Systematic Thinking

Jun 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

I have been actively involved in development and implementation of order management systems and warehouse management systems for over 20 years. I have learned firsthand what works and, unfortunately, what doesn’t. I believe that successful system implementations share six key attributes: strong leadership from operations; clear requirements; function before cost; detailed project plans; extra time for testing and training; and good documentation.

Project leadership

Lead, follow, or get out of the way — these are the options for all managers implementing new systems. Where do you stand? Who proposes system enhancements to improve operations in your company? Who leads project implementations? If not the operations manager, why not? In my experience, projects are more successful if operations takes strong ownership and active leadership in the project. If operations watches from the sidelines, projects almost always fail to reach their full potential. Operations managers need to get involved and lead the way.

Clear requirements

Probably the most important key for successful systems implementation is to develop clear requirements. Understand what your goals are and document the requirements to get there. If you need help, don’t be afraid to seek professional assistance. Sedlak Management Consultants worked with me both at Nordstrom and Genesis Direct and did a great job on Manhattan Associates’ PkMS warehouse management system implementation. Their expertise and experience helped define requirements and prepare a document used to request system quotes (request for proposal). Sedlak also helped us define functional specifications. This phone-book-sized document defined how everything worked and how the system met our operational needs. We defined everything from system response time to sample reports. Give yourself plenty of time for these steps and don’t take shortcuts.

Functionality before cost

Once vendors reply to your RFP, do a thorough analysis of all proposals. Compare your requirements with the current version of software. Beware of “smoke and mirrors” and promises that future upgrades will meet your needs. Try to minimize the amount of custom programming needed. Evaluate bids first on functionality and then on cost. For Nordstrom’s WMS project, we did not even consider costs until we made the final system selection. Our goal was to pick the “best” WMS system to meet our needs. We picked PkMS, but only after we were sold on its functionality and the vendor’s commitment to make the necessary customization. If you sacrifice functionality for cost savings today, it may cost you tomorrow.

Project plans

Most successful system projects start with a detailed plan. Define and document the task details needed to meet your goals. Use a scheduling program like Microsoft Project to organize the details and stay on track. Be sure to define what tasks are dependent on the completion of other tasks. Set realistic dates and assign responsibility for each task. The project leader should actively manage all tasks and hold team members fully accountable to stay on schedule. Successful project teams find ways to deal with delays and remain on schedule. Be passionate about meeting your goals on time and within budget.

Testing and training

Many system implementations fall short because they don’t adequately test and train their employees before they go live. One of my greatest professional challenges involved joining Genesis Direct to start up a new DC about two months before the fall/holiday season. Delivery was delayed on our new high-tech sorting equipment and WMS system. We improved on-site support and established a new schedule. The “impossible” start-up before peak was somehow made possible. My biggest regret was the lack of time for system testing and training. We went live in time, but we didn’t really work out the bugs until the New Year.

In contrast, my Nordstrom WMS project was on time. We had about one month to test and train before live shipping. I remember going through the entire pick, pack, and ship process with our employees every day with test orders and sample merchandise. In the afternoon, we unpacked and returned the merchandise and got ready to start again. We got better every day. I don’t think you can ever schedule too much time to train your employees and test new systems.

Good documentation

For many system implementations, documentation is often a last-ditch effort. After the new system is working and most of the bugs are fixed, the project leader asks, “What about documentation?” The most common response is a “vanilla” manual with few, if any, custom updates. Technical and user documentation for both Nordstrom and Genesis Direct was equally poor.

My advice on documentation is to start early. Don’t forget about it until the end. Define your requirements in your RFP and vendor contract. Schedule and monitor key milestones and hold strong to your convictions for good documentation.

If you follow these time-tested suggestions for project leadership, your reward will be your success.

Jeff Kline, founder and president of Kline Management Consulting ( www.jklineco.com ), has over 20 years of experience with companies such as Nordstrom and toysrus.com. He provides operations assistance for catalog and e-commerce companies. Kline can be reached by phone at (901) 850-0645 and by e-mail at jeff@jklineco.com.