Continuous Improvement: Within Reach, Without Fear
October 18, 2017 Dan Burger
There are relatively few companies with end-to-end operations that actually achieve the goal of continuous improvement. It tends to be more of a slogan than a policy for most. And it’s easily recognizable with a glimpse of the IT department. Cutting edge isn’t mandatory, but the stakes have never been higher for those that lag or, through inaction or other poor decisions, make costly mistakes — some quickly realized and others of the ticking time bomb variety.
Keeping an IT department moving forward is no sure bet, but it helps when the company commitment to persistent progress is more than sign in the parking lot or a line of text on all corporate correspondence.
Making it happen is universally described as modernization. Some companies are good at it and some are not. Brenntag, a distribution company with an international presence, is one of the former. Its core ERP system is homegrown, written in free format RPG, and running on IBM i 7.3. The IT staff has 17 people working on projects directly related to IBM i and more than 50 who contribute to IT operations overall. It’s been years since any employee of customer has seen a green-screen display.
“When we started moving away from green screens, our overall goal was to eliminate all green-screen displays as fast as possible,” says Todd Stewart, Brenntag’s VP of information technology. “Our first goal was to get to a stable GUI environment while taking advantage of features such as check boxes, radio buttons, drop down menus — initially the functionality was the same, but I didn’t want to do screen scrapping and since [the first goal was reached] we’ve added much more functionality. It took us less than a year to do all our initial modernization work.”
It’s not hard to find modernization projects that involve migrations to new platforms and software with less functionality that take years to partially implement. SAP migrations come to mind.
“Our ERP software is far from perfect,” Stewart says. “There are always things we want to improve. But our software allows us to do things that other software can’t. We own companies that run on SAP. We have the functionality they have and more that is specific around our business.”
Within Brenntag, the company ERP system is referred to as The BUS (Brenntag Unified System). Stewart says it is constantly being refreshed to the tune of approximately 300 enhancements each year. Some of those enhancements are small and others are substantial. This year IT created the OCT interfaces that allow incoming checks to be auto-applied, which eliminated considerable manual processes. IT is also putting the finishing touches on an internally developed ERP system specifically designed for a specialized type of distribution business within the Brenntag family. It runs on tablets.
All the graphical user interface work at Brenntag–beginning eight years ago and continuing to current development work — has been accomplished using Profound Logic software development tools. Stewart recalls that in less than six months a fully working modernized system was in place. “We had a ‘point and shoot’ GUI system that eliminated all the function keys and we started rolling it out to the companies,” he says.
“The companies” were Brenntag subsidiaries that were adjusting to the new GUI-based ERP after many years of green-screen living. Some adjusted better than others. But there was only one option. Support for both green screen and GUI was not going to happen. Stewart says it was clear the GUI would provide more flexibility in the future. So, more features with immediate and future benefits became part of the explanation for the foot-draggers and an incentive to adapt the GUI version.
Since connecting with Profound Logic to modernize and improve existing applications, Brenntag has also used the Profound interface for building mobile apps. A total of 47 mobile apps have been created. They include info for salesmen on the road, point of delivery apps, and now in progress are shop floor apps that will replace a bar coding system with apps on a tablet.
“I’m a big proponent of modernization because it preserves all the internal logic that is contained in many legacy programs,” Stewart says. “Losing that internal logic is why many migration projects fail miserably. Unless a company is willing to give up the logic, they will be taking a big step backward while attempting to move forward. By keeping the logic, you move forward at a faster rate.”
For years, the evidence supporting Stewart’s modernization strategy has accumulated. It’s not exactly agile development, but it is the agile concept of releasing small changes that benefits small groups of users rather than waiting for larger changes that take more time between releases.
Stewart advises other IBM i shops to keep moving forward to keep gaining support. He says the best thing that can happen is when a user turns into a project supporter. Projects move forward when even small changes are identified and delivered, he says. So, look for things that can add efficiency and make them short-term goals on the way to long-term goals.
Demonstrating the productivity advantages of having multiple browser sessions on a screen and allowing users to move among multiple applications and cut and paste stuff “out of the box” is a great starting point.
“We don’t do three-year or five-year plans,” Stewart says. “You can’t be nimble that way. We basically look at a series of smaller projects that move us forward. It could be an interface to a pricing program, automatic invoicing, or a benefit to the warehouse receiving department from using tablets. The technology is constantly changing and a one-year road map is about as good as can be done.”
Stewart will be a keynote speaker at the Profound Logic user conference PLUS 2017, which takes place November 15-17 in Columbus, Ohio.