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ERP Journey: How Our ERP Consultants Led Us in the Right Direction

Every foray into uncharted territory needs a guide who knows the way.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the expedition by Lewis and Clark, the explorers who set out to find a waterway across America, were humbled by the enormity of the challenge and discovered riches in the end. As we celebrate their success, it is fitting to remember that it was due in part to an Indian princess who served as their guide. Sacagawea led the group through peril to a safe haven because she knew the country and local culture.

Sacagawea could serve as a model for consultants today. She assimilated into the group, ensured that she was on familiar ground before offering advice and made herself invaluable by bringing in the right resources at the right time.

Likewise, we expect our ERP consultants to be intimately familiar with their landscape: the industry in which they specialize and the software tools their company sells. But they also need to understand the culture of their clients.

Ours measured up better on some counts than others.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Sacagawea had the advantage of working and living with the expedition long before she made her contribution. Consultants don't have the time for such advance work. If ours had, we would have let them loose at our sales counters and in our warehouses. They would have had the "local" knowledge to build a bridge between their software and the environment in which they placed it.

Instead, we spent precious days as they learned our business on our dollar. Deadlines started to slip. But delays were also due to the failure of our consultants to understand that the goal was to blend their best practices with our own. A not-invented-here syndrome, their mistake was an absolute faith in their product and their way of doing things. They may have done well to heed a quote I have inscribed on a paperweight from Michelangelo when he was 84 years old: "I am still learning." Consultants are too.

Speaking in the Native Tongue

But our consultants performed more like Sacagawea in other ways. At the end of their time together, Sacagawea led Lewis and Clark to her village and connected them with people who got them the provisions they needed. Similarly, the ability of our consultants to offer additional resources by calling on subject matter experts is the difference between success and failure. Our guides made a slew of specialists available for teleconferences and webinars on topics like e-commerce and inventory management.

They also resembled Sacagawea in their attitude: helpful, cheerful and loyal. As we close in on a year working long days side by side, our consultants tell jokes with our staff and often say "we" instead of "they" when they talk about our company.

Like the Indian princess, our guides now understand us. They speak our language, and we theirs. They know that our turn-and-earn formula measures how profitably we manage inventory; we know they call that GMROI (pronounced "GUM-roy," which stands for gross margin return on investment).

As their specialized knowledge of what makes our company unique has grown more valuable by the day, they have become family. But our crossing has often resembled the squall-driven waters of the Missouri River. No one has spoken of mutiny, but there have been times when locking someone below deck didn't seem like such a bad idea.

We still have several months to go before we break out the champagne. But before too long, our guides will move on to the next job. Like Lewis and Clark, we hope to be well equipped to finish the journey on our own.

Next: Six weeks before go-live, we hit a pain point.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. To comment on this story, email

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