08 May Zen and the Art of ERP Maintenance
Back in the hazy days of my youth, I was persuaded by a friend to read a fairly hefty tome called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with a view to improving my burgeoning mind still further.
Part road trip and part philosophical journey, I’m not too proud to admit that I found the book to be quite heavy going for the most part, with a lot of the weightier postulations going right over my head.
Having said that, there is a very simple idea at the heart of the book that struck a chord with me then, and arguably changed the way I approach complex tasks forever.
(If you’d rather read Robert M. Pirsig’s seminal philosophical masterpiece for yourself, please look away now, as they say on pre-Match of the Day sports roundups.)
The book’s central idea is that however complex something looks: such as a motorcycle engine for example, it has all been put together one piece at a time, using only nuts and bolts, and often by unskilled workers.
So when something goes wrong, you can look at the engine with a blend of fear and incomprehension on your face, or you can accept this simple fact, and slowly and methodically begin to dismantle it until you find the problem, replace what’s broken or out of place, and put everything back together again.
Now, even if you don’t immediately see the similarities between motorbike engines and ERP solutions, you are already ahead for the day, as I’ve just saved you from having to read 432 pages of incredibly small text. You’re welcome.
However, I think it’s fair to say that the book’s central principle can usefully be applied to the maintenance and evolution of ERP systems.
Finding Simplicity Through Holistic Landscape Reviews
Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software can be a highly complex thing, with astonishing capabilities to synchronise and streamline any number of critical processes.
Yet it can only do so if the original planning and implementation were carried out effectively and successfully; and even then, only for as long as you can stay on top of the operational and legislative changes that have make some processes obsolete or simply very unwieldy.
All too often, this can cause ERP solutions to become ineffective over time, which usually leads to calls for extensive – and expensive – IT projects to be commissioned. In the worst cases, it can even lead to significant long-term ERP investment being completely written off in favour of a wholesale move to the Cloud in pursuit of Nirvana.
In actual fact, what is more likely to be required is a holistic landscape review: engaging with your people and culture, analysing your processes and auditing your tech.
Or, to put it another way, rather than saying: “Something’s broken in the motorbike, we’d better throw it away and get down to the Honda showroom”, you say to yourself: “OK. There’s a problem. Let’s have a good look around and see what it is. The solution may be simple and not too expensive.”
Zen and the Art of Keeping It Real
If all this talk of philosophy is making you want to go for a cup of tea and a sit down, please don’t worry. I’m about to bring all of this back to reality.
Back, in fact, to a recent project for an Local Authority.
We were called in to solve a few specific ERP issues, but recommended our holistic landscape review just to make sure that the overall project was informed by genuine organisational and cultural needs.
During the review, we came across one particularly time-consuming manual process that was causing all sorts of problems. It transpired that during the on-boarding of a single supply teacher, the manual data entries required would take up to half a day of someone’s time.
Multiply that by several hundred such deployments every year, and it was plain to see that this was a major pain point: for the organisation and its people.
However, it was fairly easily solved, by capturing additional data items in custom fields; and this new approach of automated data capture and mapping was able to reduce what had once been a four-hour task to one that took a matter of minutes. Or, to put it another way, it freed up hundreds of hours for the organisation, and perhaps saved the sanity of a few blameless HR people.
As I have noted before, many ERP platforms have the hidden functionality that their owners require: but the need – and the solution – can only be identified and acted upon following a truly holistic landscape review.
That means considering culture, people and processes, as well as the actual technology. More importantly, it means concentrating on ends rather than means, and never being afraid to look inside your ERP and your organisation to establish if many of the ‘broken’ elements really are broken, or simply need a metaphorical squirt of WD40.