Eric Kimberling and the team at Third Stage Consulting serve as thought leaders in the digital transformation community, helping customers through software selection, change management, system implementation, and the integration of technology and business. Their “Transformation Ground Control” podcast series engages the larger business and technology communities to address various topics related to business strategy and digital transformation. Recently, I was able to sit down with Eric and discuss a topic that had become quite important to me in the field of ERP implementation — ERP culture.
What is ERP culture?
In our discussion, I defined “ERP Culture” as the set of attributes or characteristics of the company’s overall business culture that support or inhibit the successful implementation of an ERP system. Over the course of an hour, we covered several of these attributes and how they apply to a given implementation.
This topic formed organically enough — I had recently worked with two companies that had gone live on an ERP system within a similar timeframe. The two companies had a number of striking similarities:
The two companies were of similar size.
Both companies were privately-owned, family businesses, headquartered in the same state.
The firms both worked in roughly-analogous market environments, providing products of comparable complexity.
Both companies were coming from antiquated, 40-year-old business systems.
The companies had similar project budgets and similar core team contributions.
The two companies had so many similarities, and yet one implementation was a ringing success and the other was a frustrating mess. In trying to perform forensics to understand just why one implementation was successful and the other a failure, I began to wonder whether the differences between the two projects were due to the significant differences in the cultural makeup of the two companies.
Having once worked in the area of Lean Six Sigma, the idea of “Lean Culture” had been well documented — the notion that a successful implementation of Lean methodologies was highly contingent on the culture of the organization. I tend to think that the same applies to the ERP community: that the success of an ERP implementation rests heavily on the cultural foundation of the implementing organization. That said, what are the elements that comprise the company’s cultural foundation?
ERP Culture & Digital Transformation
Clarity of Focus
Successful companies are constantly separating wheat from chaff — separating key initiatives from tertiary activities. They tend to be good at taking initiatives to their successful conclusion. They are good at avoiding distractions. In the words of Jack Welsh, they “pick a direction and implement like hell.” And when and ERP project occurs, they becomes the primary focus of the organization, and other initiatives get put on hold. Unsuccessful companies tend to be distracted by shiny objects and this distractibility infects their implementation projects.
Attention to Detail
Successful companies are process-oriented — they understand the importance of specific activities and are not prone to “skipping steps.” At times they are methodical to a fault. This is especially the case when you compare them to “cowboy companies” — companies that play it “fast and loose” in their daily business lives. In the execution of an ERP system, these tendencies quickly become evident, especially when implementing ERP functionality such as labor time entry and inventory management. Successful companies take great pride in the cleanliness of the data involved in these processes. Less successful companies tend to let their data devolve into chaos. And you can never successfully implement ERP from a foundation of chaotic data.
Initiatives such as an ERP implementation are not unfamiliar to successful companies, as such companies tend to plan out initiatives before they do them. They understand the value of a plan and its execution. Unsuccessful companies operate like a headless chicken — lots of activity, but very little direction. The value of such a tendency is self-evident: companies that don’t plan to get to a certain point rarely get there.
The term “empowerment” generally elicits eye rolls in the manufacturing community, as it sounds like something you’d hear in a mandatory diversity training seminar. If I were to give the term a more rigorous operational definition, I would describe it as the tendency to clearly define individuals’ areas of responsibility, making them accountable for clear outcomes in those areas, and providing them the resources and autonomy to achieve those outcomes. Unsuccessful companies tend to have a domineering management style, where a few “alpha dogs” fight over decisions, while the rest of the organization resembles an army of chronically depressed lemmings. A fundamental tenant of implementing Lean is the ability for teams to define the processes in their areas of responsibility. Such is the same in an ERP system, where configuration decisions can greatly impact process performance. Such a monumental task requires a team of individuals that have the responsibility, accountability, and support to see it though.
By nature, successful companies are proactive — they are perpetually looking to understand how the chess game plays out. The tendency to look ahead imbues the sometimes tedious steps of an ERP project with a degree of value that is easy to neglect. Such companies tend to be quick to solicit and receive feedback. Proactive cultures also tend to be quick to have honest conversations of the state of a project, when things are not going as planned. Such candor is not a mere complaining — it is the willingness to be accountable for uncomfortable circumstances. The opposite of these tendencies is passivity. In a passive organization, individuals might have trepidation or concerns about a given issue, but lack the proactive tendencies to get ahead of these concerns and bring them to the surface
Sense of Ownership
Ownership is the flipside of empowerment. Highly-empowered employees tend to develop a strong sense of ownership. They are not looking to have things done for them — they’re looking to understand the intended outcomes of a given task and take ownership of them. These are the best kinds of team members to have on an ERP project, as they are self-motivated and are constantly looking to move the ball forward. It’s a question of push vs pull: I’ve had project managers on projects where the team had a lack of ownership, describe the initiative as “pulling teeth” — they were perpetually having to drag the team along. This is generally an indication of ownership issues.
Companies vary considerably in the degree to which they encourage their employees to understand the overall company processes, outside of their individual silos. Successful companies tend to have a greater degree of cross-functionality then their unsuccessful counterparts. They recognize the value of understanding an organization from front to back. As a result, their team members are not content to just understand their own small areas of the map — they want to know the whole thing. One of the great outcomes of an ERP project is the level of cross-functionality that it affords.
Cultural Tendencies & ERP Success
An early mentor of mine once told me that an implementation is equal parts technical and cultural, and if you neglect the cultural, you’ll never achieve the technical endpoint that you desire. My life in ERP has proven this maxim time and again. ERP projects are never easy. But if a company lacks some basic cultural tendencies to support a successful implementation, they will find themselves struggling to achieve their lofty goals.
“When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” – T.S. Eliot
When I first began dabbling in the field of Business Process Management, the terminology of this new and strange body of knowledge perplexed me greatly. The concept of elevation, for one thing, was utter babble to me. Or Babel, perhaps. My notion of “high level” carried with it certain ancient connotations—height was a luxury in the ancient world, and only the most powerful civilizations were able to get a view from above the tree tops: from a Babylonian ziggurat or an Egyptian pyramid, for instance. Height, therefore, implied greatness, or to use one of Aristotle’s favorite terms Eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “flourishing.” At the highest Olympian point, one breathes the rarest of airs, or so I thought. But I was breathing the ether of an entirely different allegory. Height, in this new world, dealt not with levels of greatness, but rather with levels of precision and abstraction. In the business world, for something to be “high level” inferred that it was at some level of aggregation and abstraction as to be disconnected from the tactical nuances of day-to-day operations. News to me.
Back in the day, it was common war room parlance to utter something to the degree of “we’re looking at this from thirty-thousand feet” at least once a day. It was not until my first airplane flight that I truly understood what it meant, to look at something from that kind of distance—beautiful, and a little terrifying. I’m more of a pavement-and-pothole kind of guy. The other day, I was skidding down the highway in another rental, that was fortunate enough to still have a CD player hidden amongst its many modern accoutrements. I had borrowed Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” in CD form the local lending library and spent the better part of my ride listening once again to his seminal work. It was a fun listen: Collins began by underscoring some of the key principles of successful companies, and then went on to expound on some examples of excellence, such as…Wells Fargo, and um, Circuit City, and well…Fannie Mae? My ride, all at once, seemed a little…dated. I thought to myself that Collins would do well to write a follow-up to his earlier work and title it “From Good to Great to God Awful.” Now that would keep me engaged while ripping down the interstate! So, maybe Lord Jim’s examples have not stood the test of time. But I believe that the good leadership qualities that underscore successful organizations have outlived their exemplars.
To that point, whenever I think of flashy and charismatic leaders in business process management, I smell pizza. Not because of any neurological condition that would make me a risk on the open road, but due, rather, to a story a man recounted on a flight from Minneapolis to Memphis, regarding the former executive of a large manufacturing company.
Let’s call this former executive “Pep.” Now Pep came to his role of eminence in this company not as an internal promotion, but as an outside hire, touting a flashy resume from one of America’s well-known pizza chains. And his demeanor was more flashy than his letterhead, and greasier than the pizza he peddled. He’d bound down the hallway in a shiny suit, talking like a sailor and firing off one-liners, like the proverbial mouthy guy at the end of the local bar. One of his favorite lines was “yesterday’s news wraps today’s meat.” It was a line, with his delivery, that could drive a man to veganism. Another time, his personal assistant heard him cussing out his computer and rushed to his aide, not to discover that the company’s earnings report was unfavorable, but that he had just lost another game of solitaire. All of this from a guy with a Fortune-500 pedigree. It was his story, among others, that led me finally to realize that CVs are like statistics—they can be twisted to tell you whatever story you want to hear.
Of his many witticisms, one line stood out to me from the others. When commenting on the company’s long-standing issues with the accuracy of its outside sales staff, he exclaimed. “If they wanted you to be exact, they wouldn’t have called it estimating, they would have called itexactamating!”
Exactamating. As you might have guessed, Pep was a rather high-level guy. He sounded like such a high-level, that I imagined him bantering aboutexactamatingin the first-class section of a transatlantic flight, sucking down a gin & tonic, while eating a big greasy slice of pizza, all at thirty-thousand feet.
As you might imagine, he was also afflicted with many of the ailments that bother high-level fellows of his ilk. For one, he didn’t sweat the details—he liked to make big decisions, make them fast, and then walk out of the room and have someone else fill in the finer points. If you locked him in a board room with the VP of engineering, he’d find a way to slip out the ventilation shaft for a smoke before the hour was quartered. To the folks in the trenches, it seemed like simple impatience—he seemed too impatient to be bothered with the details, and similarly too impatient or just incapable of holding any of his people accountable at any kind of detailed manner. But at any level, the company’s failing business results empowered the CEO to request that this high-flyer to take the next flight out of town.
Back to Good-to-Great, one of Collins’ key observations from the book has to do with the demeanor of those with good leadership qualities. Good leadership qualities for business process management, according to Collins, tend not to be of the flashy variety, full of id and ego. Rather, they tend to be soft spoken, less interested in their own presentation than in the success of their company. Interestingly enough, this same company, who sent Pep the Pizza Man packing opted to replace him with a leader who fit Collins’ model. For one, the new executive was a hire from within the company, and not a fly-in, as had been his predecessor. Moreover, the new leader was much less of a showman. Most importantly, the new leader’s obsession with the company’s success drove him to understand the company’s inner-workings at all levels. Don’t get me wrong—he was never going to replace any of the data entry clerks, but his willingness to engage the organization, and its members at all levels was one important part of the success that the company went on to have under his leadership.
I’ll admit it: one of my guilty pleasures is the legalized blood-sport commonly referred to as mixed martial arts, or MMA. As you may be aware, MMA involves the combination of multiple fighting arts, and they best fighters are often the ones who excel in combining these disparate arts into one integrate skillset. One related skill in this field is the ability to “change levels”—to convince your combatant that you are going to attempt a strike, and then drop down for a wrestling takedown and quickly haul your opponent to the mat. In my work as a consultant, I have had the good fortune to meet and work with many different managers and leaders, each with differing motives, differing personalities and differing intensities. I find that the most successful leaders are those who similarly have the ability tochange levelsas needed—to move from high-level strategic thinking, down to tactical or operational problems, and then back up again. The high-level folks often struggle with this: they are the proverbial kick boxer in a wrestling match—great when they’re on their feed, but hopeless at the ground-level. All that being said, the next time that I have to take a flight, I think I might sneak a New York slice in with me, before I leave the ground.
Ask us any question you many have about good leadership qualities for business process management and ERP Software Implementations, we would love to chat.
A colleague recently recounted a story to me from his own past. It had to do with a failing business. The company had numerous issues, in the areas of acquisition and execution, of revenue and of profit. The issues had gotten so out of hand that the company was on the verge of closing its operations entirely. In a last ditch effort to turn the company around, the company’s president initiated a series of process-improvement projects. The hope was that the results of these projects would provide the necessary impetus to pull the company out of its tailspin and provide a foundation for its revitalization. Moreover, the president had democratically distributed the projects across the organization–one for each department. As we all know, projects consume resources, and not all of the selected projects were of the same potential impact to the company. As such, lower-impact projects ended up pulling away resources from some of the mission-critical areas of the business, areas that had been suffering the most. Ironically, the attempted intervention had made things worse.
In one telling instance, the HR department had been tasked with implementing a new HR management system. The HR and IT staff dutifully went through the implementation cycle, soliciting requirements, selecting software, configuring the application and converting data. Leads, supervisors, and managers spent their free time logging employee metadata into the new system. And all of this occurred while the company missed shipments, struggled with quality issues, and scrambled to get new orders, while key employees fled to their competitors. The HR department rolled out its new system shortly before the announcement that the company’s assets were being dissolved. While the company overall was a disaster, the HR project was a ringing success, and when it came time to terminate the company’s staff, they were able to use the new HR system to efficiently and effectively carry the task through to its macabre conclusion.
That is, the HR department had won the proverbial shuffleboard game on the deck of the Titanic.
In my own career, I’ve encountered a few folks who were winning deck games on a sinking ship. And like my friend’s story, the game they were winning had nothing to do with the water that the ship was taking on. This seems to be a common failing business mistake, in general. During good times or bad, failing businesses more often focus their efforts on the wrong areas, and because of this, the efforts of their best employees go underutilized. Failing businesses also make the mistake of democratic project selection. Instead of business planning strategies involving a hard analysis of the key pain points in the business, management adopts generic strategies that try to support the general betterment of the company, while in truth, they are diluting their efforts with low-impact initiatives. Other times, failing companies exhibit the tendency to chase random rabbits down their burrows, mistaking the thrill of the chase for the value of the bounty. Quite often the least successful companies are also the nicest–they avert stepping on toes and pointing out obvious issues. Had they been on the Titanic, they would have been the ones to reclassify the iceberg as an upright collection of water molecules, the gaping breech in the hull as an additional sprinkler system, and would have continued with their polite game on the upper deck while the water levels rose.
In looking back at these situations, it is hard not to see this as a failure of leadership. The leaders of the company are the ones who truly have the ability to steer a company in one direction or another. Often, the direction is as simple as the projects that the company chooses to execute over a given year. But the projects selected quite often serve to have the most impact on the company’s ultimate destination.
But one might ask just what kind of business planning strategies separate leaders who safely pull their ships into harbor from the ones that send them to Davy Jones’ locker. While there are probably a number of reasonable answers to the above question, I would contend that the most successful managers from my own past were buoyant due, among other things, to their knowledge of their industry. The best managers obsess about the workings of their business, and the industry in which it resides, and base their business planning strategies and a vast and well-integrated understating of the dynamics of the environment in which their company competes.
To put it simply, there is no replacement for domain-knowledge. The best leaders I have worked with understand this principle. No leader is an expert in all areas, but when good leaders assume leadership of a company, they immediately dive into a phase of learning–about the business, its culture, its business climate, the market conditions, and whatever additional factors are required to allow the leader to be able to make good decisions. And once this knowledge has been amassed, the leaders go about applying their knowledge to their business planning strategies. They make an honest assessment of the company, its opportunities, and its issues. And in response, they make decisions that drive how the company’s limited resources are to be sequestered, to address issues or take advantage of opportunities.
And their decisions tend to be the better ones. Far away from the shuffleboard deck, they are at the helm, altering course to avoid the bergs and burglars that would threaten their business. The worst managers I’ve encountered take the opposite approach–they tout the importance of surrounding themselves with good people, while they themselves are often missing in action, preferring instead to galivant about town, wining and dining the city’s elite, seeking to impress, when they should be impressive, seeking to woo when they should be working. While I certainly do not question the importance of a manager building a first-rate team, it takes leadership and involvement to collect, engage, and focus the individual talent in the right direction. And the inability to make good directional decisions, to guide these good people, generally results from the leaders’ inadequate preparation and/or dedication to his or her craft.
To return to the title of this post–if the captain of the ship is wasting his time winning games of shuffleboard, the crew will flounder, and ultimately, the ship will founder. So contact the EstesGroup today, and take advantage of our business process review, management, and improvement services.
“So long as a man’s eyes are open in the light, the act of seeing is involuntary.” – Herman Melville.
The idea of vision is a pregnant metaphor, full of intimations and implications. In its verbal sense, vision refers to the act of seeing, of perceiving the world around us. As a noun, one’s vision has more to do with a sight into the future, to a place where one wishes, eventually, to reside.
The idea of vision, in both senses, tends to suffuse the jargon of everyday business. When customers come to us, they are not just in search of the domain knowledge related to a given enterprise system. They come to us looking to understand how to best integrate the use of a system with their particular business climate, such that they can best achieve their strategic goals, their vision. Customers tend to be strong in understanding the opportunities available to them. That is, they are able to formulate a vision for the future. Customers often struggle to put into place the processes, practices and procedures that allow them to achieve the vision that they’ve formulated.
After a losing year, the CEO of a company for whom I once worked, remarked (only half-sarcastically) that our company was “perfectly structured to achieve the results we’ve achieved.” That is, our company had a strategic vision, but our actions failed to achieve it. Our actions had achieved a different (and less profitable) vision. And I would offer that the reason for our failure to achieve our vision was in our inability to remove the paradigmatic lenses that colored everything we perceived, and ultimately drove our actions.
Einstein famously described insanity as the expectation that the repetition of same behavior will yield different results. In that light, I have worked for and worked with a few companies over the years that have gone insane at one point or another, seeking to achieve new strategic goals using the old methods that had worked in previous generations. The logic behind such an approach has some justification – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Such a an approach seems fine until a losing year leaves the CEO glowering down at you, over his horn-rimmed spectacles. The problem here is not one of vision, but of lenses. A company’s lenses serve as the paradigms that cement the company’s habits, culture and means of solving problems. As time goes by, and circumstances change, these lenses may begin to skew reality. In the most dysfunctional of environments, these lenses may even warp perceptions as to encourage the most maladaptive of business behaviors.
As ERP implementation consultants, it is of necessity that we come into a business from the outside, unaware and unaccustomed to the perspectives that shape the business in question. As consultants, we also have the good fortune of being exposed to many companies, in different industries, working with various products, catering to disparate markets. The expectation here is that our ERP implementation strategies across such environments gives us a cadre of different perspectives to use, and that we should be able to use these to the benefit of our client when they develop a vision and strategy. Because of the natural ignorance to a customer’s cultural worldview, and the access to alternative perspectives, the goal of a consultation effort has less to do with the use of an enterprise system than it does with the opportunities for a fresh perspective. The implementation of a new system becomes a means of surfacing and understanding the customer’s existing lenses and the consulting effort becomes an opportunity to try out new lenses, lenses that can be leveraged to formulate new processes and practices, that address changing business landscapes, and help companies achieve their respective strategic visions, in so doing.
So what is your vision? Come talk to us at the Estes Group, and see if we can help develop a vision and strategy to make them into a reality.
Digital transformation is a term that has received a lot of air time lately, and not surprisingly, it has also received a fair amount of suspicion. This should not be surprising, from the dawn of the written word, people have been suspicious of change.
In the Roman era, Ovid’s metamorphoses cataloged various characters of ancient myth, characters who, for one reason or another, were transformed by circumstance: The changing of a young man into a deer, for instance, or the turning of a young woman into a tree.
An in Ovid’s work, the transformation invariably was from a higher form to a lower form—radical change, for Ovid was essentially a bad thing. I wouldn’t mind being a tree, for instance, at least until the nearest roman tree surgeon came lumbering by.
In the 20th century Kafka’s own metamorphosis chronicled a similar transformation—this time, of one individual from an everyday man to a monstrous hideous beetle. One day you’re squelching the bugs underfoot, and the next day you’re the squelch! I see now why Kafka had such a hard time finding dates on Saturday evenings.
In this way, writers and thinkers over the years have been suspicious of change. Such types are often in search of the timeless, the eternal, the constant, and transformation has no place to stand among these pillars of persistence. It should also be noted too that Socrates was a lousy businessman. Just ask Asclepius about the rooster he had coming to him.
Now business rarely fit neatly into a literary narrative—businesses can be rough, and jumbled, sometimes tedious, sometimes unpredictable. But what businesses understand is that they cannot afford the stability and stasis that our literati longed for. Stasis just does keep the lights on for long
I met once with a small company in the mist of expanding its operations and they said to me that they were trying to move from being a big-little company to a little big company. That they had to change the way they did business, in order to sale up its operations and grow, and was making adjustments to its ERP system configuration to support these changes.
Another company I met was in the middle of a rocky new ERP system implementation, as it worked to replace the decades of paper-based processes that just didn’t work in the digital age. The processes and procedures that they had developed just no longer could support the work they needed to do. Their world had changed—their suppliers, their customers, and they knew that they needed to undergo a similar conversion.
For these companies, ERP digital transformation isn’t a literary reflection—it’s a simple necessity. What they’ve been doing up until now just cant support what they need to do, in order to hold onto what they have, or reach out for new opportunities. And our work at the Estes group was to support their reinventions utilizing the new ERP system implementation and the fine-tuning of their enterprise systems as the catalysts.
At the Estes group, we realize that the necessity of change comes with technical and organizational challenges, and we work with our clients to blend different approaches to ERP digital transformation in order to help our clients reshape themselves to better compete with an ever changing landscape.
Epicor’s Product Configurator is among its most enigmatic and elusive modules. Configurator has been diversely characterized and mischaracterized, as everything from the cure to all that ails you to the straw that broke the company’s back. This presents a daunting task for Epicor customers operating in engineer-to-order and configure-to-order environments, for there are a lot of answers and partial-answers out there, and getting to an answer specific to a given business is more easily said than done. Different companies, in different markets, have specific questions, and Epicor’s introductory materials tend to serve a general audience. Moreover, the experiences of customers from different industries and earlier versions of configurator may or may not apply to a company looking to implement or upgrade to the current Epicor release. The place of the customer within the Epicor implementation lifecycle also greatly affects their needs. For companies implementing Epicor for the first time in version 10.1, the questions may relate to the applicability of Epicor’s Product Configurator module to the company’s product offerings, or to the ease with which Product Configurator instances can be constructed and maintained. For companies moving from Vantage 8.03 or Epicor 9.05 versions, the questions may relate to the ease with which they can convert their configurators from Epicor’s older architecture to its new platform, and how to get their staff ready to maintain them, moving forward. Customers already in the heart of an implementation effort may just need someone to look over their shoulder and ensure that best practices are being followed, or even help expedite the configurator design and development.
For these reasons, The Estes Group tailors its Epicor ERP implementation services to meet the specific needs and circumstances of the client in question:
Configurator Upgrade Assessment: For existing Epicor customers considering the move from Vantage 803 or Epicor 905, but are concerned about the ramifications to their existing configurators, an assessment of their current use of Epicor’s Product Configurator module is often of great value. Estes’s consultants have configurator experience going back to Vantage 803 and moving forward into its current 10.1.600 release. Moreover, Estes’ consultants have experience uplifting and rebuilding configurators from earlier versions to Epicor’s current architecture, capturing the business requirements from the original versions, while leveraging Epicor’s new features, such as the expanded user interface, the elaborated method rule architecture its user-defined method capabilities and its highly-flexible configurator lookup table competencies. Such an assessment is most often a combination of remote and onsite effort, analyzing the existing solution and mapping its requirements to the Epicor 10 configurator.
New or existing customers often benefit from the traditional business process review (BPR) format, tailored to the areas affecting or affected by Epicor’s Configurator (quoting, order entry, planning, manufacturing). The goal of a Configurator BPR is to help the client understand whether Epicor’s Product Configurator module will address their business needs. It is common to incorporate a Business Process Review at the onset of an upgrade assessment when working with existing Epicor customers. These events normally extend from a few days to a week in duration, depending primarily on the size and complexity of the business and follow a detailed agenda, designed to explore the customer’s products and processes from multiple angles.
Epicor ERP Configurator Proof-Of-Concept:
For new customers in greater need of verification, or for customers looking to get a jump-start to their implementation, a Proof-Of-Concept activity (POC) is often the appropriate direction. Normally performed on the heels of a BPR, POC events involve a configurator and a production consultant working with the client team to develop a working prototype that can be processed through the quote-to-ship cycle, for purposes of business process prototyping and configurator verification. For companies in need of a definitive answer to specific questions, a Proof-Of-Concept activity is the most concrete way in which to provide them. And for companies struggling to gain project momentum, these events can be highly beneficial in gaining much-needed project traction.
Configurator Development Support: For customers in the midst of an Epicor implementation, but in need of some “extra muscle” in the area of Product Configurator, Estes offers trained consultants who can step in, roll up their sleeves, and immediately assist with design review, configurator development, and related system consulting. These activities can be performed remotely or onsite, based on customer need, and can vary in scope from a few remote hours a week, to an onsite intensive session, to ongoing engagement.
Ask us any question you have about Epicor ERP Configurator. We have answers.