Creating “a single version of the truth” for key business information is a complex task that can easily derail unwary organizations. Even a modern ERP system can’t guarantee that information will flow easily across departments.
The result is individual business units may operate effectively on their own, but they’re often unable to coordinate their activities with related divisions for enterprise-wide cost savings and efficiencies.
Executives at SentrySafe, the nearly 80-year-old leader in fire-resistant safes and secure containers, faced this challenge themselves, quite unexpectedly, after the company sent out its annual employee satisfaction survey in 2006. After all, the company had recently completed its largest technology modernization project ever, a new implementation of an SAP ERP system, which replaced more than 12 outdated legacy systems.
So it came as a surprise when a high percentage of the survey respondents indicated dissatisfaction with the internal systems at SentrySafe. Some even said the existing systems and business processes were actually making them less efficient workers.
In response, SentrySafe moved swiftly to identify areas for improvement. One issue quickly rose to the top, primarily because it was a complaint shared by each business unit: No one had ready access to timely and accurate data, including the key information about each SentrySafe product.
This realization was an “A-ha moment,” according to Gregg Griebel, ERP Program Manager at SentrySafe. “There was no single owner of product master data, and even though everyone knew the process was broken, nobody had the authority to address it,” he explains. The result: “Nobody trusted the data, there were multiple versions of the ‘truth,’ and it would take days to resolve data discrepancies.”
||Gregg Griebel, ERP Program Manager at SentrySafe
While the respondents’ feedback tapped into underlying problems in keeping information timely, accurate, and readily accessible to everyone who needed it, SentrySafe certainly isn’t alone in this battle. The company fortunately found a way around these difficulties — thanks to a cross-departmental implementation effort and a centralized information management system based on SAP NetWeaver Master Data Management (SAP NetWeaver MDM). As a result, the company can now serve its large retail customers more effectively as it positions itself for fundamental changes in how manufacturers and retailers will interact with each other in the near future.
||SentrySafe headquarters, Rochester, New York
Responding to the Underlying Causes
But before it could achieve those goals, SentrySafe went through a period of “angst” over the survey results, Griebel recalls. “Given the commitment by management and IT organizations to improve the system year in and year out, we had expected to score pretty well,” he says. “The senior management team kept coming back to this saying, ‘How is it that we can have this level of investment in IT, yet our employees are telling us our systems and our processes are holding us back?’”
To find the answer, SentrySafe formed a cross-departmental task force with representatives from sales, marketing, operations, finance, human resources, and IT. The group’s main responsibility was to identify the root causes of staff discontent. “We made a conscious decision not to use directors or high-level executives on the task force, but instead use manager-level people who actually have their hands in the system,” says Griebel.
“Now we can get our data to our customers in a timely way and get our product on their shelves when they want it.”
Gregg Griebel, ERP Program Manager, SentrySafe
After two months, the task force identified about 112 areas for improvement across all their systems and processes — some minor and some already being addressed. But data remained a top issue — and one that affected almost every part of the business.
One troubling example surfaced when SentrySafe introduced a new product to an important retail customer. Before the product could hit store shelves, the company had to supply the customer with a product setup sheet, which is a reference document with three or four pages of essential product information — such as its UPC codes, description, weight, size, and even its location on a shipping pallet. SentrySafe tried to pull together the information from engineering department spreadsheet files, data in the SAP ERP system, and reports from product managers. “We didn’t have that information in any one spot,” Griebel says. “Even worse, the same information often existed in multiple places, so it wouldn’t get updated timely. It would be entered manually so human error could mean inaccurate data.”
As a result, none of the sources agreed on the weight of this new product, which had to be confirmed before the shipments could leave the warehouse. After sending 17 emails and spending 12 business days trying to track down the right number, frustrated SentrySafe managers finally contacted the company’s manufacturing facility in China and asked workers there to unbox three units and weigh each unit. The procedure produced an accurate number, but it also further demonstrated the extent of the data-integrity problem: Not only did the weight records differ among departments, none of them had the correct value.
“Being slow to respond to a customer request means days lost on store shelves and sales lost that you often will never recover,” Griebel says. “That was very powerful for us. It didn’t take many PowerPoint slides to explain that if we don’t have our product on the shelf we’re not going to make sales.”
“We need to be an easy vendor for our customers to deal with,” he continues. “We need to be the ones who quietly get our job done and have our product on the shelf when our customers want it.”
||SentrySafe users can access product data with SAP NetWeaver MDM
Securing a Solution
To take the next step and find a solution to its product data issues, SentrySafe responded by creating a second task force, the product master-data team, which also had cross-functional representation, but this time had greater input from the engineering department to help with product feature and dimension details.
Early on, the team determined that nearly 400 different data points for each product had to be gathered for the master-data file. Only about a third of this information resided in the SAP ERP system, which was considered the company’s most reliable data source.
The group also decided that facts and figures for populating standard database fields weren’t the only important data types; from now on SentrySafe needed a way to store so-called rich content, pertinent graphics, photo images, and eventually video clips that help define products. But more importantly, the new system had to make it easy for users to find data, rather than forcing staff to hunt through spreadsheets and folders across various departments.
Investigating the Product Data Options
SentrySafe considered three alternatives for accomplishing these goals, all with unique pros and cons (see the table on the next page). The first option was to maintain the existing infrastructure and support it with a master data “czar” responsible for organizing, cataloging, and navigating the various data repositories. Appealing as the least costly choice without a large upfront IT investment, this choice wouldn’t add new capabilities, such as incorporating rich content into the company’s data storehouses.
Alternatively, SentrySafe could tap its in-house IT staff to develop a modern, Web-based master-data repository that consolidated information and ended the reliance on spreadsheets. But while the company was confident its IT staff could build the solution, it recoiled at the amount of staff resources that would be required to create, maintain, and revise the solution over time. The task force also saw limited opportunities to incorporate future innovations beyond the essentials of managing master data.
The third choice was selecting one of the commercial products available for master-data management from SAP, Oracle, and other vendors. Such a solution would require the most significant upfront investment, but the right system could satisfy all these key requirements: a modern database infrastructure, a single version of the truth, the ability to store rich content, tools for establishing cross-departmental information workflows, and interfaces to other internal and customer systems.
For these reasons, the group picked the commercial software choice as the best alternative for SentrySafe and then selected SAP NetWeaver MDM. “As an SAP shop running the core SAP ERP system, we’d have a fair bit of the data modeling and data repository building done out of the box with SAP NetWeaver MDM,”Griebel says. “In addition, the system proved to be very flexible for us to reconfigure it to meet our requirements for how we view our products.”
But the most compelling reason for choosing SAP NetWeaver MDM came from a SentrySafe salesperson who pointed out the solution’s long-term potential. “SAP NetWeaver MDM is a system that we’d initially just scratch the surface of in terms of its capabilities, so we would be forward-thinking in selecting it,” Griebel recalls the salesperson saying. “That sealed the deal.”
||SentrySafe weighed three options before ultimately selecting SAP NetWeaver MDM
Integration for a “Living, Breathing System”
But any SAP NetWeaver MDM implementation isn’t without challenges. Most prominent was the fact that it would force SentrySafe to adjust its data model to fit the requirements of SAP NetWeaver MDM. “When you buy packaged software, you need to make compromises in how you operate your business,” says Griebel. “You cannot just take a white sheet of paper and design your process or design your database. You are constrained by the software you purchase.”
With the help of systems integrator SITA Corp. and SAP training, SentrySafe built a customized data model on top of a central database to combine information from the SAP ERP system, the engineering applications, and other business areas. “We were able to get rid of spreadsheets all over the place and rely on a single database to hold all of our data,” Griebel says.
SentrySafe also encountered integration snags with SAP’s enterprise application integration tool, SAP NetWeaver Exchange Infrastructure (SAP NetWeaver XI) — now called SAP NetWeaver Process Integration (SAP NetWeaver PI). “Our training didn’t really talk about SAP NetWeaver XI, but it turns out that it is a key component in an enterprise MDM implementation,” Griebel says.
Interfaces that connect SAP NetWeaver MDM with other internal and external customer systems are what make the software “a living, breathing system,” he explains. “And all of those interfaces run through SAP NetWeaver XI. We had never used anything in the integration suite and even though it’s under the SAP NetWeaver umbrella, the software was a completely different tool set for our team.”
In addition to the learning curve for the integration tool, the overall complexity of the project still was something of a surprise. “Building a robust infrastructure to load product data is a lot more complicated than what met the eye when we first looked at the project,” Griebel recalls. “Data loading, synchronization rules, integration — there were a lot more pieces to the puzzle than we expected when we started.”
A Unique Design Approach: Bypassing Data Governance
SentrySafe also departed from typical implementation practices by opting for a design approach that stressed IT infrastructure over data governance.
“We hear again and again how users have gone from taking days or weeks to fill out a customer setup sheet down to an hour.”
Gregg Griebel, ERP Program Manager, SentrySafe
The usual first step — establishing a data governance policy — defines who’s responsible for managing and updating product information. Once those responsibilities are set, organizations then move on to building the technology infrastructure to house and distribute data.
SentrySafe reversed that process because it set solving its data-accuracy problems as the highest priority and decided that putting the right technology in place would yield the fastest results. In addition, SentrySafe believed that the MDM security model itself would go a long way to working out data governance issues.
There was a tradeoff to this approach, however. Griebel acknowledges that the flexibility of its approach to data governance means the company struggles with some information consistency issues. “We did it with our eyes open, though. Had we designed a rigid data governance process before understanding the software, I think we would have had a process that didn’t mesh well with our solution,” he says.
The calculated risks have paid off. Soon after the system went live, the company began seeing significant improvements in the speed and accuracy of processes for creating setup sheets. “We hear again and again how users have gone from taking days or weeks to fill out a customer setup sheet down to an hour, which is tremendous,” Griebel says.
In addition, SentrySafe has become more nimble at reacting to market demands and opportunities. One of the future capabilities that SAP NetWeaver MDM enables is the ability to replace paper setup sheets with standardized electronic versions made possible by the supply chain industry’s 1SYNC global data-synchronization network. Manufacturers send their product information to 1SYNC, which creates secure data pools from which retailers and others retrieve the information they need for supply transactions. “We had a very hard time conforming to 1SYNC requirements with the manual process we had in place before the implementation. Now we’ve established a direct connection between the new software and our data pool so we can publish our information directly from SAP NetWeaver MDM,” Griebel says.
This allowed SentrySafe to triple the amount of data it publishes to 1SYNC with much less manual effort by staff members. Griebel expects the data pool to become even more important to retailers in the coming years as they look to expand their supply chain automation strategies. “There’s less hand-holding by the customer; they just expect us to get the information to them. Had we not done this project, we would have had to dedicate full-time resources to doing nothing but data synchronization,” Griebel says.
Unexpected Users and Expected Customer Benefits
Internally, there are fewer complaints about the IT infrastructure making life difficult for its staff. In fact, the new system is cultivating a growing number of enthusiasts. “We built our business case around 25 to 30 power users, but as they began using the system they spread the word about its benefits to others,” Griebel says, adding that about 110 people working at SentrySafe now have access to SAP NetWeaver MDM. Among those unexpected users are customer service representatives who enjoy fast access to product data to answer customer questions. “With SAP NetWeaver MDM, the reps have at their disposal the spec sheet on each product and its features and attributes. They used to have to hunt for this information in the network files,” he says.
And what do customers think about the updated system? Griebel says that for the most part the customers haven’t noticed — which is exactly what he hoped for. “I take the fact that they’re not complaining as a strong indication that we’re doing an excellent job,” Griebel says. “Now we are that vendor that gets our data to them in a timely way and gets our product on their shelves when they want it.”