July 2012 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Opening the Door To Real-Time Visibility

Tags: Logistics I.T.

The WHITING Group replaced siloed systems with integrated ERP, ushering in transparency and real-time decision-making across its multiple divisions.

Steve Kopelchak of The WHITING Group of Canada says he feels like an octopus at times because he has his hands in every facet of the business. Kopelchak splits his time overseeing customer service and fulfillment, purchasing, warehouse operations, shipping and receiving, and information technology for WHITING Door Manufacturing, which produces transportation-grade rollup doors.

Kopelchak also has his hands in the parent company's two other subsidiaries, AMDOR Inc., a maker of shutter-style doors and lighting for emergency vehicles; and DRW Suppliers, a distributor of transportation and industrial after-market products.

His ability to serve as a central cog across all of The WHITING Group's divisions gives him unprecedented visibility into all aspects of the organization's multi-faceted operations.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been the same kind of hub for the company's core business applications, which Kopelchak says have historically been disjointed, disconnected, and overly reliant on manual processes. Because The WHITING Group's initial roll-up door business was limited to sales only in Canada, the company stretched its portfolio in new product areas via acquisition as a catalyst for growth and as a means for competitive differentiation.

Yet with each acquisition and expansion area, The WHITING Group was faced with a new set of systems and processes to handle core functions such as accounting, inventory, logistics, and transportation. None of the inherited business applications were built on the same database, so they couldn't share data, and few were readily accessible across all three divisions, despite synergies in products with a possible shared customer base.

"We were running a hodgepodge of systems built over the course of six or seven years when we grew from a small business to a multi-division company," says Kopelchak. "We started with the Sage Accpac accounting system, and kept bolting on components, making the system increasingly larger and more unwieldy."

Silos and Inefficient Manual Processes

What started out as one division's basic accounting solution for purchase orders, order entry, general ledger, accounts payable, and accounts receivable gradually morphed into a system with a life of its own. The need to track manufacturing bills of materials (BOMs) for what are primarily custom orders led to a bolt-on configurator and costing system add-on.

The company added a separate warehouse management system (WMS) to the mix to work out kinks on the distribution side of operations. While many of these extra capabilities came in the form of add-ons to the core accounting platform, other functions such as customer relationship management (CRM) and ISO tracking were either developed internally as proprietary systems or purchased from third-party vendors.

"Between the SQL-based Accpac accounting system, the WMS system, and the costing system, we had three databases that kind of talked to each other, were performing similar functions, and were supposed to sync up—but they never really did, in practice," Kopelchak recalls. "Therefore, we spent a lot of time rationalizing inventory and reconciling data manually—not live, but with a batch and queue process. Five separate pieces of software were controlling functions that could be managed with one."

That was the situation three years ago, but in 2009 a new controller familiar with the benefits of integrated systems mandated phasing out the siloed approach in favor of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform that would encompass a complete set of functionalities. The idea was to trade the myriad systems and resulting islands of information for a single core system that would deliver a consistent and cohesive view across the multi-division organization, and facilitate more strategic decision-making.

One of the biggest problems with the siloed approach was operational inefficiency. Because the various systems weren't integrated and didn't share live data, any change made to one system—inventory, for example—wouldn't show up in the main accounting system until the next morning, when transactions were physically uploaded to the system in a batch process.

Manual processes were also the norm with the old system, so, for example, an employee would have to log the transfer of finished goods from the manufacturing system into the warehouse system in order to create customer shipments. To top it off, a dedicated employee was required to orchestrate and confirm that all manual input went off without a hitch.

Not surprisingly, the result was often miscommunication and misinformation. Take the example of the inventory system not being automatically synced with the accounting and CRM system. As a result of this disconnect, customers could place an order for a specific part from the DRW Suppliers distribution business, then later discover none of the desired parts were left in inventory.

The lack of integration between the manufacturing and WMS system meant that if an employee forgot to manually transfer finished goods from one system to another, the product might not be available for shipment on time, putting the order at risk or disrupting an optimized transportation schedule.

"We were relying on people instead of using an automated system to be more efficient," Kopelchak says. "We needed a completely integrated system with live transactions so items consumed in manufacturing would be immediately evident to anyone else in the system. We also needed all three companies to share the same database."

In Search of an Integrated Solution

The WHITING Group started its search for an integrated ERP solution, initially selecting 15 potential platforms, which it quickly narrowed to five, then three, after extensive research related to its feature and budgetary requirements.

In addition to wanting a single integrated software system that could run the three businesses from front office to back, The WHITING Group also put a high priority on information management and visualization capabilities, so dashboards could be easily created and disseminated to showcase data in a way that fostered real-time decision-making. "What's the point of gathering data, then not using it to run the business?" Kopelchak asks.

Picking a Platform

The evaluation quickly led to a decision to go with Epicor's integrated ERP platform, which Kopelchak says exceeded the custom reporting requirements while also delivering all the capabilities he anticipated The WHITING Group might need over the next few years. Kopelchak's one big fear was that the Epicor platform would be out of his price range, but Epicor and its solution partner, Six S Partners, actually came in with the lowest-priced bid.

The WHITING Group's requirement for integrated ERP is typical of a small to mid-sized company that starts out with a finance-centric platform and needs to add more integrated materials planning and logistics capabilities over time.

"The challenge with islands of information is that companies become a slave to data processing, requiring employees to spend an inordinate amount of time re-keying data into the system," says Six S Partners President and CEO John Preidtsch. With multiple versions of the same customer in separate databases—say WHITING Door Manufacturing's accounting system and DRW Suppliers' customer system—any time a simple data point such as a phone number was modified, an employee had to make the change in multiple systems, and maintain three separate copies.

Together, The WHITING Group and Six S Partners followed Epicor's implementation methodology, and leveraged the integrator's best practices. One challenge of the deployment was process mapping, or refining existing business processes to take advantage of an integrated system.

A typical implementation team looks at what a new system has to offer, examines existing processes—materials planning or carrier scheduling, for example—and performs a gap analysis of what needs to change.

The WHITING Group was no exception. The team got through the process using conference room pilots to hash out workflow changes, and brought in representatives from materials planning, inventory, logistics, and order entry to perform mock scenarios and vet the new processes. In total, that piece of the deployment took several weeks.

The team also adhered to a number of its own key principles, which members claim readily contributed to the implementation's success. One key differentiator was The WHITING Group's decision to take ownership of the system so it wouldn't have to rely on vendors for every aspect of development and support. That meant the company needed to invest time upfront to learn the system inside and out—a goal Kopelchak and crew took on via extensive training and a protracted roll-out cycle. They spent more than one year implementing the system, and addressed each module individually.

A core team from The WHITING Group trained on the modules, then followed up every week with training sessions for a larger group, which was encouraged to provide feedback on the system set-up, as well as the new business processes. Kopelchak's team ensured the larger audience had representation from all aspects of the business—from warehouse personnel, to plant production workers, to logistics and transportation employees.

"They came in every week for one year," he explains. "Being involved made them feel they were shaping the system, instead of us trying to force it on them."

Continual Training

Training didn't stop when the system went live. For one full year after deployment, the same group continued to show up for weekly training sessions to identify problem areas and refine business processes to squeeze more productivity out of the application.

Although The WHITING Group licensed the full gamut of Epicor functionality, it didn't go live with all the features at once—another best practice Kopelchak believes contributed to the team's relatively smooth deployment.

Initially, the team focused on all the functions shared by the older system. New functionality such as dashboards, credit card processing, and warehouse and plant labor tracking would come at a later date, after employees achieved competency with the core processes.

The WHITING Group's ability to resist scope creep was another factor in its ability to go live with the implementation on time. "It's tempting to try to pack in more functions," Preidtsch says. "But they stayed focused on owning the system."

Reaping the Benefits

Now live with the integrated system for more than 18 months, The WHITING Group has enjoyed a wide range of benefits—the most significant being the ability to tap into real-time data and offer live feedback on what's happening across the company.

Such real-time visibility has ushered in improvements across a range of functions. For example, armed with real-time manufacturing BOM data, the logistics team can plan shipments days in advance, saving customers money on transportation.

The ability to track inbound and outbound materials with a bar-code scanner means customer service reps know where a part is at any time, so they can keep their customers informed.

"The customer care team has immediate visibility as soon as items ship, because the data is all in one system," Kopelchak says. "They can see instantly when a shipment is prepared—knowledge they never possessed before."

Using Epicor's dashboard capabilities, The WHITING Group has pushed visibility further, allowing its sales manager to track sales on key accounts across divisions in real-time. The system also lets procurement specialists examine minimum and maximum availability levels for consumable parts, based on history and using color coding to identify items on order, items available, and items that need to be ordered based on material requirements planning.

"This visibility enables us to track the supply chain so we're not left without inventory to meet increased demand during peak periods," Kopelchak says.

All these benefits made the transition to an integrated system well worth the hard work, Kopelchak says. Reduced software license and maintenance costs is one area of savings—the firm doesn't have to keep licenses on siloed systems for three companies, nor is it paying expensive maintenance fees on multiple systems.

The other big savings is labor, because a dedicated person is no longer required to monitor the manual input of data across systems.

"It's not that we have fewer workers—we're just directing them to more value-added activities," Kopelchak says. "We've seen payback in 18 months—and that was unexpected."