Saturday, 23 January 2010

Just keep rollin' on

I've not had time to post in the last couple of weeks. I wish I could say that everything is going well and life is calming down. I wish I could say that.

In fact the last couple of weeks have been pretty chaotic, with various problems. With the amount of time that has been taken up by the SAP project, a lot of other tasks have been pushed to the back, and I had hoped that now we are live we might be able to start getting some of these jobs done. In fact, the SAP work seems to be taking over all of the time that we have, and at the moment, we seem to be still fire fighting rather than being proactive.

Among the issues we have at the present are a large number of items that we have been waiting for the consultants to address for ages now. The system has suffered a number of crashes and some of the ABAP dumps have been collected and sent off for analysis. In one specific case, SAP support identified that the code had been changed and that they were not responsible for dealing with problems caused by personalised code.

I can understand that, but the reality is that we haven't changed a thing - none of our staff would know how to. I have a rough idea, but I wouldn't want to try to change anything at this stage. It's obvious that one of the consultants has made this change - the problem is, we don't know who, they won't admit to it, and they have kept no records of who changed what or why. There have been several other crashes that I have not yet sent off to SAP - I intend to do this on a regular basis as it seems it is the only way to identify what has been changed.

Here is a classic tale - I went into the sales office earlier in the week to look at a problem with one of the staff. Whilst she was talking to a customer, I was looking around the office and saw one of her colleagues hard at work. The person concerned had an invoice printed off on her desk, and was working in Excel. While I watched, she added a logo, some lines and started to put numbers on the page - then I realised that she was recreating the invoice in the spreadsheet. I had to ask what she was doing - it turned out that the customer needed the invoice but that it was coming out with the wrong amounts / values. The only way around this was to create a invoice thru Excel.

Back at the beginning of the project, we gave the consultants a list of the output documents that we needed along with samples and designs. They had 3 people working on this over an 8 month period and we still don't have all that we need. We have several that should give us similar information, but filtered and sorted in a slightly different way - but in fact give us completely different information. It also has to be said that we've found that we cannot rely on many of these documents as they just don't produce data that is even close to being correct.

Now to be fair, we do also have a problem of our own creation. We uploaded values for the sales prices last year just before we went live. However, we now find out that some of the prices uploaded were in fact incorrect - one of the sales staff responsible for dealing with certain key customers had given us the wrong data and we actually uploaded the incorrect values. That has been made worse as we now need to change those prices, and he should have given us the data for the beginning of the year. Instead we finally got the files on Monday - but with part of the data missing. He had gone through the data and removed all of the key index information so we now have no way to tie the new prices to the correct products.

I've also experienced a problem with our internal Project Manager - he has worked incredibly hard over the last couple of years. However, he has also picked up bad habits from the consultants. He has access to the profile "SAP_ALL" which gives him the permission to whatever he wishes. Now I have no problem with that in the development system, but not in the production system.

He was shown by the consultants how to unlock the production system and instead of making changes in the development system and then transporting those according to the correct SAP procedure, he has made the changes directly in the production system. This lead to a major problem as he had created a new transaction, but I couldn't assign to a role, as it didn't exist in the master system. On top of that, he regularly creates new SQL scripts and tests them in the production system and it causes problems for everyone else as the script is poorly written and ties up system resources. He just won't accept that what he is doing is wrong.

One other thing that I would note - in the past couple of years, I have had almost no contact with SAP apart the Support desk. Since Jan 1, I have 3 separate phone calls from different personnel at SAP. They seem really eager to sell me more services!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Happy new year... everyone - I hope that you had a great Christmas. I must admit that I have been taking it real easy over the last few weeks, but now at the start of a new year, it's time to start work again.

On this occasion, there is a topic that I particularly want to cover. I would suggest that it is actually relevant to a lot of projects, not just SAP. It will make the difference between a bad implementation and a good one - and between a good one and a great one. And the topic is...


I'm a great believer in training, and not just a brief run thru of "press button A, press button B" etc. Staff that are properly trained can identify when something is wrong and can fix a problem before it gets out of hand. Because they make fewer mistakes, they require less support which leaves us free to do the things that help make the technology work for the staff and the business. I believe that in the long term, money spent on training is an investment and pays off many times over.

Unfortunately, some of the senior management don't quite see it that way. Their view is that staff don't need to be "IT trained", just know enough to do their job. I can see an argument for not spending time on training someone on aspects that they will never work on, but I really feel that in the case of our project, we really needed to get more staff trained earlier and in more depth - doing so would have made them feel part of the process, and would have given them a sense of ownership that is partly missing.

However, there is also one particular area of training that I want to identify, and that is for the IT staff themselves. When we started, not one of the team had previously worked with SAP - we had some basic SQL skills and between us had worked with a number of products. To begin with, we were completely reliant upon the consultant firm for everything. They insisted in installing the software, and gave us some instructions in doing some of the tasks. They provided some material which they said was SAP standard training manuals as well as some other items that they created themselves - mostly powerpoint slides with a couple of screen shots and no explanation of what was being done or why.

Over the last couple of years, my team have worked hard on trying to learn the product. We had a go at doing an installation ourselves, and when it didn't work, we found a number of online resources that pointed us in the right direction. We also bought a ton of SAPpress books that provided some real good information and help. We found out how to perform upgrades and carried those out without any guidance. We also had some basic knowledge of problem solving and managed to identify some key items which meant that we were able to manage the systems ourselves without having to keep bothering other people.

But all thru that, I felt that we could have done better with a better knowledege of key areas. So I decided a while back to take a look at the SAP training courses. These tend to be a tad more expensive than some others, but not outrageously so - and there are a number of training centers about. However, I had heard a few comments from a couple of people that had attended one of these and what they said didn't make me feel too comfortable about it.

I decided that I would book myself on one course, just to test it out - I felt it would be worth $1500 for a 2 day course just to see for myself the real situation. I decided to go to an actual SAP training center rather than one of the others that were cheaper, as I though it would work out better, even tho' it was almost the other side of the country.

On the first morning, the course started with the trainer doing quite a bit of "housekeeping" - almost the first 40 minutes were about various aspects of the training arrangements, the course, the health & safety etc. I must admit that I began to feel that perhaps the training was just going to be "Death by Powerpoint". However, very quickly after that we got onto the actual material and then it became obvious that the course was well worth the time effort and money.

The trainer was an SAP employee of many years standing and very knowledgeable. He used some slides to illustrate process, then performed the task using an SAP system, before then giving everyone on the course the chance to do the work for themselves. Although he had quite a strict agenda to complete, there was opportunity for the trainees to ask questions - in almost every case he had the answer immediately. I gave him a couple of questions that he couldn't quite answer, but he then used the break periods to research the issue and then immediately after, he would cover the question in detail.

There weren't too many people on the course which was good from my point of view as it meant that we had plenty of support from the trainer. I also found it interesting talking to the others - they were all from completely different industries and backgrounds so there wasn't a lot of cross over, but even so, it was good to discuss how we all did things.

When I got back, I was able to use the new knowledge almost immediately. I spent sometime with a couple of the guys and went thru' some of the material with them - together we found an answer to a problem that had been bugging us for some while. I felt that there was no question, the course had proven to be a winner and I thought that it would be useful to get one of the others on a course as well.

The one that I chose for the second experiment was a full 5 days course - and there were a few comments from people about the cost. On the morning of the first day, the guy I sent phoned me at midday to say just how impressed he was with it and that he had already begun to learn stuff that answered many of the questions we had. After that, he called me virtually every evening to tell me that he had found out yet more things that we needed to know. When he got back, we discussed some of the issues, and it became very clear that these training courses would prove to be absolutely vital to us.

We now have several other courses booked up at the same center - I'm not going to take a chance on any other. The courses are spread out over a period of months so that we aren't trying to cram too much into a short period, and I'm trying to spread the courses amongst the staff so theat everyone gets a chance. I've even suggested that some of the other staff could go on a course - I've found one that would suit someone from the production team and they sound keen to go.

It could be argued, that we should have done some of this training last year or the year before, and that's possibly valid. But I would say that in my case, and that of my staff, we agreed that we found the courses so valuable because we already had a certain level of experience. If I had attended my course 2 years ago, it would probably not have been of the same benefit as I wouldn't have been able to tie the material in to the work that I have to do.

Ultimately, I suppose that it comes down to the individuals - some will obviously get more out than others. But having had a couple of the courses now, our team are definitely impressed with them and keen to do others to build on what we have learnt. It's important to justify the cost, and it may not always prove to be so beneficial. But for me, there is no question - money well spent and with the plans for the future, the company should benefit in both the short and long term.