Operations & Management: Surviving a Systems Change

Antique Hardware, a $3 million home restoration products cataloger, recently spent $50,000 on catalog management software, only to find out that the package was ill suited to the business.

“There was no functionality to this software. We couldn’t even process a return,” says CEO Tim Judge, noting that employees had to re-enter SKU codes on another machine to complete a return. Frustrated, Bluffton, SC-based Antique Hardware scrapped its system, ate the costs, and started anew.

Antique Hardware may have been able to save itself $50,000 — not to mention time and aggravation — had it followed the four T’s of shopping for and implementing a new catalog or warehouse management system:

  1. Take your time.

    Milwaukee-based manufacturer/cataloger Brass Light Gallery expects to finish converting to a manufacturing-based inventory management package called Fourth Shift, which runs on an NT-based platform, this summer. All told, says marketing director Wayne Reckard, Brass Light will have spent three years shopping for and converting to its new system.

    Most catalogers do not take the time that Brass Light has. But Paul Sobota, vice president of Richmond, VA-based operations consultancy F. Curtis Barry & Co., recommends allotting at least 12-18 months to finding and implementing a system. “Catalogers typically stumble because they rush a system conversion,” he says. “You need to clearly map out a schedule.”

  2. Talk it over.

    Since Brass Light’s customers buy items to custom-build lighting products, the cataloger needed a system that could keep track of hundreds of thousands of SKUs. To make sure Brass Light selected the right system, each department listed the components it needed, Reckard says. As a result, the new package has better analytical tools, such as more data fields to capture customer information, as well as the necessary inventory management capabilities.

    In short, no one person or department can determine every need the system must fulfill. And you’ll want to include all your objectives and specifications for your new system in the request for proposal (RFP) you’ll submit to vendors. Generally speaking, you should spend three to six months developing your RFP — and that includes time for communication among departments.

  3. Train all users.

    Retraining employees was the biggest hurdle for sewing supplies cataloger Nancy’s Notions when it upgraded to the most current version of the Controller+ catalog management system in 1998. The upgrade provides the Beaver Dam, WI-based cataloger with better mailing strategy analytical tools as well as cross-selling and upselling prompts for CSRs.

    “But changing systems was especially difficult on order-takers, who were required to gather more customer information at the point of sale,” says Scott Stanton, vice president of information systems. So Nancy’s Notions set up a training room where reps from Sigma-Micro, the manufacturer of Controller+, spent two days with groups of order-takers and customer service reps.

    And when scheduling training, allot more time than you think you’ll need. After all, you are likely to learn at a different rate than a high-school student or a part-time sexagenarian — both of whom may be a part of your work force.

  4. Test — vigorously.

    Assume that Murphy’s Law — if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong — will apply during your system conversion. Such was certainly the case at Nancy’s Notions.

    “Four days before we were scheduled to make the conversion, the system crashed,” says Trish Stofflet, assistant manager of IS. “This wasn’t a minor glitch, but a catastrophic failure.”

    The cause was a glitch with the particular hardware package, according to Sigma-Micro president Gayl Doster, and Sigma-Micro was able to remedy the problem. But if the cataloger hadn’t tested so scrupulously, the crash could have occurred after the program went live.

    For its part, Brass Light Gallery set up a “dummy” network in January to give its programmers plenty of time to uncover and rectify possible glitches.

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