Sunday, 24 October 2010

Irritation with invoices

It's been real busy the last few weeks - we've had some issues with invoicing. But to really understand the problems, and to put it in context, I need to go back to the early days.

When we were starting out, almost everyone seemed to either know someone or had talked to someone that had a story about SAP and invoicing. I got talking to a copier salesman who told me that his company had implemented SAP and were unable to invoice anyone for about 9 months after their go live. From what he said, it seemed the business almost went bust - and they were a multi billion dollar outfit. This did cause some concerns, and so we wanted to make sure that this sort of thing wouldn't happen to us.

Right back at the beginning, we gave the system integrators a copy of the paperwork we needed to generate - I'm not sure, but I think it was within the first two weeks. This included the invoice and we made it very clear what actual information needed to be on it. We weren't too bothered about the specific layout, orientation, fonts etc. but the right text was vital. This had been developed over many years, and much of it was as a result of various problems with customers.

We had got thru the initial planning stages and were starting to work on the config and data. At one of the sessions, someone from finance asked about the documents (invoice, sales forms, shipping forms etc.) - the consultants' project manager told us that someone would be working on these. Now we had been told that we would go live on a date 9 months after the initial launch - when we got to month 6, and there was still no sign of the documents, the question was raised yet again.

At that point, a director from the system integrator firm got involved and he basically tried to tell us that we would be using the standard SAP forms as that was all we required. You can imagine that there were some fairly strong discussions about this - it had been highlighted that we needed the specific text and we weren't prepared to move on that. Eventually, he gave in and arranged for a specialist to come to site to work on the revised documents.

Now I had previously worked on another ERP product and had produced numerous standard forms pretty quickly - generally, once you know what is wanted, it takes maybe a day to get the right data output, and then maybe a few tweaks to get the formatting right. I expected that SAP might be a bit more work, but as a basic design already existed, I thought it was just going to be a matter of making the relevant changes to ensure that we had the right logo, the right addresses and text statements.

The specialist turned up on site and started on this a couple of days a week. About 3 weeks later, we were given what the consultant said was our invoice - and forgive me for saying this, but it was a bunch of crap. It was missing two whole sections of text, it showed the wrong address for the company, none of the text boxes lined up and when it printed, part of the page was missing and our company logo was squashed up so that it looked wrong. The CEO wrote all over the printout in red pen to highlight the areas to fix, then gave it back to the consultant. She worked on it again for another 2 weeks and sent a copy to us. The CEO hit the roof as it looked like nothing had changed at all.

This went on for another couple of months with the consultant turning up on site every few weeks and supposedly working on it from home in between. But after about 4 months, not one of the forms that we needed was actually complete. This lead to more discussions - as we had already decided to delay the go-live, we could live with it, but at that stage were only moving the go-live by a month or two at a time, so it was really important to get the forms completed.

After more complaints, another consultant started to work on it. A couple of months later, we had some of the sales documents, and some for the shipping, but the invoice was still missing. In the end, we finally got the version that we went live with about 2 months before the go live date - about a year after we should have gone live. The invoice form still wasn't exactly right, but we could live with the slight inconsistencies in alignment as long as the text was OK.

As it happens, after go live, we then hit a snag. A process had been set-up so that the invoice would be automatically generated once all of the parts for an order had been shipped. There were a couple of exceptions - we have a couple of big customers that buy regularly, and we are able to invoice for goods shipped as part of orders, even if the whole order has not been completed. The week after go live was OK, but the invoice run after that was not.

As it happens, we quickly found that this was actually down to us - there was a procedural problem, and stuff was not getting marked up properly. As a result, we had some orders going out that should have been invoiced, but weren't - and this lead to a number of other items that were then being blocked. As it happens, altho this lead to a bit of a panic, we did get it fixed real quick and the invoices started going out again. In fact, this an area where we definitely had not had the kind of issues that so many other projects seem to have had.

But a couple of weeks ago, we had a real serious issue. The invoices are printed off on a big high speed printer in the finance office. The print run generally takes about 15-20 minutes each day for those that are not transmitted electronically (and there is an increasing amount of those). One of the staff in accounts noticed that the print run hadn't occurred - after checking, one of my staff realised the printer was not working at all.

Well no problem - just re-direct the print job to a different printer. After all we do this all the time without any issues with all the other forms. But it appeared that we couldn't do that with the invoices - every attempt, the print job was being sent to the faulty printer. Eventually we realised that for some reason, the printer selected was actually hard coded into the form and couldn't be changed on the fly unlike all the others. Now why this is the case, I have no idea - it is just the way that it has been setup.

As it happens, we have got around the problem. We have another machine of the same make and model. We've changed the settings on the print server so that the replacment machine has exactly the same share name and IP address as the faulty one, and we were able to set it up within SAP to replace the faulty machine, so we can now print off the invoices as we should.

It has caused a slight holdup in the billing process - I spent about 5 hours on Friday with one of my staff helping the finance staff get the newly printed invoices put into envelopes ready to be posted. This has helped them catch up, and as everything has gone out in the same month as it should have, we shouldn't get too much of a delay in billing.

But I see this as a major irritation - I can see the need perhaps for labels to have the printer hard coded in them to make sure that they go to the right type of machine. But why an invoice? I really can't see why they should have done that. I also have to say that this was an area that I wanted to try to get a better handle on, but the consultants were simply not interested in passing on any of their precious knowledge and no-one got chance to learn how to work with the forms. I did get a book on it, but it wasn't much help.

I've also tried to get one of my staff booked in on a course to learn about changing forms, but there doesn't seem to be one available until next year. We also have a major problem now in that we have a lot of work coming up, and some of it will be last minute organised (nothing we can do about it - we have to be flexible to fit in with others). It could be that we will simply have to wait - and hope that the printer doesn't break down again.

However, I suppose that now we know the problem exists, we are in a better position. We know how to get around the issue, so we shouldn't get the same delay if it happens again. With luck, the replacement printer will last until we can get someone trained up so that we can get this form fixed more appropriately. With a bit of luck, we will have a couple of quiet weeks to make up for the rather more hectic weeks of the last month!


  1. It is criminal to hardcode a printer in any print program, not just in SAP. You should get your money back from the consultant who coded it. I can give you 10 different ways of determining a printer in SAP without hardcoding.

    I learnt almost 15 years ago (on my first SAP project) that getting a decent SAP Invoice output is like scaling Mt.Everest. It is not because SAP is necessarily bad at generating Invoices but, Invoice being a customer-facing form, there are too many "stakeholders" that want to have their say. Also the typical business users on the project have not really seen SAP working - for e.g. their definition of a "backorder" is totally different from SAP's, which is again different from the Consultant's view; you can imagine the output that comes out when the users says, "I want backorders printed on the invoice". 

    You almost need a full time resource just working on specifying the SAP Invoice on the project from Day 1. I keep telling this to all my clients and they don't listen - and go through exactly the same pain as your organisation. Well people have never learnt from history, have they? 

    My suggestion is that you get a decent ABAPper to remove the hardcoding and then even a half-decent SD Consultant should tell you how to direct printing to the printer of your choice.

    Good luck!


    (An IT Career Blog)

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