Software Solutions

January 1, 2008
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As the chemical industry faces tougher regulations, the need for strong business processes grows more intense. Manufacturers need robust operational management from manufacturing down through the entire supply chain. This article explains how to implement Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP) and other software on time, on task, and on budget.



When employing new business software, implementing on time and on budget is no accident. As with any project plan, a detailed and methodical process must be used to ensure success. A plan for implementing new enterprise software is no different than any major project a corporation takes on; it requires time and resources, the involvement of the entire organization, and a considerable amount of research, planning, and reevaluation along the way.

The best project is well thought out and fully researched. It is not limited to a budget and timeline, but focuses on tasks, owners, goals and milestones. It begins at the time of software selection and goes well beyond its live date. And, although most projects will stumble along the way, successful, on-time and on-budget implementations are possible if managed properly.

Review Key Business Objects & Long-Term Goals

The first - and probably most overlooked - step is to review key business objects and future organizational goals. New business software is usually driven by specific failures within the current system and thus focus heavily on these requirements. The new business software must be able to support not only existing user requirements but also allow for the growth and future direction of the organization as a whole.

Taking time to review long-term corporate goals will help provide the right balance to the overall project. It will ensure the project is not focused too heavily on one area of need or one specific department.

This concept is referred to as the top-down approach, because it starts with the executives of the organization and then flows down to the functional levels. Since this corporate direction is established at the executive level, the executive staff must be the starting place for defining project scope and building the system’s requirements.

Establish a Team and Define a Leader

The need for acquiring new software is typically driven by few, but it is felt by the masses. Frequently, a few overzealous employees take on the project and believe they can manage it themselves. Although this is always done with good intentions, it leaves the project open to unending delays due to resource constraints. A software implementation is more work than any one individual can manage. Even the most well-meaning type-A individual will quickly realize implementations can be overwhelming if not managed with a solid set of resources.

To keep the implementation on target, a project manager should be appointed and given the task of leading the team’s efforts. It is important to maintain a single point of contact to form project continuity. As for the other participants, a well-rounded team is best, with representatives spread across the organization from multiple functional areas. Official team members need to be named and given the time to work on the project at hand. The project will take time, so a shifting of their non-critical assignments needs to occur so they can give the project the attention it requires.

A good team and a solid leader will help catapult the project to success, whereas a lackluster group will doom the project before it even starts.

Prepare a Project Plan, and Meet and Reevaluate Frequently

As with any project, a plan is critical. The project plan includes a definition of the project's structure, scope, and individual phases and tasks.

In general, project communication and tracking of controls is accomplished in Gantt charts, PERT networks, and progress reports. These documents are tools the project team needs in order to fully understand the scope of the project and its constraints, as well as to be cognizant of timing considerations as the project progresses.

On-time implementations are based on projects running smoothly and individual tasks being completed as scheduled. Not even the best project team can plan for every condition that may occur, but they can manage problems more effectively if they meet frequently enough to review the progress, discuss changes, and reevaluate as issues arise.

The whole idea of project scope and a documented plan may seem very simplistic to those not familiar with the magnitude of this type of project. Companies tend to focus on problem areas and ignore the organization as a whole. All too often, an implementation team will get well down the selection or implementation path only to find they lack key requirements. They realize months into implementation that the warehouse or sales force lack necessary tools for success. And when they revisit their short list of suppliers - or worse, their chosen software- - they see it lacks solid functionality in the areas of CRM or WMS. They then place blame on the software, when in fact they never reviewed these areas thoroughly enough when defining the project scope.

Preparing a plan and making it a living document is the only way to keep the selection and implementation process on track.

Research and Prepare a Budget

One of the most common areas of frustration and delay is the project budget. Overeager project managers tend to underestimate the cost of software, hardware and implementations just to get the project moving. Not only does this cause much angst among the executives, it often times stops the project flat. Budgetary mistakes and lack of funding put more projects on hold than virtually any other reason. For the most part, this is completely due to lack of education, because the price of ERP software and related services shifts little from year to year.

Researching market prices for the right tier of software, knowing realistic implementation rates and understanding hardware requirements will help keep both the accountants and stakeholders happy. There are a number of well-established and independent websites that can help provide a clear understanding of realistic license costs, hardware requirements, and implementation rates. Or, if necessary, the team leader can interview a few software vendors to get an idea of pricing. Software developers and resellers will share guidance numbers very early on in the process. This helps qualify prospects and ensures that the project leader is establishing a realistic budget.

Define Clear Requirements and Project Goals

It bears repeating that functional requirements and project goals need to be established early on and in very clear and specific terms. And "requirements," by definition, does not mean "invoicing." Almost all ERP packages can invoice, so very specific requirements need to be documented and communicated to the vendor in question. Does the organization have specialized needs for invoicing? Does the organization have issues with the current process? If so, what are they, and what is the utopian process? Can the new package manage this flow or these unique requirements?

The requirements definition portion of the selection process is of vital importance to successfully purchase, implement and utilize the new software. The team can only select and implement the best software if it is aware of the business requirements driving the new software purchase.

Frequently, a corporation enters into a software selection project, interviews suppliers, reviews the various suppliers’ software packages and purchases the software without ever knowing the true needs of the organization’s users. These are the same corporations that later fault the software supplier for “selling them a bill of goods.” These are often the same organizations who never fully implement the software, and once again find themselves in the selection process within a just few short years.

These companies have been “sold,” but have done so by their own doing. As with any product for sale, the software supplier will provide their software solution in the best possible light and generally in the manner to which they have become accustomed. It is, therefore, not the software supplier but the selection team that is at fault. This may sound harsh, but software vendors have experienced many cases over the years where the selection team is unwilling to review their own functionality requirements and is thus incapable of truly determining the fit of various software packages. This is a very unnecessary and disappointing outcome for many software selection projects.

Select the Right Package

Select the right package for the right reasons. Do not accept glitzy PowerPoint presentations or slick salespeople. Dive into the software supplier’s organization, product, support team, and long-term objectives. Do the due diligence of reviewing full-day demonstrations, checking references and talking to key executives. Document everything. After reviewing multiple demonstrations, the systems tend to meld together into one large mess. The selection team needs to clearly evaluate and document each presentation, meeting, or customer visit. This will be well worth the time in the end.

Buying software is like entering into a lengthy partnership. For better or worse, this relationship will last for years, therefore it needs a solid foundation. Much like marriage, aligning ethics, desires and goals are the best method for finding a suitable technology partner.

Testing

The time has come to really get to the heart of the implementation. Testing is futile without the right package, which is why so much time and effort is placed on the selection process. Having said that, testing is critical for success.

Establishing and executing a comprehensive test plan with good test data is paramount for success. This test plan must address the core business processes used within the organization to prove that consistent and predictable results will occur when processes are executed in a production environment.

Some suppliers will provide sample test plans, or they may be available via online user community resources. Regardless of the plan’s origin, it must be updated with customer-specific requirements and mimic the actual workflow needed for day-to-day operations.

This test plan is a working and living document. It should not be archived once initial testing is complete. It should be updated for major business changes and given new life at each subsequent software upgrade. Flawless execution requires thorough and carefully considered testing.

Data Migration

The successful migration of data involves much more than merely extracting and importing files. It is an ongoing process that should occur numerous times before going live.

Data migration includes extracting pertinent data from the existing legacy systems, cleansing the data for any errors or inaccuracies, importing the data into the new ERP environment, and then verifying that the data came across correctly. Again, the word testing comes back into play.

Software vendors will assist their customers in successfully migrating legacy data through a series of iterative test migrations and data validation processes. Of course, this is not the software developer’s data, so the team is ultimately responsible for making sure it is accurate and working properly within the new system. The software vendor can provide a means by which the data is imported, and they can provide guidance on what has or has not worked in the past. The team is ultimately responsible for making sure the right data is migrated and that it works to the entire team’s expectations.

Training the End Users and Technical Staff

Adequately training functional users and technical resources is timely and expensive. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable. Without proper training, users will be frustrated and confused, and will immediately have a negative reaction toward the new system. This will no doubt produce a failed implementation each and every time.

Permit the software developer or reseller to train the core implementation team early on in the implementation process, midway through the implementation process, and right before going live with the system. End users should be trained shortly before the system goes live, although certainly not at the last minute. There has to be enough time to run through multiple training sessions so each and every user is comfortable with the system. This will prevent unnecessary chaos and will help detect any unknown issues prior to the actual launch of the system in a real production environment.

Seek Outside Assistance if Needed

Third-party, independent consultants can quickly turn a floundering team or project into an implementation powerhouse. Most companies only purchase and implement business software every five, 10 or 15 years. They are not well versed on the subject and shouldn't be due to the lag between projects. Technical consultants not only have the knowledge to execute a flawless launch, they also provide years of hard lessons learned that can be applied to future projects.

Most software suppliers encourage consultant-led projects. It provides a project focus that otherwise does not exist, and also helps provide an independent review of overall business practices and policies. A quality consultant will point out operational inefficiencies and will attempt to rectify blatant problems within the confines of the new infrastructure. And, unlike in-house employees, consultants objectively see both procedural and personnel issues, and are more inclined to share them with the executive staff.

Take Control and Eliminate Failure

Execute on time, on task, and on budget by controlling the entire project from conception through its live date. Led by in-house or through an outside professional, flawless executions of software implementations are possible. They do not happen by chance or without effort, but they are certainly a reality given the right team and project plan.

About Technology Group International Ltd.

Founded in 1990, Toledo, OH-based Technology Group International specializes in software solutions for small- and mid-market manufacturing and distribution companies. TGI’s integrated Enterprise Series software suite is a complete business process management solution. The product offering includes Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP), Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP), Supply Chain Management (SCM), Warehouse Management System  (WMS), Advanced Planning and Scheduling (APS), Decision Support System (DSS), Business Intelligence, Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and eCommerce.

For more information, visit www.tgiltd.com.


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