming.

From the tactical to the strategic, activity triggers, workflow and dashboards help us make better decisions faster. And the simplification they enable is something even Thoreau could appreciate.

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 February issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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