Liam Durbin, CIO and Kimberly Frey Director of Enterprise Solutions, T. Marzetti
ERP implementation programs have a will to fail. They are often complicated and expensive programs that must be delivered in line with an ever-changing and fast-moving business landscape, over a multi-year horizon. Yet, there comes a time in the life of many companies when taking on such a project becomes necessary. And so, companies lean their shoulders into these doomed projects, scrounging for executive support, swear allegiance to best practice, and kid themselves they can beat the odds. Many will not. The best bets are those organizations that approach their programs with a healthy dose of consistent, nagging paranoia, the other shoe always imminently dropping.
Such was the case for us at T. Marzetti in early 2019. Marzetti was making the awkward transition from being a big, small company to being a small, big company. Our existing ERP was not suitable to make that transition and hence an ERP implementation became a strategic priority for the organization.
We followed best practice. We hired experienced senior leaders to the program. We drafted from the business A-players and placed them on the project team. We defined a business case and gained buy-in and support across the organization. We hired a top-tier system integrator. We had guiding principles – and followed them. We protected fit to standard with autocratic zeal. We invested in Organizational Change Management, not just training. We consciously created a program culture that valued nimbleness and would thrive on change. Our approach and adherence to best practice caught the eye of senior leaders in our SI and ERP software provider. They both threw their support behind the project in observable and measurable ways. We were set up to beat the odds.
Then, everything changed overnight. Less than a year in, we sent everyone home due to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Our odds of success seemed to decrease exponentially. There were lots of conversations in those initial days about whether success during a pandemic was still in play, and at what cost. There weren’t existing best practices we could follow. There were more unknowns than knowns. Considering we were already dealing with the sort of program that wants to fail, could we – and more importantly should we – press on in the face of such unprecedented risk?
• Doing site readiness assessments without visiting sites?
• Coordinating complex testing evolutions with everyone remote?
• Training employees with no in-person presence?
• On-site support – not on-site?
• Keep employees and their families safe, preserve engagement, while expecting inevitable absences?
After thoughtful deliberation, we decided to pivot and press on with the project, despite the new risks. After all, we had already assembled the right group of talented people, leaders who had the ability to consider alternatives, assess risk / reward trade-offs, and make decisions nimbly. We empowered those leaders to adjust our current plan and adapt it to meet the current circumstances. We leaned on their ability to break down very complicated things, sort through the clutter, play out alternative scenarios, and demonstrate the courage to make recommendations with full awareness of the risks. We encouraged the team to identify and elevate new risks and manage through change. We received support from our executive leadership team to figure it out and make it work.
We decided it was necessary to keep a core group together on-site while sending most of the team home. The core group was small, cross-functional and multi-skilled. We were fortunate that the project team had cultivated useful tools before the pandemic that carried us in the new circumstance, specifically: operating in an iterative waterfall methodology and onshore / nearshore / offshore model. The core team acted as the central hub for coordinating and communicating across our integrated solution and driving program management activities as the team learned to work remotely.
We changed the project path to defer risk, specifically through use of a pilot site. This allowed us to test the technical solution while deferring the more complicated back office and customer facing elements. As a food manufacturing company, T. Marzetti is a critical part of the national food chain and we were conscious not to take actions that could disrupt the broader food supply chain. We chose to leverage this pilot to gather lessons learned and to validate the solution while also keeping us on track to deliver the full solution once the organization was prepared.
Slowing down was better than stopping, but it still had its challenges. The accumulated knowledge of the solution in the team we had built remained integral to our ability to be successful both with the pilot and into the future. We had to figure out how to retain the key talent, keep them engaged, but also reduce our monthly operational costs. We added functionality, like Analytics, that would drive additional benefits and improve the user experience. We added more test cycles, mock conversions, and simulated cutovers to mitigate implementation risks and increase the quality of our solution. We recognized that increasing the quality and maturity of the solution would reduce future costs post implementation. We shifted even more work offshore but kept our core team intact.
The pilot site successfully went live in February of 2021. As expected, there have been valuable and applicable lessons learned. It exposed gaps in the support model, which have since been filled in. The flow of incidents from new users gave our Managed Services provider valuable time to come up to speed in a smaller, less risky environment. We shifted our training strategy to focus more on building change management skills internally and reduce the reliance on external trainers. This has helped to drive knowledge retention and ownership. We recognized a shortfall in Super Users and beefed up the Super User program. Most importantly, we uncovered and preemptively addressed business readiness challenges that would have been more severe if we had rolled out the solution more broadly.
The one constant has been strong people, who can pivot and bend without breaking, and remain optimistic in the face of difficulty. With six months to go before the biggest of four wave deployments, we hope to see only the run of the mill stomach punches (stuff we have in our risk mitigation plans) from here on in and nothing new like the pandemic. Even with our biggest pivots behind us, we are no less paranoid, and no less optimistic, than we were before the pandemic began. There is still a healthy dose of both, willing us to beat the odds.
Jaša Žižek Fuis, Product Manager, Wastewater Treatment & Andreja Peternelj, Wastewater Treatment Development Manager, Treatment Plant & Tomaž Ružič, Product Manager, DISNet WS - Water systems, Petrol d.d., Ljubljana, Petrol Group