Thursday, 30 December 2010

Looking forward

I hope that everyone has had a good Christmas holiday and is looking forward to the new year with anticipation. We have a family get together planned to see in the new year - my wife is just starting to get the food arranged, so I am banished to the den. As it is the end of another year, I thought that I would look back to analyze what has been happening, and I also decided that I would try to be more upbeat than usual.

So... lets start by looking at the actual systems. This is very definitely a positive point as our servers are running (for the most part) pretty smoothly and we only get a few issues from time to time. When we do get an issue, it is generally down to someone doing something that they have been told NOT to do - run a report without filling in any filtering information so the program tries to run the sales data on every single item that we have in the catalogue for every single customer. I'm sure that you will know the problem!

For many people this will sound stupid - after all, you would expect a system to run well, or why would you want to use it? However, I know from talking to many other users that we seem to be doing better than a lot of other businesses in terms of system operation, even tho' we are still quite new to SAP.

We are also managing to stay on top of the database admin work, software updates, system monitoring, and still do the rest of the normal IT work, even tho' we have no more extra staff than before. Again, I have heard stories from other companies that indicate they allocated a significant increase in manpower in order to maintain a level of service, and we have been able to avoid that so far. This all means that we are able to maintain our budget levels, and that has been noted by the senior managers.

Partly that has been due to training - we have spent some time to get all of the IT staff (including myself) along to an SAP training center. This has proven to be money well spent in many areas, and I am really keen to see this rolled out amongst the rest of the project team. Just before Christmas, I spoke to the CEO about a particular organization - I was able to tell him how much they have spent in a particular area that we have handled internally, and to estimate just how much we have saved as a result. In dollar terms, it's about $400,000 over the last 2 years which has to be good news. He is not entirely convinced about the training yet, but he has given the green light to a couple of others to do some training and if that goes well, I'm sure that he will then authorize more.

Throughout the business, we can see that most people (not all yet sadly) are getting quite proficient at using SAP. Certainly in each department, we are seeing most staff can complete most processes with relative ease. It has to be said that there are still issues with about 20% of the various processes, and these (naturally) seem to be the biggest stumbling blocks and generate more work than they save. We are using the key staff to try to make sure that others are trained appropriately - we have tried to start some "refresher" style training sessions using these key people. Time will tell if this works or not.

There is unfortunately still an issue with data output - we are still not where we would want to be. However, we are starting to get some valid data at last, and this is being used to correct some of the initial input which we always knew was poor at best. For example, we are now seeing some more accurate figures on production costs, so that is being fed back into the systems, and hopefully, we will see this improve the way that we start to price goods up. It has taken a lot longer than anticipated, and some of the figures are still questionable, but it is what we hoped we would eventually be able to see.

We successfully completed a secondary project to use document management within SAP at the beginning of the year - as I have indicated before, this has been a truly useful change and has been instrumental in encouraging some people to look at the program in a more positive light. This has also lead to a couple of other small projects associated to SAP. We have reduced the amount of printing that is required by about 20% - not a huge saving in the overall scheme of things, but something positive to point to. We are producing bar code labels for products that have customer codes on them as well as ours, and we are currently evaluating making use of scanning more widely as part of our internal processes.

So we would have to say that our SAP implementation has been successful. Certainly, there are many other organizations that have had a far worse time than us and are still struggling with their systems. Of course, there is still much to be done and considerable effort required to ensure that the ERP does deliver what was always hoped for. But with what we have achieved so far, and what has been learned, I am sure that we can continue to build upon that success.

Now at this stage, I should say that I am not an SAP convert - we have spent so much, the project has taken so long that I'm still not entirely sure that we will ever see an ROI. In addition I am going to say again that much of the success of our project is down to the hard work of our internal project team. Without their effort, skill, commitment and knowledge of the business, I seriously doubt that we would have ever gone live successfully.

But we have gone live, and it has been fairly successful and there is evidence that we can continue in this way. So tomorrow night, I will definitely raise a glass to the guys and gals that have worked so hard and wish them all the best for 2011.

I also wish the same to everyone that reads this blog - and may the new year bring happiness, health and prosperity to you all.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

What price training?

I've been back to work for a few weeks, but have been a bit busy on a couple of non-SAP related projects. But as they are progressing well, I thought that I would return to an issue that has been bugging me (and others) for a while.

One of the most consistent comments from the project team and to a lesser extent from the end users, relates to the training that they receive in how to use SAP. Within the wider scope of a project, this is referred to as "knowledge transfer" and is seen as a key requirement for a successful project. In fact, this was identified as a major item right back at the beginning of the company plans to implement a new ERP system, even before the decision was made to install SAP.

The feeling is quite clear amongst the project team that overall, the level of knowledge transfer that has taken place is not what we would have wanted. Certainly, there were a few sessions where a couple of the consultants working on the project sat down with the various people and went thru the processes - but almost from the beginning, comments were made that far too often, these seemed to be very high level overviews rather than explanations of how to complete a specific process.

As a result of this, many of the various processes were never really tested properly or fully in the early stages. In fact, it can be identified that the real testing only took place finally about 3 months before we went live. Until that point, there may have been some limited testing such as placing a purchase order, but no-one would then use that data to conduct a goods receipt and warehousing process for example.

As is regularly stated, SAP is very integrated - making an entry in one module will have an affect in others, so it is vital to make sure that the linked processes are functioning correctly by a series of end to end tests. In order to carry out this testing work effectively, it is essential that people know how to complete the full process from a very early stage, but it seemed that at best, people were shown just limited steps within part of a process and often these were very generic items that in themselves did little to fully test anything.

In the end, we were pretty much left to our own devices to draw up a training plan, to put together the required material, and conduct end user training. A considerable effort was put in by my colleagues to make sure that their staff knew what as required and how they would be doing their jobs in future. Unfortunately, sometimes this was then invalidated by changes made by the consultants - they would do some configuration change, not actually test anything, and the first anyone would know was when someone was trying out a process that had previously worked, only to find that it suddenly didn't.

This happened a lot - far more than I would have liked. I won't say that it was a daily occurence, but certainly weekly for about 5-6 months (sometimes even 2-3 times in a week) before we went live. As you can imagine, this was immensely frustrating and caused considerable delays, perhaps unnecessarily - altho I am sure that there are those who will say that this is just part of a development process.

The reason that I highlight this is that we have had another issue recently. Suddenly, a process that has worked perfectly for almost a full year, now doesn't. A member of the finance team was left in tears because she was being blamed for not doing her work correctly - a job that she has been able to do completely satisfactorily every month for 11 months, she is now unable to do at all. It took a while to identify the cause, and it is due to a consultant working on something, making a change that he hasn't checked, but pushed thru to the Production system.

The modification is required - in fact it was required before we went live, but the consultants that are still on site have only just started to look at this specific item. Essentially, the config change means that a process has been changed slightly, and now we need to re-train other staff in sales support. They have to change the way that they work and do their process to meet the new requirements, so that this will go thru to the other areas, so that the finance people can then do their work. But of course, no-one has said a thing, none of the project team were aware of the change made, and no testing or training has taken place.

I raise this issue because I have made a point of getting my own staff in IT off to an SAP training center over the last year. We have completed a number of courses between us, and the cost in total has been just under $18,000, even with some travel, accomodation and meals - and that's still less than 12 days consultancy fees. Which is the better value? As far as I am concerned, we learnt far more at the training center and it was better organised, so for me it is pretty clear. It also has to be said that following the SAP training, we actually now know what we are supposed to be doing, which is more than could be said for the training we received from the consultants.

I've suggested many times, that it would make sense to get some of our project team off on some of these courses - possibly even some of the non-project team super users. I recently identified a series of 4 courses that would be of real value in a particular area of the business. The cost would be just under 5 days consultancy and I am fairly confident that the person I suggested for the courses would be able to pick up exactly what would be needed to get the best value from the courses and to ensure that he would be able then to pass that knowledge on to others.

Instead, the director from the SI firm has arranged with our CEO and internal project lead to have another one of his consultants come to site for 10 days to look at this specific module, get it set up and train the staff. As this is a guy that we have had on site many times before, we know what his area of expertise is - and it isn't this particular module. We know what capabilities he has in training and to be blunt they are pretty awful - several staff have stated privately that they don't like the guy as they consider him to be arrogant and offensive and there are female staff that really don't want to be part of the training if he is running it.

It also has to be said that he considers himself to be a jim dandy ABAP developer. I don't know sufficient about ABAP myself to measure his skill in that code, but I have worked with other codes and in software development, and I can say with some assurance that he just is not that good at doing program coding in a structured and managed way. He has taken it upon himself to make more than a few changes to code that have caused issues and it seems to take quite some time to get corrections to these problems.

It seems so odd to me - that senior management are willing to pay a substantial fee to a firm that have not exactly shown themselves in the best light, for a consultant that seems to cause more problems than he resolves. All this to work on an area that our own staff might well be able to do once they have had the right training, and which training will cost less than the consultancy fee.

It does seem that the senior managers have a blind spot in this - they value an external consultant in a suit higher than their own staff, even when the evidence doesn't seem to support their belief. I just find it so frustrating.