Last week, we heard from Tomlinson Group and Illumiti about how the two organizations worked together to complete part of Tomlinson Group’s multi-phased SAP S/4HANA implementation project in the midst of COVID-19. Vince Siemens, corporate controller and SAP S/4HANA program director at Tomlinson Group of Companies, and Nir Orbach, CEO of Illumiti, discussed the entire scope of the project, what steps were taken to move to a remote implementation, and how the two organizations worked together.
In part two, we’ll discuss the specific part of the SAP S/4HANA implementation that was completed remotely, the solutions the two organizations leveraged to stay organized, and any advice for SAP customers about to embark on their own remote implementation.
ASUG: What phases of your SAP S/4HANA implementation project did you all complete remotely? What sort of functionalities did you implement during this specific period?
Vince: With this phase, we did full finance, sales, and distribution. One of the biggest changes was our new billing cockpit, which was developed with Illumiti. This changed how we enter quantities that will get billed with a whole new set of apps. That was a major build. It was probably the single biggest new component of this phase of the project. As I said earlier, we rolled out 150 new users into multiple divisions. We didn't do an SAP S/4HANA version upgrade in this particular phase, but everything we rolled out allowed us to get a large group of construction employees running the same solution that other parts of our organization were running. This allowed us to support these employees working remotely as they were working through a really heavy year. Now, they are working on a system consistent to what many of their counterparts were using. As I said earlier, the last of our construction divisions will go live in April 2021.
Not only did we go live with this specific phase in May 2020, but we started support on this new phase and began the next phase, which we'll also do entirely remotely—we simply continued on with how we were working. We've already done a complete go-live remotely, so our project delivery hasn't changed in any way. I think it's actually brought on some additional efficiencies. Consultants aren't wasting time traveling. That’s also resulted in a small financial benefit because we don't have to pay for travel (although our travel expenses are relatively small in the grand scheme of things). After seeing that we could work remotely, I think we would continue with this model of going forward—other than some very specific things. I don't think Nir would disagree. If all the travel bans were lifted tomorrow, I don’t see any reason why we would change our current model. I can still have those conversations as I did before. This experience has proven to us that we can do things remotely, and I think we should continue to do it this way.
ASUG: Once the scope and effects of COVID-19 became apparent, what were the initial steps your two organizations took to ensure the success of this implementation? What were the conversations you were having in February and March like?
Vince: We already had tools in place that track the status of any issues and where we are at with any deliverables. When this happened, the first thing we looked at is whether anyone was at risk. Are there any employees on either side that could be at risk and could this have an impact on them personally? Then we looked to see if there was anything that could risk the implementation itself, in terms of where we were at with developing and testing.
After going through everything piece by piece, we found we were good on a technical level, because of the daily tracking we had done. We immediately looked to see what travel plans had already been made, since we were a week away from all of our consultants coming in. After examining what the consultants had planned to come in for, we made a decision on whether we could move all of that to remote work. We were able to shift meetings around, moving them from face-to-face to virtual. As I said earlier, the only piece that became a quick concern was the training side of the house, which is something we handle internally. We knew that if we could rejig our training schedule, the Illumiti team would be able to support us with anything we needed. It was pretty nimble. We went from saying, “we can't get together” to—within a day or two—saying, “we're going to continue remotely.”
From a pure implementation standpoint, moving to remote wasn't a big deal. We were fortunate that we were set up for that success all along. I hesitate to say this, but in some ways, this situation almost made it better for some of our consulting resources. We have certain resources that lived in places like St. Louis or Denver. Traveling to Ottawa would cost them a whole day to get here and a whole day to get home. They were always real champs about it because they got everything done and never once complained, but this made their lives a little easier and actually gave a little more bandwidth to the team. In some ways, it was a blessing in disguise.
Nir: The first decision that we both agreed to was that we're not going to put the team at risk by asking them to travel. We agreed that the safety of the team came first, and we would do whatever was necessary to support a 100% remote go-live. We only had the go-live and the training remaining. Right off the bat, we decided that we would have a slight delay to accommodate the training. Otherwise, we would continue with the project.
What was slightly less certain at that moment was whether the continuation phase of the project that was to follow would carry on immediately. Those decisions took a few more weeks. I think the success that we had with the remote go-live encouraged us to continue to push along and move on the next phase of the project.
Vince: That’s a good point, Nir. After we went live, we didn't know what was going to happen. But it was a seamless transition. Tomlinson Group was fortunate as a company that works in environmental and construction sectors. So, we were considered an essential business. Our business didn't slow down. If anything, the opposite actually happened. It was busier than ever. We continued through the project into the next phase without missing a beat.
ASUG: What experiences did your teams have doing remote work?
Nir: In the pursuit of trying to create a better work-life balance for Illumiti consultants, we try to have a mixture of on-site and remote work on our projects. We've had that for many years and have kept trying to push those boundaries. But we never expected to be where we are today, where we're pretty much 100% remote. COVID-19 definitely pushed us to that.
Vince: My team worked remotely with the Illumiti folks, but my internal team never worked outside the office, other than a day or two. The support of having the Illumiti team working with us remotely really helped our internal resources stay on track and focused. They had to do this because they were now put in the same boat as their Illumiti counterparts. That transition also took a couple of days. It was one of those areas where Illumiti helped us immensely.
ASUG: Vince, how were those new functionalities that you mentioned especially helpful to Tomlinson Group as it continued its operations during COVID-19?
Vince: They didn’t help us one way or another as a result of COVID-19, but this phase did get our larger IT and operational support team on one system. This new phase took away challenges that existed because we were using multiple systems. Now we're moving in a direction where most of our resources are on one system and people can concentrate more. More significantly, Tomlinson Group had a really large year in 2020. We had the confidence that the SAP system we brought in would support these large complex projects and work, as opposed to waking up and finding that our incumbent system had gone down.
ASUG: What technologies and solutions did you all leverage to stay on track and organized?
Nir: Skype and Microsoft Teams became widely used. We were also already using SharePoint, which helped us tremendously because it’s where all our project tracking is happening. The entire project team has access to the SharePoint and it enabled everybody to continue to have visibility. Even though they were remote, they have full visibility on the progress of every action item and deliverable pertaining to the project. That was tremendously beneficial in a fully remote environment, where you might not have had people bumping into you in the corridor and talking about the project. Those kinds of conversations weren't as necessary because we had the self-service tools for people to be able to see exactly where things were. Coupled with that was more use of e-learning tools in training and encouraging people to self-train. We made the material available to people, which allowed them to take courses on their own and reach out for help if necessary.
Vince: SharePoint really did facilitate things. We were used to storing everything there, and it was a single version of the truth. This made things transparent when we moved to be operating permanently remote.
ASUG: What advice would you give companies that are about ready to embark on a remote implementation of SAP S/4HANA? What are some of the main lessons that you all learned?
Vince: One of the difficult things for someone embarking on this is building that team cohesiveness we have. We have a very cohesive team at all levels between Illumiti and Tomlinson Group. A lot of that was built in the early stages of this project, where we were getting together. I think if a company was starting something that was completely remote, they need to consider how to build that team cohesiveness. Make sure there are conversations—personal conversations and casual conversations—to get people comfortable. Once you've established those relationships and built that trust, make sure you have the tools to share information and that you're reaching out to your people.
Just because I don't see Nir on a monthly basis anymore, that doesn’t mean he and I can’t talk. We had a conversation for about an hour and a half before Christmas, and it was no different from when we were sitting across from each other at SAPPHIRE NOW and ASUG Annual Conference, having a beverage. If you can treat this process as though you just happen to not be in the same room all the time and get over that stigma, it can work well.
I think the biggest lesson in all of this is listening and being patient with one another. Sometimes stresses come on that have nothing to do with the project. Our Provincial Premier Doug Ford just announced that kids may not go back to school immediately. I know some members of my team are going to be worried about this. I'll reach out and tell them that we'll work around it. We're all in the same boat and we all have the same goals.
Nir: Vince hit on the most critical point that I feel: for new teams embarking on this process, building camaraderie and rapport with your consultants and client counterparts is critical. It’s important to find ways to have team lunches or water-cooler moments, even for smaller groups. Doing those activities using video conference is important so that people can see each other and feel a little bit closer to the voice on the other side of the line. I also think having patience and empathy for others that don't necessarily have ideal conditions for working at home is important. People sometimes have to work from their bedrooms because they have a spouse working from their regular office or their dining table. Sometimes you have little kids going by or dogs running behind the scenes. Those are not entirely controllable. I’d encourage organizations to have greater levels of patience and tolerance for those small disruptions or interruptions.
One thing we found with clients with large teams is that if you have a lot of people on a video conferencing call, it's often valuable to have a facilitator who can ensure that everybody who wants to participate has a chance to be heard, ask questions, and have their questions addressed. I’d also encourage organizations to have a higher cadence of contact. While you’re working remotely from somewhere all day, you always have counterparts on these projects. It's really important to touch base with them multiple times a day, even if there isn't anything specific to talk about. Just reach out, see how they're doing, and make sure they have everything they need. It’s important that both parties know what their actions are, how they're progressing on the deliverables, and that everyone has the information they need from each other to make effective progress.
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.