Event review: ERP Connect 5

How do you leverage an ERP system for maximum benefit? How do you get it to deliver maximum ROI as well as maximum productivity, maximum business intelligence, and maximum competitive edge? asks Malcolm Wheatley

Such questions were undoubtedly what brought delegates to TM’s latest ERP Connect event, held on May 3 at the Ansty Hall Hotel, Coventry. It was a day packed with case study presentations, expert insight, one-to-one meetings and rich networking opportunities.

For, as many manufacturing businesses know to their cost, the answers to such questions aren’t easily found. While it’s difficult to run a modern manufacturing business without an ERP system, the challenges of leveraging ERP for maximum benefit are easily underestimated.

“We’re now having to supply customers on timescales that you’d associate with a distributor, not a manufacturer.” – Chris Mulvihill Managing Director, EMS Manufacturing

Simply put, mis-steps are costly, sapping efficiencies at a time when business conditions are tougher than ever. How do you choose the right system? How do you implement it and get that implementation right the first time? How do you minimise the risks of that implementation? And how do you leverage the system so as to deliver sustainable best practices?

Of delegates seeking answers to such questions, few if any will have gone away empty-handed.

Eleven insightful presentations, supported by networking meetings and question-andanswer sessions, showed how some of Britain’s best manufacturing businesses had adroitly leveraged ERP to boost competitiveness, drive down costs, and deliver undoubted bottom-line benefit.

Chris Mulvihill, manufacturing director at EMS Manufacturing, for instance, set the scene by describing how implementing Exel’s EFACS E/8 ERP system “has really changed how we do things. The customer base wants speed, more than we’ve ever experienced before,” he said. “We’re now having to supply customers on timescales that you’d associate with a distributor, not a manufacturer – from six weeks, down to just four hours, if required.”

Claire Stillie, information systems programme manager at paving manufacturer Marshalls, highlighted how the company had worked with trusted partner eBECS to replace a highly complex IT environment – characterised by multiples instances of Baan, Sage, Opera and ManMan – with a “single version of the truth: Microsoft Dynamics AX.”

Similarly, Graeme McNaught, project planning manager at fire-control radar systems manufacturer Selex Galileo, a former BAE Systems business, described how a clever use of SAP’s project capability underpinned the entire company.

“The whole business is run as a series of projects, with 4,000- 5,000 active at any one time – even the canteen is run as an ongoing project,” he enthused.

Did it work? The compelling contrast between a complicated-looking ‘before’ slide and a much simpler ‘after’ slide told its own story.

Secrets of a perfect implementation

ERP Connect events provide a powerful opportunity to hear first hand just how manufacturers have gone about the business of implementation – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Ugly? How about a massive power failure at the very point of the ‘live’ switch over? As Claire Stillie, information systems programme manager at paving manufacturer Marshalls explained, things don’t come much uglier than that.

And yet, she reported, the implementation survived the trauma.

How? Built-in resilience, and careful planning, she told a packed room in a wide-ranging presentation that covered a group-wide, multi-site implementation of Microsoft Dynamics AX across widely-divergent business models.

Planning is vital, echoed Michael Mortiboys, commercial manager at printing machine manufacturer Muller Martini, reminding delegates of Winston Churchill’s famous observation that “failing to plan is like planning to fail.”

Three of Mortiboys’ favourite planning tips?

First, adhere as closely as possible to the as-provided business processes that come with the system. (“It’s not that there’s a right way, and a wrong way. There’s a right way, and a costly way,” he explained.)

Second, every implementation team should have an ‘objector’. Someone whose natural inclination is to ask awkward questions.

Third, “think outside the box: spend time considering tomorrow’s requirements, not just today’s.”

Remember, too, to think about risk – ideally through formal risk management processes, added Peter Robinson, head of information systems at organic yoghurt manufacturer Yeo Valley. As with the power cut at Marshalls, some risks are unlikely, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t occur.

Finally, David Warburton-Broadhurst, CIO at telematics manufacturer Masternaut, added: “Keep it simple. Break the project down into bite-sized chunks, and don’t reinvent the wheel. The vendor will have invested a lot of money in developing the in-built processes contained in the ERP system – don’t think that you will automatically be able to come up with better ones. You probably can’t.”

Impressive, too, was the keynote presentation by Peter Robinson, head of information systems at organic yoghurt manufacturer Yeo Valley. Most ERP projects, he noted, can be counted as failures – delivered late, over-budget, and with constrained functionality.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he explained. And just six reasons account for two-thirds of all such failures. His message? Follow proven processes, manage risk, regard ERP as a business-wide project – not an IT one – and use your best people.