Rapid Results and the Big Systems Project

One of the challenges we face in the systems business is the production of rapid results or early wins in the context of the large systems projects.  One of the important principles of change management is to create momentum and early bottom-line results.  I think we all are familiar with the challenge but let me describe it from my point of view. 

The business wants to improve a particular process in their organization and looks to the systems group for help because they know it will involve new systems.  Another way it may arise is the systems group develops a strategic systems plan and identifies a particular area where high return on investment is possible.  As a concrete example, let us take an inventory system for a large integrated mining company.  The current system consists of a distributed set of warehouses of parts through out the organization without any central information as to where things are.  In this organization, some of these parts are worth thousands of dollars and their availability is a large determining factor in the productivity of the company.  The company strategy has been the relentless pursuit of productivity and they have made big gains in the past.  One simple change was to make the driver of a underground scoop tram responsible for changing the tires on his vehicle.  These tires cost $20,000 each.  This change reduced dramatically the number of tire failures because the driver became more careful. 

The organization decided they needed a centralized information as to where all the parts are in this very decentralized organization where productivity is the responsibility of each group.  The multi-year project was undertaken to define requirements, select a system and implement it.  Because management was waiting for the new system before implementing changes, the old systems continued.  In the end, the system was implemented but none of the expected gains were achieved.  I expect the old inventory system remained.

Why did this organization which had been so successful in raising productivity in many areas fail on this project?   I honestly do not know for sure but I have some ideas.

I think the first cause was that the project was a systems project as opposed to a project initiated by the business with help for the systems people.  I suspect the system would likely worked just fine if it were part of a change effort by the business.  Centralized information on where parts are being held could have been implemented in many simple ways using their existing systems.  I expect each part of the organization was jealously guarding their spares to maintain their productivity.  Tackling that deeply entrenched behavior was a business problem, not a system issue.

During time the system was being developed, the business continued with old processes because they decided why change to something that will be replaced shortly anyway.  Because change is difficult anyway, they decided wait for the new system to drive the change.  My opinion is that attitude is a recipe for failure.

So what is a solution for these big systems projects because they absolutely necessary for most organization to modernize their processes and get productivity gains.  I do not think there is a simple answer and every project must be looked at carefully.  Each has unique characteristics but here are some important things to think about.

  • Is the business driving the project and wanting the changes?
  • Is the business eager to implement changes before the system is ready?
  • Can the project introduce early changes to the processes to get productivity gains?
  • Are there ways of introducing parts of the project quickly to effect improvements quickly?
  • Are there ways to maintain the change momentum throughout the project?
  • Will the big change give the organization indigestion?
  • Are there more creative ways to introduce the changes to achieve rapid results?
  • Is the organization capable of making the changes required? 
  • Who are the most effective change leaders?

I have a great deal of sympathy for the systems people who are trying to help their organization make productivity gains.  I think senior management really needs look at the business organization and business leaders to take more leadership in making changes.  If you do not have a strong change coalition in the business that are will lead the change and produce rapid results, be careful and think twice about the big system project being the silver bullet that will save your organization.

I welcome comments and other ideas people have about big systems projects,

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