Perfect is the Enemy of Good (Logistics)

Running Professional Services at Descartes for the last nine years, I’ve seen this old adage come up time and time again. It hasn’t mattered if the customer was implementing a TMS, Visibility, Route Planning or Mobile solution – I’ve seen “grand” projects crash or get endlessly mired and not produce the anticipated business results. The lesson learned is that it’s OK to strive for perfection … that’s what creates much of the innovation that moves logistics forward. However, we’ve observed that too many organizations get caught up in the attempt to achieve perfection on the first pass with their logistics technology solutions.  Not only is this highly unlikely and causes delay, in some extreme cases, it results in complete project stoppage with no value gained. Here are four important points to consider for your next logistics technology project.

Prioritize the value drivers and challenges. It can be tough to determine where to start a project and achievable business value is not the only determining factor. There are three factors to consider when prioritizing decisions: 1) potential value, 2) length, and 3) complexity. In the ideal world, you want to start by implementing the capabilities that are highly valuable, easy to do, and don’t take long. The real challenge is addressing time and complexity. Some things are simple, but take more time because they need to roll out across the organization. Complexity relates to the degree of difficulty, which also implies risk. If you’re trying to get “quick wins” and build momentum, your ability to deliver becomes paramount. For example, if you are implementing a visibility solution, getting the data from your trading partners and carriers is the most critical. You can have a design with 10 tracking milestones, but find out that there is a lot of work to get them all reliably – so you pick the three that matter most and roll those out. You can always expand from there, but demonstrate the value of the visibility solution in the short term.

Focus on the first 100 days’ success. Project support momentum is a critical success factor, it’s important to think about what can be accomplished early in the project. Here’s why. The longer it takes to produce results, the more likely that support from both the user base and management will wane. So, time-to-value is the enemy of all logistics projects (see the Logistics Viewpoints Post: What is the Half-Life of Your Logistics Technology Investments?). Your strategy should be to build project momentum through a series of quick successes. The implication for your project means that you need to leverage what already exists within the solution, keeping integration “ASAP” (as straightforward as possible) and deployed where data quality is already decent. In addition, you need to understand what your organization is capable of absorbing. For example, going from manual to “lights out” processes can be an extreme organizational stretch. If the workforce isn’t all that sophisticated, getting them used to the basics before moving to the advanced capabilities can help them absorb the change.

Communicate the strategy. A lot of projects are overhyped to help get them sold internally. So, expectations are set too high and, when the users see the system, they tend to focus on the “1% use cases” or advanced capabilities that haven’t been implemented yet. Let the users and their managers know what they are getting and in what waves. Yes, they can live in a world that’s partially automated and partially manual… they probably did before and can do so now. The same goes for communicating the anticipated results that will be delivered – be as phased, realistic, and conservative as possible. This is always a balancing act because a strong ROI is usually needed to get approval. However, nothing sours senior management more than a project that isn’t delivering the anticipated level of business value, because they usually plug those projected numbers into the company’s planned operating performance.

Be decisive: Nothing drags out projects and dilutes their value like change and the inability to make a decision. Know that you will learn as you go, but unless something critically bad is about to happen, don’t stop. Beware of focusing on the “1% use cases,” where a very small percentage of the time, something happens that the new system cannot address at this time. Yes, they need to be addressed, but know that, for now, they can be handled manually or with a work-around. Deciding to wait for the next release to move forward doesn’t add any value to the business. This is why business managers and senior management need to be involved in the project. They can make an educated decision on the business tradeoffs. Do not leave the decision to the end users and lower-level IT resources involved in the project, because they will want to wait for perfection. You would be amazed to learn how many projects drag on endlessly, not producing business value because of lack of business leadership.

What about large, enterprise-wide projects? For certain kinds of projects it’s much harder to get quick wins on an enterprise-wide basis because of the complexity and time involved. So, don’t think enterprise-wide. Instead, contain the rollout to one area of the business, standardize the processes and solution, harden it through real-world use, and work with a smart, flexible team that knows that the solution won’t be perfect the first time out. We took this approach with Mondelez International and Home Depot when we worked together to roll out mobile tracking solutions to thousands of users nationwide for each company. We started in one region with what they each considered their best teams. We then worked through the solution with the team before rolling it out across the country in a matter of months after we collectively determined the best processes, configurations, and training. In each case, we stayed with the initial nationwide deployments for a period of time before making any adjustments.

With logistics technology it is easy to find yourself or your organization in a “boil the ocean” deployment strategy that has lost its way and, most importantly, organizational support to move forward. Rather than fight human nature, consider a deployment strategy that delivers some results sooner, builds momentum and confidence in the organization, and enlists and retains commitment from senior management.

Chris Jones is the Executive Vice President for Marketing and Services at Descartes. He has over 30 years of experience in the supply chain market, holding variety of senior management positions including: Senior Vice President at The Aberdeen Group’s Value Chain Research division, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Development for SynQuest, Vice President and Research Director for Enterprise Resource Planning Solutions at Gartner and Associate Director Operations and Technology at Kraft Foods. If you would like to contact or discuss this subject further with the author you are welcome to email Chris Jones at cjones@descartes.com.