A Step-by-Step Guide to Kicking Off an ERP Refresh

Dave Kravitt, CPIM

ERP software is a strategic linchpin for manufacturing and distribution organizations. Employees interact with this mission-critical software every single day. The right ERP capabilities can play a key role in enabling a more agile, growth-oriented business. And a poorly managed system can directly hamper day-to-day efficiency, limit operational awareness, and even introduce critical risks to security and data integrity.

But even though ERP software is strategically critical, many organizations have trouble maintaining an effective strategic roadmap for ERP development. ERP capabilities tend to evolve piecemeal over time, becoming so deeply enmeshed in day-to-day operations that it can be difficult to know how to even begin evaluating potential improvements.

In our experience, a meticulous, systematic ERP refresh initiative is the best way to address this uncertainty. A careful evaluation of business requirements, including how employees actually interact with the software on a daily basis, builds a foundation for ensuring that system enhancements are targeted to the most pressing business problems.

This article provides a summary of key steps for kicking off your ERP refresh. We will explore this topic in greater depth in an upcoming webinar. 

What is an ERP refresh? And why can it be so valuable?

An “ERP refresh” refers to a step-by-step process for evaluating and enhancing ERP capabilities. A successful refresh needs to look closely at not only technical capabilities, but how these capabilities are actually being used in the organization.

A careful analysis helps ensure that your ERP investments are targeted to specific problem areas and opportunities. For example, migrating to a new ERP might be a completely unnecessary cost and disruption if targeted integrations with 3rd party applications can achieve the required capabilities (we take a deeper look at abandoning v. revitalizing your legacy ERP in our white paper here). 

Below, we outline what a prototypical step-by-step process for evaluating the state of your ERP looks like.

ERP Refresh Step One: Evaluate the Business Situation

All enterprise software is ultimately used to support broader requirements of the business, but ERP software is uniquely integrated with the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day operations. We recommend starting with a detailed evaluation of how your business is actually using its ERP capabilities. 

Pinpoint Problem Areas

Where is your ERP software holding your business back? This might be the easiest question to answer, as acute ERP limitations are often the impetus for improving the software in the first place. Focus on:

  • Any chronic bottlenecks that develop as a result of limited ERP functionality.
  • Immediate pain points for employees who interact with the software on a day-to-day basis such as having to rekey information into multiple screens or systems.
  • Known risks that keep you awake at night, such as software security issues.
  • Anyways in which your software is directly holding back growth and/or agility. 

After considering these most pressing areas for improvement, proceed to an evaluation of how your ERP fits into the organization’s long-term vision.

Consider How ERP Software Can Support Long Term Organizational Strategy

What are the primary goals and objectives of your business? Are they being achieved? And are they expected to change over the coming years? These questions are matters of high-level business strategy, but they need to be considered carefully as IT identifies the best path forward for ERP software. 

Common scenarios include:

  1. If you’re planning a major push toward a more integrated supply chain and ERP-level integration with trusted suppliers and/or customers, your ERP needs to be ready for the shift.
  2. Are you planning on supporting growing customer demand for easy access to their own data, perhaps providing customers more detailed information via a web portal or mobile app? ERP software will need to be carefully integrated to ensure that digital touchpoints are backed by a reliable, fully up-to-date data pipeline.
  3. Are new employees struggling with a green screen environment? Is lack of wireless access stymying productivity? Your ERP software can have a direct impact on the productivity, awareness, efficiency, and morale of employees. We explore employee-technology interaction in more depth in the next section.
  4. New or upcoming regulations and/or reporting requirements create new demands on ERP software. Simply understanding the implications of new regulations can be challenging, much less identifying and executing requisite ERP changes on time.

These examples all relate to how ERP software fits into overall organizational strategy at a very high level. This high-level survey is an important first step, but it’s important to go deeper. Next, we recommend going “into the trenches,” and taking the time to understand the processes and procedures that define day-to-day ERP usage.

ERP Refresh Step Two: Watch Employees Perform Their Job

When it comes to identifying areas where enhanced ERP capabilities can make an immediate impact, there is no substitute for the simple but time-consuming task of watching employees perform their daily responsibilities. ERP usage is often tied deeply to not only formal operating procedures, but the informal experience and know-how of employees. These employees may commonly:

  • Use workarounds to accomplish common tasks which they lack the knowledge to otherwise accomplish (or find too arduous to complete using standard ERP functions). These workarounds may represent an underlying issue that needs to be addressed within the ERP itself. Or they may represent a risky divergence from standard operating procedures that need to be fixed immediately.
  • Not be aware of valuable functionality within the ERP. This can lead to wasted time, hampered operational awareness, and the business not operating at its true potential.
  • “Press keys” in rote repetition of how they were instructed, with no understanding of underlying software functionality. This limited understanding can prove problematic when encountering unique or novel issues, or when older employees with more detailed knowledge retire. 

Any of these scenarios have important implications for your ERP refresh. The questions below help focus your employee observations toward some common problem areas and opportunities for optimization. They should be posed for each common employee goal (e.g. enter a sales order, record production, check warehouse stock levels).

Three Questions to Ask When Studying How Your Employees Use Your ERP

  • How many screens does an employee need to use to accomplish a task? Are employees required to break their flow of work to gather information from a different system or interface (such as constantly moving data in and out of Excel)?

    If these screens are relatively empty, there may be an opportunity to dramatically streamline workflows by bringing more functions onto the same screen. 
  • How many fields must employees fill out to complete their task? Are they keying in data that is already stored elsewhere in the ERP, or re-entering it into multiple applications?

    Fields that are repetitively filled out manually, or filled out with data that could be automatically gathered from elsewhere in the ERP, represent low-hanging fruit for improved efficiency (and even process automation).
  • Are they making notes on scrap paper to help manually transfer and re-key data? Are they taking cellphone photos of green screens?

    Too many manual data interaction points can not only slow down work, but create more opportunities for human error. If critical business data is being recorded on scrap paper or cell phones, this might represent not only a data management problem but a security risk.

For any issues suggested by the questions above, carefully consider the root cause. Are employees manually entering information into the legacy ERP in order to feed other applications? Or does data flow the other way, with data being managed in spreadsheets before it is dumped into the ERP? 

ERP Refresh Step Three: Consider Technical Limitations of Your Current Implementation

The first two steps help situate ERP optimization within the context of the broader business. This final step focuses on the ERP technology itself, its limitations, and what capabilities could be leveraged to help this software deliver the most possible value.

We recommend starting with your version. Is it up to date? Is it one or several versions behind? If it is behind, is it subject to “version-lock” created by modifications that are no longer compatible with the latest version? These fundamental questions will help establish some boundary lines for refresh work. If you plan on depending on first-party vendor support, you may be forced to upgrade. Third-party ERP support, however, can be a great option if your modified and/or legacy ERP is still delivering great value.

Next, consider which ERP-related functions are being performed outside of the ERP. Common examples include scheduling and capacity planning run from spreadsheets. This functionality can either be brought into the ERP itself or streamlined through improved integration of outside apps. Integrating cloud-based capabilities with your existing ERP is a great way to build a “hybrid” implementation geared specifically to your business needs (we explore the hybrid ERP concept in our webinar here). 

Over time, many ERP implementations become subject to “burnout,” where planned implementation phases are set aside and never completed. Often, this can lead to valuable functionality that already exists in the ERP but sits untapped. When evaluating the state of your ERP, be sure to make note of any desired software functionality that was never actually implemented (common examples include lot tracking, planning, scheduling, etc.). Fully implementing these features is a great way to maximize the value of the ERP software you already own. 

Work with PSGi to Refresh Your ERP

PSGi has experience working with a variety of business-critical ERP systems, with particularly deep expertise in manufacturing and distribution. We work with clients to get the most possible value out of their ERP implementation, including legacy and/or heavily modified versions. 

If you’re ready to get your ERP refresh process started and could use the help of an expert team, we encourage you to reach out using the button below. 

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