Implementing SAP S/4HANA is a complicated process, even under the best of circumstances. It requires a dedicated team and an incredible amount of organization and planning. As huge swaths of the workforce have begun working remotely in the face of COVID-19, many organizations have needed to undertake their SAP S/4HANA implementations in completely remote environments. While this is certainly a shift from what companies have done before, remote SAP S/4HANA implementations can be successful with the right partners, team, tools, and strategies.

ASUG recently sat down with Vince Siemens, corporate controller and SAP S/4HANA program director at Tomlinson Group of Companies, and Nir Orbach, CEO of Illumiti. Tomlinson Group recently completed the latest leg of its multi-phased SAP S/4HANA implementation completely remotely, with help from its system integrator, Illumiti. In part one of this two-part article, Siemens and Orbach walk ASUG through the scope and timeline of the entire implementation, the effects COVID-19 had on that timeline, and how the two organizations worked together on this project.

ASUG: Tell us about your background and how your previous work experience helped you prepare for this remote project.

Vince: My background has been a little different from most. I’m actually a corporate finance guy but was an SAP consultant in a past life. I left that to go back into corporate finance. Then Tomlinson Group took on this SAP project. I never really planned on doing a large part of a project, especially a significant go-live, remotely. Like what so many people have recently experienced, this was sprung upon me with about 24 hours’ notice. A completely remote go-live was a new undertaking for me.

Nir: I started many years ago as an SAP consultant as well. I was involved in implementations and managing some SAP projects in the 1990s. I founded Illumiti 20 years ago to offer a high-quality, pragmatic service to companies. In the last 10 years, we started to narrow our focus to smaller segments of industries as opposed to taking on projects from any industry. Construction became one of the sectors that we decided to focus on.

ASUG: Vince, can you give us a high-level overview of the Tomlinson Group and its technology landscape before you moved to SAP S/4HANA? Why was this the best ERP solution for you?

Vince: Tomlinson Group is located in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Before we began using SAP S/4HANA, we were running a small construction point solution, which is great if we were a small construction company. In addition to being a large construction company, Tomlinson Group also has a significant environmental services business. That includes owning and running waste transfer stations, landfills, curbside pickup, roll-off bins, and a large industrial waste business. Tomlinson Group also has quarries, a ready-mix business, and aggregate sales in the U.S.

Our previous solution wouldn't easily allow for multiple types of business. It focused on construction. We had several disparate systems. It also would not allow us to easily have businesses in both Canada and the U.S. In our previous solution, we had to set up our U.S. businesses as additional Canadian provinces. So, California and Michigan became new provinces of Canada. We had to fake the system out to get it to work. Couple that with the fact that we are approximately 10 to 15 times the size of organizations that, technologically, the solution was prepared to handle. We found we had their largest database and that scared us. Not having a proper scalable ERP that could effectively handle multiple lines of business in multiple countries was becoming an impediment to growth. We've acquired multiple companies over the last several years. It got to the point where we didn't feel we could acquire companies at the rate we were with the system we had.

Tomlinson Group went on a very detailed ERP system selection process, as Nir can attest. We made all the vendors jump through what seemed like a hundred hoops and do detailed demos. It came down to the big three ERP solution providers. The selection committee—which included me, several executives, and some operational employees—all agreed easily on SAP S/4HANA. It was unanimous that this was the solution that not only could meet our future growth, but that also really focused on the construction side of the house. We knew it could meet our needs. We decided also to go with an on-premises solution in private hosting. Over time, we’ve evolved into a hybrid solution and we’ll continue to go in that direction. SAP continues to grow in our industry which is a huge advantage and helps solidify we made the right choice.

ASUG: With that in mind, can you discuss the scope of the project? Tell us about the timeline and how it changed because of the effects of COVID-19.

Vince: We originally had a high-level scope—“put in a black box"—as we say. We looked at risk mitigation long before COVID-19. With the huge scale of what we wanted to implement we knew we had to phase the implementation out organizationally. We were prepared for this as it was such a huge change for our organization. From a functionality scope, we've brought in a lot of what SAP has to offer. We have implemented the core SAP solutions like SAP Financial Accounting, SAP Controlling, SAP Material Management, SAP Production Planning, and SAP Sales and Distribution. Additionally, we are running construction centric items like SAP Project System coupled with SAP Commercial Project Management. We're also running a lot of SAP Fiori items, SAP Payroll, and SAP SuccessFactors. We are looking to bring in more.

From an implementation standpoint, we did an initial implementation that went live in spring 2018 when we went live with three of our representative businesses. First was one of our construction companies—they were a result of three acquisitions, pulled together as one company that was prime for one collective system. Second was one of our major aggregates businesses that also sells to the U.S. That would cover our quarry operations as well as foreign sales. Finally, we wanted to pick a business that had a specific operational system that would be interfaced with SAP. For this, we picked our ready-mix business.

We went live (with SAP S/4HANA version 1610) and it was very successful. We knew we were going to roll out over a number of years, with the plan for the final construction rollout to end in spring 2021. Every spring, we've brought on new construction companies, our aggregates business, and our asphalt business. We've also done several upgrades, going from SAP S/4HANA version 1610 to version 1709, and then version 1809. We're targeting to upgrade to SAP S/4HANA version 2020 this summer, which is where we are at now.

We’ve rolled our implementation out very strategically. With each rollout, we bring on additional functionality and further enhance the solution we have in place. We are far from the black box we had planned to start with. As I said earlier, one of the big factors of this strategy was to mitigate the risk to the organization. SAP was a huge change. Between SAP Fiori apps and another tool we're using, we have about 30 apps. Many of our field users were using paper. Now, they're entering things on their iPhones and iPads. We really had to move them along and they have embraced this.

What was interesting was that our team worked remotely generally two to three weeks at a time and then would come in for a week. When COVID-19 came along, we were super lucky in that our team and the tools we were using to manage the overall scope and project were set up to where we could have a remote team. When COVID-19 happened, it wasn't the pure implementation that made us ask ourselves “can we go live?” We were originally going to go live with this particular part of the implementation on April 1, 2020. When we looked at this situation, the team was ready to go, and both the implementation and testing were going well. We started having conversations in February and March where we acknowledged we were ready to go.

The issue was actually centered around training. We were going to bring on about another 150 users but had no place to train them. At Tomlinson Group, we have substantial training facilities, including a conference center. We could normally train employees there, but we couldn’t have people together. Knowing the consultants and our team couldn't be onsite, we decided to delay this part of the implementation by a month just so we could train people.

With that decision made, we had to figure out if our field guys would be comfortable with Skype and if the technical infrastructure was there. Fortunately, we just had to rejig some things. I’m really happy to say this: COVID-19, from a pure technical implementation standpoint, had no impact. We were already set up for this situation. It's strange because it's been almost a year since our functional consultants have seen our internal subject matter expert team. But there is an infrastructure in place. Every team member, including my project manager and myself, talk on a daily basis. Unbeknownst to us, we were ready for this to happen. And that's something we're really proud of. We had some hiccups on a few of the training pieces, where you have people who you don’t realize are not getting the training as well as they should. But we were able to recoup pretty quickly. I’m proud of how the full Tomlinson Group and Illumiti team carried on status quo. We weren’t all together for the go-live, as we always were. But the go-live was a non-event. We set up Skype meetings and war rooms, and we transitioned over and went live with no real hiccups.

ASUG: What steps were required to shift your remote implementation? What challenges came up and how did you go about addressing those challenges?

Nir: As Vince just said, we were fairly well-prepared. We did increase the number of touchpoints with people to make up for the fact that we were now completely remote. We wanted to be in touch with people more frequently in small groups. To make the calls more personal, we encouraged video calls whenever possible. That was done to make up for our hallway conversations that we just wouldn't have. Sometimes you pick up things in those hallway conversations. We implemented those touchpoints and overall slightly tighter project management to stay on top of how everybody was doing, ensure they were getting what they needed from their counterparts, and make sure everyone was ultimately working well together as a team. We were fortunate in that we were already used to working in a remote environment, at least part of the time.

ASUG: Nir, can you give us a broad overview of Illumiti and the services it offers its customers? Why was the partnership between your two organizations such a great fit and how did it positively affect the overall implementation project?

Nir: Illumiti focuses on all of the SAP ERP solutions. We sell SAP Business One, SAP Business ByDesign, and SAP S/4HANA. SAP S/4HANA is by far the largest part of our business. Coupled with that, we also sell and service analytics solutions and SAP SuccessFactors as key additional elements. We focus on a small group of industries so we can be the best within those industries, have market-leading intellectual property, and obtain competence and experience references. We can increase the predictability of our projects and help reduce risk for our clients as a result of that.

In the case of Tomlinson Group, construction was a vertical that we had selected before we were in the sales cycle with the company. We'd had a couple of other implementations and some intellectual property that we had built as industry accelerators. What was great for us about the partnership with Tomlinson Group was that the organization’s business was bigger than the past work we had done in the construction sector. It was bigger not only from a size perspective, but also in terms of the breadth of the organization’s business units. It was a very exciting project for us, and it also allowed us to significantly expand the intellectual property that we had within the construction sector.

We provided our initial template without costs as part of an agreement to collaborate and enable Illumiti to incorporate some of the Tomlinson Group enhancements, made to fit the construction sector, into our template going forward. That was beneficial for us and the entire construction sector that we sell to. We created a very nice win-win situation that was advantageous for both organizations. Something that has really helped us is that we've had Vince's experience with prior implementations. When project managers on the client side can come to the table with that experience, then there's an understanding of the process that is different from companies that don't have that background. That helped us collaborate right from the get-go in a way that cemented a very good partnership between Illumiti and the Tomlinson Group.

We both agreed, from the beginning, to principles we hold very dearly: transparency and open lines of communication. This allowed us to openly discuss challenges or issues we had with the other party and resolve them quickly. That's also helped us overcome some challenges early on and avoid repeating them. This has helped us have a pretty smooth run of multiple implementations as we've brought the various business units within the Tomlinson Group live on SAP.

Vince: I agree with Nir. Honesty, transparency, and the view that our organizations are partners in this project have been crucial. We’ve developed a partnership culture throughout this project. When I was on the consulting side, my goal was always to have my client want to be a reference for me. I'm happy to say I've been a reference for Illumiti and SAP on several occasions, which gives credence to the fact that we're good partners together. You learn from each other's mistakes. If there's an issue, we raise it. If there’s a problem, I know I can speak to anyone on Nir’s team—or Nir himself—and we can address it and move on. After my years of consulting experience, I know this is a special consulting and client relationship that we have in place. And it's reflected in the success of the program so far.

In part two of this article, we’ll discuss the specific functionalities that were implemented as part of this remote project, the strategies and technologies Tomlinson Group and Illumiti leveraged to stay on track, and advice the two organizations have for companies about to embark on similar projects. 

Want to continue the SAP S/4HANA conversation? Make sure to attend the ASUG Best Practices: SAP S/4HANA Virtual Experience. Across four weeks in March, these sessions will help attendees be successful in every part of their SAP S/4HANA journey, with each week focusing on a different phase of the process. 

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