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Change management the key to avoiding SAP project failure

Todd Morrison

One big reason companies like Lumber Liquidators see their SAP implementations fail is that they underestimate the impact that change management can have on the project’s success.

“With change management, a lot of people think that it’s this real touchy-feely thing that may or may not add value. But the reality is it does add a lot of value,” said Eric Kimberling, president and founder of the Denver-based

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Panorama Consulting Group, which specializes in ERP implementations.

Neglecting the change management piece of an SAP implementation is a mistake, Kimberling and other consultants say. Better use of change management strategies can help companies avoid failure. For example, Lumber Liquidators’ saw its SAP implementation cost the company an estimated $12 million to $14 million in lost productivity because its employees weren’t adequately trained on the new system.

No surprises

When companies begin an implementation, the first thing they need to do is build a change management plan that identifies how business processes are going to change with the new SAP system, and who is going to be affected, Kimberling said. That’s something a lot of companies want to skip.

“Many companies want to get straight to ‘Well, we don’t care about the way we do things now. We just want to focus on SAP and their best practices. Let’s just do the user training and we’ll be fine,’” Kimberling said.

Many companies also wait until the training phase to let users know about the new system, which only creates confusion and panic, according to Kimberling.

“Change management starts well before end-user training,” he said. “By the time you get to end-user training, there shouldn’t be any real surprises. You shouldn’t be springing process changes or big organizational changes on people during training.”

Instead, end-user training should be about formalizing what those users already know about those organizational changes, as well as showing them how to actually use the new system, he said.

That need for communication goes hand in hand with making sure that users also know why the application is being deployed and what the benefits are going to be, according to Christian Matz, a managing director at the consulting firm Ecenta America Inc., based in Bellevue, Wash.

“What I’ve seen on a number of projects is that there wasn’t clear communication of the benefits, of why a particular kind of software was implemented,” he said. “The basic impression was that it was just another application that will last another two years before needing to be replaced again.” 

Don’t train too soon

When WL Plastics, a polyethylene pipe manufacturer based in Casper, Wyo., began the process of putting together a change management plan for Business ByDesign, a common frustration project sponsors heard from other customers was that users who were trained on the application early on forgot it all by the time the system was up and running. 

“We decided we weren’t going to do that,” CFO Neil Briggs said. 

Instead, WL Plastics decided to roll out the ERP implementation at its factories of over a period of months, instead of all at once, and train employees and executives immediately before -- and after -- the system went live.

Once it did, he said, the implementation team was on hand for the following week to troubleshoot any questions users had. 

“That worked very well,” he said.

The scope of training was kept very narrow, Briggs said. Users were taught how to do their jobs in the new environment -- and not additional information they might never use.

Pick a few to help spread the word

That advice makes sense to Matz.

“I agree you should train people as late as possible, so that they don’t forget,” he said. At the same time, he said, companies should consider handpicking a few key users and showing the application to them once the application is stable. Those users can play a part in getting others excited about the new application and its benefits, he said.

“If you have someone that’s inside the user base that sees the system at an early stage, is happy with the solution, sees the benefits, that’s better than 15 PowerPoint presentations,” Matz said.

One of the things that also ruin go-lives is go-live dates that keep getting pushed back, Matz said. “User communities start losing confidence. You should stick to your timelines. If you move the dates around, it gives the impression that something is wrong.” 


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