How is ERP like Flying?

Friday, September 22, 2017

What do enterprise resource planning (ERP) and aviation have in common?

As many of you with whom I have worked know, I am an active instrument rated private pilot. I frequently offer up this information when introducing myself in the hopes of encountering other pilots with whom I can share endless hours of hangar stories. And, it also tells me something about that person.

To be a good pilot means much more than simply developing the skills to control the airplane. It means subscribing to and embracing a culture, processes and procedures that govern how you prepare for, conduct and learn from every flight. Over the years I've often drawn on the discipline that aviation requires and applied this to the work I do in ERP.

The inspiration for this post came from a recent experience. A friend and I took our humble Piper Warrior aircraft out for the first time since installing a new $20,000 avionics package. The Garmin GTN650 combines GPS, COM and NAV functions with powerful multifunction display capabilities; it would bring our little bird up to 21st century standards enabling us to fly any GPS approach, receive real-time traffic alerts and see near-time weather information. Wow!

The Garmin GTN650 YouTube videos, that other pilots have posted online, are often recorded from the flight deck of a fancy business jet, and yet we’ll have the same capability in our little bird! Let me back up a bit. There was a lot that went into that first flight. A week earlier, I loaded the simulator software for the new unit on my PC. I had a commercial trip to Los Angeles (LAX) and so used that 6 hours of forced captivity to read the manual (yes, I read the entire 550-page manual) and then apply what I was learning to various scenarios I setup in the simulator. As we cruised along in the real world at 35,000 feet, I was shooting approaches in the virtual world back at my home airport.

Preparation and Simulation

So what does aviation have to do with ERP and your business? Like ERP software, the GTN650 has millions of lines of code. In fact, the cost of the hardware is a small fraction of the real value in that small box that sits in the panel of our Piper plane. The software inside the box is the real “secret sauce” that turned a couple of grown men into giddy little boys on that maiden flight. I don’t think I’ve ever said “this is so cool,” so many times over such a short period.

Unlike little kids with a new toy, we did not just hop into the airplane and expect to figure it out as we flew our approaches. That first flight lasted three hours, but each of us had previously spent several hours reading the manual and then several more hours practicing with the simulator. Oh, and that first flight was in pristine visual conditions with a fellow pilot. Before I fly solo on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan for the first time using our upgraded avionics, I will spend more quality time with the manual and the simulator and make additional visual flights. Interacting with this critical system has to be quick and second nature.

ERP is your critical business system. It requires preparation and simulation as well.

Whether preparing to go live, implementing a new process or procedure, or migrating to a new release, well-run businesses invest the time it takes for users to prepare for the change so that its introduction is as seamless as possible and the benefits are realized immediately. How? First we analyze the nature of the change. Then we train users on a copy of the database that reflects what they will see when the change is implemented. In working with ERP, I refer to this as piloting; in aviation it is referred to as simulation.

Once we are confident that the desired results we observed during the piloting phase are achievable and reproducible in the production environment, we finalize a written plan that lists the steps required to implement the change. Hmmm, if that sounds a lot like a checklist, it is!

Checklists are part of the aviation culture and should be a part of yours. They help to ensure that the proper steps are executed at the right time and in the proper sequence. I use them extensively in the ERP work that I do with clients. Each one reflects what we have learned during the piloting phase, so that when it is time to execute the change in the production environment, there are no surprises, just the results we planned for and expect.

Complexity and Simplicity

After our first flight with the Garmin, I got to thinking about the complexity of the algorithms in the device, and the myriad ways in which it can be configured to meet the requirements of each pilot, aircraft and flight. Remember, this same device can be found in sophisticated business jets and single engine Pipers such as ours. Ultimately, however, the intention is that the pilot’s interaction with the device is the minimum necessary to safely conclude the flight, and that minimal pilot interaction is quick and repetitious in nature. In my case — this is critical — as we do not have an autopilot. Any time I spend interacting with the GTN650 is time diverted from flying the airplane.

Before a flight, the pilot loads the flight plan. During the flight, it is updated based on changes directed by air traffic control. Periodically, the pilot monitors navigation, weather and traffic information displayed on the various screens available in the user interface. Upon arrival, the pilot loads and then executes the approach. If you do this enough times, muscle memory kicks in, and you barely have to look at the screen to make a change. In the end, all of the complexity inside the black box (literally — GPS algorithms that take into account Einstein’s time dilation formula to ensure accurate global positioning!) boils down to a few quick repeatable keystrokes that result in a safe flight.

ERP is very much like this. ERP systems are designed to be flexible and adaptable to numerous business environments and requirements. I work with clients who have as few as five users and others that have 75 users or more. Some are multinational in nature with facilities and users around the world. Others are single currency businesses operating from one physical location.

Regardless, all of the global and module specific configuration settings (and others) uniquely define how each customer, supplier, site, item (and many other elements in the system) behave, and this drives how end users interact with the system thousands of times each day. When managers invest the time and forethought into the implementation and ongoing operation, this enormous complexity is transformed into a few simple repeatable transactions that ensure customer service is excellent, operating costs are minimized, and management has the information it needs to adjust the business plan as necessary.

Investing for the Long Haul, Investing for the Future

Sometimes, when I arrive for a client's on-site visit, I am asked, “Did you fly here?” If the destination is less than 150 miles away, the answer is frequently no. Why? For any flight there are several time consuming steps. Result: trips under that short distance actually take longer for me to fly than to drive.

When I fly, I must prepare for the flight by getting a weather briefing and filing a flight plan. Then, I still have to drive to the airport and preflight the aircraft. After I arrive, I must secure the aircraft and drive to the final destination. So, short trips are — on a time basis — not economical. However, trips that exceed 150 miles begin to make sense. I have family in Winston Salem, North Carolina. From where I live, near Washington, D.C., that trip takes nearly seven hours to drive. In the airplane, it is five to six hours — there and back — making a day drip possible.

With ERP, we are also making an investment that requires up-front planning and preparation. Like aviation, even after the initial investment, there is ongoing maintenance and training, but we do so to prepare our business for the long journey ahead and to keep evertyhing on course along the way. This is an endeavor with a view beyond, not just next week, month or year. Businesses that successfully implement and operate ERP do so with a vision of what they will become and see ERP as part of the plan that will enable them to achieve that vision.

Change is something that pilots learn to manage carefully. Implied in change is risk and cost. While most pilots enjoy the challenge associated with flying a new aircraft, the experience is normally an end in itself. Then, it is back to our day-to-day airplane; the one in which we can lower the flaps, adjust the trim, and turn on the landing lights all with our eyes closed. Familiarity fosters safety and security.

Then there is cost. To fly a new airplane requires studying its systems, one or more check rides with an instructor, often a written exam, and flight time to truly get comfortable with the machine.

There are other things we are loath to change as well. One is our mechanic.

Legally an aircraft must have an annual inspection to remain airworthy. Ours have ranged from $3,500 to $15,000. If you switch mechanics, you can expect your first annual with the new one to be more expensive. Why? The mechanic signs off on their inspection; they're held accountable. When you switch mechanics, the first few annual inspections will be performed with an added level of scrutiny to make certain that required work performed in the past was done — and done correctly.

Implementing an ERP system is an endeavor best undertaken with a long-term view. These systems are the platform on which the business will operate for years to come. They are entrenched in nearly every corner of the business, their usage becomes second nature to users, and they are integrated with other systems. I often times point out to members of the implementation team: expect to retire with the system they are implementing.

An ERP system’s effectiveness over the long-term is also directly related to maintenance: how well it is maintained and who maintains it.

The annual aviation inspection is a legal requirement, but it is a minimum standard. In business, there isn’t even a minimum standard. I can tell you from experience that those companies who dedicate an employee to their ERP system (the internal ERP Program Manager) and those that develop a long-term relationship with an external consultant get the most out of their ERP investment. The internal resource is intimately familiar with how the business leverages the software, how the business is changing, and what the need is for future requirements. The external resource brings the perspective that comes with experience across a broad range of clients and how the software's feature set and functionality is growing and changing to meet those future requirements.

Relate this back to aviation: consider the utility we get from our humble little Piper Warrior, built in 1979. A brand new four-place (or seats) single-engine piston aircraft costs 10 times the value of our Warrior… really. Our maintenance costs are lower, and with a few upgrades, it will remain safe and reliable for years to come. A relationship with an airplane is a bit like a marriage; one enters into it with an open-ended timeframe. You should do so with your ERP system as well.

There is one important difference between ERP and aviation. While we can upgrade the avionics, make improvements to the engine, and add speed modifications, our little Piper will always be a “low-and-slow” four-place airplane. The same cannot be said for ERP. Many small companies implement ERP to establish the operating platform from which the business will grow for the long haul. The sophistication and scale of your ERP implementation can grow with your business needs.

Conclusion

When I take someone flying, I often reflect on what an awesome responsibility it is to do so. I am truly responsible for their safety; their life is in my hands. It is not as if we can simply pull over and stop if they decide they want to get out.

I feel the same responsibility when working on a client’s ERP system. There are times when the nature of what we are doing means the heartbeat — the central nervous system — of their business is entrusted to my care. With flying, like ERP, the stakes are high, the investment considerable, and the ongoing training and maintenance are critical to success. The rewards over the life of the business are significant. To help improve the way I and business owners approach ERP, I recommend drawing on lessons learned from other endeavors with similar high risk-reward profiles.

For me, that is flying into the wild, blue yonder.

 


Did you know the first time an airline pilot lands a new type of aircraft it is with passengers on board; the simulators are that good!

Mike Atherton

Director Product Evangelism

Mike has delivered project management, implementation, technical and training services to xTuple clients since the earliest days of the company. These clients span a wide range of industries around the world. Prior to xTuple, Mike was a Senior ERP Consultant for Computer Associates International, an expert on multiple CA products, notably the Baan Triton/MK product acquired first by SSA, then Infor. He served as adjunct faculty for The George Washington University and Marymount University where he taught courses on Operations Management and Global Operations Strategy, and currently guest lectures on project management and systems-thinking in The Graduate School USA's Center for Leadership and Management. He holds a B.B.A. from the College of William and Mary and a M.B.A. from The George Washington University. An author of numerous articles, Mike has written on a variety of topics including "Becoming a Closed-Loop Organization," which appeared in Darwin magazine and CIO.com, and "Strategy Implementation: Closing The Management Gap," which appeared in Industrial Management magazine. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, the leading charitable organization dedicated to curing myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).