Viewing archives for Bespoke software problems

Does Your Business Run on Excel? Undo!

For Americans, this may seem like a distant footnote. But bear with me.

One of the UK’s leading health agencies, Public Health England (PHE), has revealed a massive under-reporting of covid-19 cases due to an Excel blunder. The truth is that many mid-market businesses are too dependent on Excel. We’ve all become stuck in an Excel circular reference. The challenge is how to escape.

Excel has become ubiquitous for a reason. It is extremely simple to start and amazing what you can do quickly. But for some mid-market businesses, Excel has become an unplanned core back-office system. It is often the link between systems and processes; it is sometimes used to store critical data; and it is often used to present and explore data throughout the business.

Finance people can’t get enough of it. The rest of us can’t remember all its functions, but we still use it anyway.

But why is it dangerous?

  1. Excel is fundamentally unstructured and easy to change. This makes it incredibly convenient. But it also allows for unending tinkering. And it can be very difficult to assess the impact of changes and to identify errors.
  2. Excel files, passed between people by email, or shared in folders (or worse on USB drives!) are a recipe for error, confusion and unauthorized access. Good systems go hand-in-hand with good processes, and Excel encourages neither.
  3. Excel is a dead-end. There is no “pathway” to formalize an Excel process into a more managed system with proper controls, an audit trail, security, data management and error-checking. Excel is not a sound basis for automation or integration.

In the meantime, see our ERP and Integration Knowledge Center for more on smoothing out systems and processes


In short, Excel can lead a mid-market business to the point where it is very difficult to scale and where the business is exposed to fraud or blunders like PHE’s. But since it works most of the time, and the cost of replacement looks high, the easiest thing is just to carry on with it.

But the bottom line is that to run a business well you need integrated systems that support efficient, agile processes, and deliver useful management information to enable decision making. You won’t get all that with Excel.

Your company’s systems strategy should have some principles to avoid an overdependence on Excel. What might they be?

  1. Use Excel—when it’s appropriate. For example, new ideas, new opportunities, or an informal look at data. Use Excel as a personal tool for tackling problems.
  2. Establish your business’s timeframe or scale-of-use for Excel. For example, “We won’t use Excel to manage this project for more than nine months.” Or: “It wouldn’t make sense to run a new business line on Excel once revenue exceeds $100k per month.” Or: ‘We always ring alarm-bells when someone starts using Excel’s built-in coding platform’.
  3. Here’s the tricky part: you need an integrated set of systems and processes that can smoothly replace Excel when the time comes.

Excel is an amazing product; it is ubiquitous for a reason. But its convenience can be its downfall—or yours. Like all powerful tools, handle it with care!

If your company needs help replacing Excel with an affordable integrated system, get in touch. We have a lot of experience helping mid-market businesses streamline their systems, and we’re always up for an informal chat.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with ambitious organizations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

Manufacturing Insights — Part 2: Checklist for Successful ERP Projects

This is the second of our three-part series on the future of manufacturing. Check out Part 1: The Impact of the Internet of Things, and Part 3: Getting Data Right.

In our previous discussion, we mentioned how the Internet of Things can integrate devices into enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, providing up-to-the-minute information with minimal manual intervention.

This article is about new ERP projects. These can be an expensive exercise and the results won’t meet business objectives unless the project is done right.

It’s a crucial question because manufacturing companies rely on sound enterprise resource planning. They can’t be efficient and effective without it. So how can you avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes?

Our ERP Checklist provides some key pointers. If you’re about to start, consider it a primer. It can be a useful review though even if you’re halfway through an ERP project.

  1. Get the business objectives clear. The objective isn’t a new ERP. It’s to deliver specific business outcomes. So what are they? Make sure you schedule an executive-level workshop to hammer them out. Be specific and make sure these objectives have been clearly delineated before you start. Some examples: Halve the manufacturing cycle/throughput time; Remove four FTEs by avoiding any rekeying between the ERP and website; Eliminate labeling errors with automation.
  2. Identify the key requirements. Document the key things the systems must do, or must enable, or must achieve. This might be a list of forty or fifty statements in everyday business language — for example, “Telesales staff must see accurate stock info and pricing on any products within thirty seconds.” Often the emphasis is on current processes, but the focus should be on better outcomes. All the heads of departments need to agree and to sign off (yes, put ink on paper!).
  3. Identify who is involved and who is accountable. Who is accountable for delivery? This should include not only delivery of the technology, but all the business outcomes identified at the start. Are there experts in your business who will need to be on the project team? Will they need their jobs backfilled? Is everyone clear on their roles? Will you involve some of your own people in the details, so they can become superusers?
  4. Get clear on the cost-benefit model. Although you may not yet know the detailed costs, you can establish the cost-benefit model. This means understanding how this project will deliver hard benefits so that, when compromises are necessary, you can identify what’s worth keeping and what to drop. The cost-benefit should be based on improvements in key performance indicators (KPIs): for example, “identify the target OTIF (on time in full) and compare to current measurements of the same KPIs.”
  5. Select your product(s) rationally. There are hundreds of systems available: IFS, Nav, AX, SAP, SAGE, Epicor, Oracle, and Syspro, and so in. Clear the field by letting the business requirements guide you: if you have specific selection criteria and a scoring system, you’re less likely to get dazzled by salespeople. Make sure all the business stakeholders are part of the decision-making process, so they have a vested interest in success.
  6. Select your partner(s) rationally. A partner will configure, customize and support your systems. As you will have a long-term relationship, it’s critical that there is a good cultural fit and trust. Get references, and check everything: are they experts in your sector, are they financially secure, have they got a stable team? And make sure you have time to negotiate a good price and contract, rather than caving due to pressing deadlines.
  7. Create a reasonable and comprehensive plan. The vendor or implementation partner needs to provide you with a credible plan, and you need to add your own plans for things like communication, data setup and retraining. Most importantly, the plan needs to show all activities to deliver the business objectives, not just delivery of the tech, and should span all the resources and commitments, not just the supplier’s.
  8. Define target business processes. Working with the implementation partner, you need to design your target processes. Many ERP projects fail because companies try to configure new software to match the way they always have worked. This often leads to expensive custom programming.
  9. Prepare for process and organizational changes. New systems bring new ways of working. These need to be planned, documented and rolled out carefully. Communicate with everyone affected. Without proper management, many people will go to great lengths not to change how they work!
  10. Prepare for data migration, cleansing, and setup. This task can be the biggest and most critical part of the project. Take this opportunity to clean your data and improve its accuracy — after all, one of the key benefits of an ERP is the information it can provide. Start cleaning today — don’t wait until the point of go-live. Don’t migrate inaccurate data to the new system!
  11. Plan device integration. Before integrating shopfloor, in-vehicle, or other devices with new systems, test them, hopefully in collaboration with device suppliers. For example, are the devices suitable for the physical environment? Consider temperature, humidity, vibration, and the like. Plan, manage, and test your device integration, and then test it again!
  12. Do your testing and conference room pilot. By making the vendor run their product through your business processes, you can check that the system and business practices will fit and that the key staff is ready. It’s a great way to get superusers onto the system; it may also be an opportunity to identify additional benefits that weren’t thought of at the beginning — or a last chance to spot unforeseen problems!
  13. Phase the implementation/changeover/go-live. A “big bang” go-live can be risky. Different parts of the new system may be ready at different times; different phases will deliver different benefits. So plan for a phased adoption of the new system(s) and decommissioning of the old ones. This needs to be thought through and carefully managed.
  14. Train and monitor staff. Staff will need training and coaching. And there may be a period of tweaks and minor amendments. This needs careful monitoring to ensure that employees don’t adopt bad habits or workarounds. Also, for many people, change is daunting. It can be stressful for people when they have to do their jobs in new ways, so make sure you’re allowing them to communicate their concerns.
  15. Review frequently and maintain ownership. The project owners need to make sure that the business objectives and cost benefits materialize. And then it’s critical to have clear, ongoing ownership so the objectives and benefits don’t slip away down the road. Ongoing monitoring must be part of the routine, and new issues must be addressed quickly and without a fuss. There needs to be an annual budget for vendor support, for training of new staff, for fixes, and for amendments so the system continues to remain aligned as working practices and products change — as they inevitably will.

A new ERP system is a powerful way to help your business grow. But too often we see lack of focus on these key points, and as a result project costs balloon and the project gets bogged down. But when an ERP project is done right, the benefits can be transformational. Many of our clients have found new confidence to grow simply because suddenly their business had a platform for scaling up.

Read the rest of our special series on the future of manufacturing:

Manufacturing Insights – Part 1: The impact of the Internet of Things.

Manufacturing Insights – Part 3: Getting data right.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

Manufacturing Insights — Part 1: The Impact of the Internet of Things

This is the first of our three-part series on the future of manufacturing. Check out Part 2: Checklist for Successful ERP Projects, and Part 3: Getting Data Right.

The Internet of Things, as you likely already know, is the idea of implanting Internet devices in everyday electronics, like your appliances—it’s having your fridge let you know when it’s time to buy more milk, or even better, ordering it for you.

Lately we hear a lot of talk about the impact of the Internet of Things on manufacturing. We’re seeing buzzwords like the Industrial Internet, Industry 4.0, and smart factories. So what’s really going on?

IT companies like to baffle the market with buzzwords. So it’s important to remember that the ideas are straightforward. In simple terms, the Internet of Things in manufacturing is all about technology on the production line—incorporating sensors and controllers to make production more visible, more efficient, and more controllable in real-time. It means that your staff can deal with customer requirements more accurately: managing stock, orders, and production to minimize costs, while maximizing output and quality.

In manufacturing, the Internet of Things will also help with reporting. Some companies use manually created reports, from weeks- or months-old data, for planning. The Internet of Things integrates devices into enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to provide up-to-the-minute information accurately, with minimal manual intervention.

Of course, it’s not a huge step from there to automating some aspects of decision-making. This can be anything from a structure of simple rules to sophisticated machine learning and Artificial Intelligence.

For manufacturing businesses, the Internet of Things will impact on customers as well. Your customers will increasingly expect to follow the progress of their own orders through your factory. And with the Internet of Things, integration of production activities with customers, suppliers, and partners becomes possible at a far more detailed level.

For the manufacturer, though, perhaps the greatest opportunities will be monitor and communicate with your products after they’ve been shipped. You’ll get information about your products when they are in use, enabling new ways to offer maintenance and support, and new avenues for value-added services.

Looking further into the future, we believe that the more revolutionary changes in manufacturing will come via 3D printing. Rapid prototyping and iteration are already becoming the norm, but the real revolutions will be in mass customization. Endless product versions and variations will become commonplace.

3D printing will also massively reduce the need for stock-holding, especially for spares, which will free up cash. This may have a transformative effect on smaller companies and their ability to invest in new trends. We believe that ambitious mid-sized businesses will find huge opportunities in this change.

Finally, it’s worth noting that according to some experts, these trends towards local manufacturing will reverse decades (or centuries) of growth in global trade of manufactured goods. A recent ING report estimated a reduction in world trade by as much as forty percent by 2040! This will affect a wide range of industries from shipping to insurance, and may have very broad-ranging geopolitical ramifications as well.

Well, it won’t be the first time that manufacturing has changed the world. But before that happens, read on to find out how the Internet of Things can transform your business now.

Read the rest of our special series on the future of manufacturing:

Manufacturing – Part 2: Checklist for Successful ERP Projects

Manufacturing – Part 3: Getting Data Right.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

Subscribe to our Business Insights

Plain English board-level briefings focused on technology strategies to deliver competitive advantage and business success.

* Please enter an email address
newnewsletterrecipient

You can unsubscribe at any time.

Thank you.

You’ll now receive regular expert business insights.

Call us on 0203 020 1864 with any questions.

Graeme Freeman
Co-Founder and Director

Subscribe to our Business Insights

Plain English board-level briefings focused on technology strategies to deliver competitive advantage and business success.

* Please enter an email address
newnewsletterrecipient

You can unsubscribe at any time.

Thank you.

You’ll now receive regular expert business insights.

Call us on 0203 020 1864 with any questions.