In 2022, the most competitive businesses will be the ones that invest in new technology. Today, this technology includes ERP job shop management software or similar data tracking
systems that allow companies to gain full visibility and control of their operations. These businesses will have clear goals for staying competitive in the New Year and most likely have already developed their three- to five-year business strategies, an essential first step toward executing a successful technology implementation.
To truly make the most of a tech investment, however, requires a thorough internal business review – a deep dive that assesses processes, people capacity, data and perhaps most important, a company’s focus level. A technology implementation can be a significant undertaking and, at times, can feel disruptive to business, but not if you have the right mindset.
While the approach to carrying out a successful technology implementation may vary based on the size and maturity level of the business, it’s always good to assess your readiness for the project. How manual are your processes? Do you have enough people and are they in the right positions to bring your goals to fruition? How do you collect and analyze your data? Are you mentally ready?
In terms of processes, many job shops and custom manufacturers are still very manual in terms of how they move data, transact business, and schedule machines and people. So objectively evaluating those processes and the technology that supports them is incredibly important. Ask yourself: Is my existing technology infrastructure robust and highly secure or old and outdated? Do I want to manage that moving forward or move to the cloud, which might be more secure and affordable?
“When a manufacturer is real and honest with themselves in terms of gaps and opportunities in those areas, it will be easier to take advantage of the benefits the technology promises to deliver,” says Matt Heerey, the president of the manufacturing division at ECI Software Solutions. “We can’t stress enough how important a business review is to fully assess internal processes as you get closer to the technology selection stage. In doing so, it will be easier to understand which technologies and software providers can help you mitigate challenges and inefficiencies and streamline your processes.”
In the modern era, most manufacturing processes produce data, so before any technology implementation, it’s important to understand how your business manages it. Are you managing data in a robust fashion, collecting it and analyzing it – from both the front office and the shop floor? What challenges do you have in doing so? Is all data accounted for?
Assessing processes and data inherently leads to the discussion of people capacity. As it should. Beyond the assessment of which folks will be involved with the technology implementation project, it’s important to remember that the people you rely on to run the business will have to allocate some of their capacity to learning, configuring and training to become adept at using the new technology. It’s an important mindset to carry throughout the project.
“The final element of the business review may be the one thing that ultimately dictates the success or failure of a technology implementation: the overall company’s focus level,” Heerey says. “And it has to start at the top. It requires strong leadership that’s committed to the full process of implementing technology, but also a culture that’s open to it. If they can’t or won’t embrace change, an implementation can run aground.”
Initial game plan
Post-business review, the first thing to do is identify the key employees that are going to be involved. Who are the stakeholders? Identify those folks and get them committed to the project.
Paint that picture, create that vision and let them know how you’re going to rely on them.
Once stakeholders are identified, focus on data and clean it up, which is absolutely critical as an early task. From there, identify exactly what data is going to be moved over to the new system and what’s going to be left behind. Heerey says that one of the biggest challenges to an implementation is data that’s “incomplete, dirty or non-homogenized.”
“When vetting technology providers, do as much research beforehand as possible, which can be as straightforward as talking to peers,” he continues. “Most manufacturers are in a network – whether they’re folks down the street or people they meet with once every few months. Ask them about the technology and software provider they chose and about the surprises they encountered along the way.”
The internet can be a good resource, too, but remember that some of it can be more or less applicable. The value of third-party objective lessons learned is priceless. It’s so important to do due diligence not only regarding the technology, but to make sure that the technology partner is open and collaborative and as committed to success as you are.
“Once a partner is selected, develop a structured, transparent, consistent and repeatable communication status and cadence with them,” Heerey suggests. “Create a mutually agreed-upon, detailed project plan with due dates and ownership. Make sure that owners are assigned so everyone knows what role they’re going to play and the areas for which they are responsible.
“Also, be sure to establish a very clear change management process with the technology partner so that everyone is on the same page and knows how change is going to be managed and facilitated,” he adds. “If you’ve selected the right partner, there will be open and honest lines of communication. Commit to sharing concerns in real time so there’s nothing hidden in the weeds.”
The next step is identifying the training plan, which should begin with initially training users so that they know enough about the technology that they can understand when the technology partner discusses processes, configurations and other details. But don’t stop there.
It’s hard to learn a technology if you only go through it once, so embrace the idea of refresher or repetitive training. It’s understandable for someone to walk away from one training session and not totally understand the new technology. “Sometimes, you just have to get your hands dirty with it to ensure that the training takes hold,” Heerey explains.
It takes a lot to commit to a large-scope project and also gain the full ROI and benefits that come from it, so, understandably, some risk is involved. “Failed implementation” is the worst-case scenario, but there are also “subrisks,” as Heerey describes them, or cost overruns that can often be attributed to selecting the wrong technology or the wrong partner.
In terms of the potential for failure, everything always seems to circle back to company wherewithal and the commitment involved. Heerey has witnessed that initial excitement wane after the business starts the implementation but is then distracted by demanding customers that want their complete focus.
“We run into owners that are strong and supportive that understand the vision and the time and commitment involved, but there are others that don’t,” he says. “They don’t follow through, which means their staff don’t follow through, either. That, obviously, can be a real challenge for success.”
Another big factor for success – or failure – is selecting the right partner and technology. When the wrong partner is selected, there will undoubtedly be higher risk for cost overruns. The right partner, however, will be transparent about costs and motivated to ensure that all parties agree on the scope of the project.
It’s not unheard of for a manufacturer to change the scope along the way because they want to implement modules or features for which they hadn’t originally planned. Or, they might get distracted and hit pause on the project and then restart it once they have time to refocus. And that all costs money. Heerey sees situations where manufacturers spent twice what they should have. That can be disappointing and disconcerting if those potential issues hadn’t been discussed or anticipated.
“Endless customization can be a real challenge,” he explains. “You can expect that there will be some customization done with every technology implementation, but there are some manufacturers that suddenly want every feature and capability. If you really want it, most technology partners will support it, but remember that there can be a cost involved.”
Infrastructure and hardware can also create additional hidden costs. Imagine the cost you’d incur if your existing infrastructure was satisfactory, but when you implemented the new technology, you discovered that the system couldn’t run fast enough.
The same holds true with hardware costs. Whether it’s tablets on the shop floor or monitors displaying dashboards integrated directly to machines, it’s key to factor in the cost of the devices or hardware users will need to interact with the technology. If you don’t plan for that up front, you might miss the opportunity to truly optimize your usage or incur those costs later.
Hidden costs can also be associated with staffing. If you don’t have adequate internal staffing, will you have to hire a consultant or a dedicated project manager? Most technology providers can provide a project manager, but some customers want that project manager to come from within their organization.
“Overall, it’s challenging to measure the opportunity cost of staff’s time,” Heerey says. “As an example, if you’re implementing over three or four months, your output might take a slight dip or your growth could be constrained because the staff worker is spending 10 or 15 percent of their time on the implementation or software training. It’s difficult to put a number on it, but it’s something to consider as you’re planning a technology investment.”
That’s where having the big picture view of the future is so important. If you’ve thought about where you want your business to be in three years, how the new technology is going to help you get there and you’ve communicated that to all of the stakeholders, you’re going to be better off. That way, when you see that dip in output, everyone can say, “we anticipated this and it’s part of the process of getting to a brighter future.”
“Even after you’ve implemented technology, you’ll want to continue to do wholesale business reviews regarding your goals or what might be impeding you from achieving them,” Heerey concludes. “Talk to your technology partner to identify opportunities that you may be missing. Perhaps the technology isn’t being used completely. It’s not uncommon for a manufacturer to start with an implementation, but then only use pieces of it and not use the full set of technology they’ve acquired.”
No matter what: Stay focused; you’ve got this.