As a state-regulated utility managing water—an increasingly precious resource—in Florida, a state nearly surrounded by water, the South Florida Water District (SFWD) handles the ebb and flow of business and technology challenges and change well. In this ASUG interview, SFWD SAP Section Administrator Rich Sands discusses the utility’s SAP S/4HANA implementation progress, his plans for SAP Fiori that extend beyond a “toe in the water,” and political climate challenges.
This is an edited version of the full conversation.
Q. What SAP tools and technologies has the SFWD previously used in its business?
A. Around 2006, we went from our old in-house financial and HR systems to SAP. The district was going through a business automation and enhancement effort. We wanted an ERP-type system to do most of the groundwork for the business. This would allow individuals to do less manual work and do higher-level work. For example, a contract specialist—instead of them constantly writing contracts, we wanted them on the phone negotiating better terms for the business. We went to SAP to move the district out of the 1970s [from ECC on-premise] and to move us into at least the late ’90s.
Q. Between then and now, did you add any SAP systems or enhancements?
A. We brought in the plant maintenance and the HR module … I’m only speaking from the business side because I was on the business side until last May, when I was asked to do this job. We wanted to automate processes. For instance, we do a lot of plant maintenance. We have field stations that do a lot of work orders. We do a lot of capital construction. We developed linkages so the people in the field could change work orders and those would automatically get distributed to the network activities and Project System. So both sides—Plant Maintenance and the field station managers—got the data they wanted, and the system did all that work. We focused on processes, making the work as slick as we could.
Q. You said you were on the business side before switching over last year. Could you provide a little background on that?
A. I was on the business side, essential in an office of management and budget. I worked the management side, so I directly ran project systems and plant maintenance. I kind of watched over the workflow for the entire business and watched how all the ERP modules interacted with each other.
If you go back to when we made the decision, maybe two-and-a-half years ago, to upgrade to SAP S/4HANA, they hired a guy who’d worked in SAP his entire life. He was very good and they hired him to prepare for the implementation, to then run the implementation, and to long-term run the shop. Two months before the implementation, he gave notice and left. The IT division director approached me and said we couldn’t afford to bring anybody else in, that I was the only one who could possibly run the implementation. And then, was I willing to run the shop afterward? I said, I know how to use the application programming interface, but I don’t know how to run SAP. So here I am. I’m a good soldier. I knew how big the mission was. I knew it was important to the district. So, I did it, and here I am learning how to run SAP every day. I have good people to work with, so all I do is try to get all the pieces together so we can keep going.
Q. The decision to transition to SAP S/4HANA was made two-and-a-half years ago. What were the business drivers for that decision? The technology drivers?
A. There’s a little bit of politics involved as well—Florida state politics. When Rick Scott became governor, he made a massive cut in government services. We went through a 33% lay off here. Once the layoffs occurred, I spent a lot of time redesigning workflow processes so those could replace 30-year employees. We analyzed what they were doing, and we figured out how to get SAP to do that heavy lifting. That’s how we survived. And then we went through two, three, or four directors. Rick Scott finally put Pete Antonacci in charge as district director. He was Scott’s personal lawyer. Antonacci was looking at how much we spent to maintain SAP and he said, I want a study done to tell me if I can get rid of SAP and run this thing internally. Gartner did the study and came back to say that the only reason we were able to function is because SAP was doing the work of about 600 full-time employees. That was around 2017. Antonacci got the report and said, well, I can’t hire any more people. What we’ve got to do is make SAP better than it is today.
Then I got sent to SAPPHIRE NOW® in Orlando. Met with a lot of people up there and became enamored with SAP S/4HANA and Fiori. I came back, met with Antonacci, and said we had to go there—the expense was going to be worth it. Antonacci essentially made a presentation to the governing board. They voted for us to go ahead and they funded the effort.
Q. What were the key elements of the business case that persuaded the governing board?
A. At the time, we had two governing board members who were businessmen themselves. Those two, for the most part, drove the people who weren’t business oriented toward the decision, and that’s kind of how the vote went down.
Q. You were enamored with SAP S/4HANA and Fiori. Why?
A. The old SAP is like using Fortran. It’s not cool and slick. When it’s not pretty, they don’t like it here at the district. So, I met with the Project System people in the plant, and said show me what this thing can do, and I just started going at it. Then I said, I want to see this Fiori thing. And they just said, run the mouse and it will guide you. I pressed one button, and all of a sudden—what normally would take three different Business Warehouse reports and a whole bunch of manipulation to get into a graph—it all popped up in front of me within seconds. I said, “How is this done?” And they said, it’s just coding behind the scenes. I run all the business intelligence reports. Every Friday we send out a huge report. It takes us two days to get it together. When I saw what Fiori was creating, it was the business intelligence reports that would take us three hours to do. This is where we need to get to. And I wanted the director to be able to press a Fiori tile on his desktop and have the data pop up, as opposed to calling me saying, Hey, can you run the report that tells me how many purchase reqs haven’t been processed?
That’s why I was enamored. I saw how our jobs could get much easier and I could focus on moving the business in better directions.
Q. Where are you on the S/4 journey and in the implementation of Fiori?
A. July 4, 2021, was our go-live weekend. Did they all do the testing as they should have? No. So we found things that didn’t function afterward. We’ve spent a good while just settling the system down. I liken it to a horse that needs to get acclimated. It came out on July 4 and it was all full of spirit. But then, as we rode along, we needed to settle it down so it would do a better job of pulling the wagon. And we’re finally there. We’re running, spending maybe 20% of the time fixing stuff and 80% of the time on enhancements.
The SAP Financial Accounting module was our tough one. It was also where our weakest testing was—our weakest point. HR did a good job and testing went much smoother. I really thought procurement was going to stumble over Business Warehouse, but they didn’t.
In terms of results, Business Partner has improved the business workflow process between our HR, Finance, and Procurement Bureaus.
Q. Did any SAP partners support you in the work, or was it all internal?
A. It was 50/50. I’ve got roughly seven full-time employees in house, but we had Infosys as our contract assistance. Infosys did a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes as far as getting modules ready for conversion.
Q. Is the business environment or the current state of the operation more challenging because you are a regulated entity?
A. In Florida, we’ve got the Sunshine Act. Everything that we do as district employees, state employees, anyone can ask, “I want to see all the records.” Because of this, we have noticed phishing and attacks on the system. Anyone can ask for any contract information. So, they do so, and what we’ve found is that the evil side of the world finds out. When you become a vendor in south Florida, your business is open to the world because of a public records request. … So that’s been a tricky point for us, regulatory wise.
Change management is also difficult. We go through cycles. We’ve had a large amount of turnover—people who are very knowledgeable of SAP and work together as a team across the modules and across the business. Half of them retire or leave and will get other jobs. And then, the new people come in and haven’t got that experience. So there’s a lot of change—controlled time waste is what I call it.
Q. What are some of your next steps?
A. We made the decision to go on-prem for the SAP S/4HANA implementation. Before I leave for retirement in seven years, we’re going to take this from on-prem to cloud. It needs to be in the cloud so we can control our maintenance of it a little bit, to have SAP shoulder more of the day-to-day code maintenance.
Also, with Fiori, we’ve only got our toe in the water. We got our 1099s in Fiori now and we’ve got maybe eight to 10 of our HR Fiori tiles built out, but that’s all we’ve done. But I have a big vision toward that. It’s just that we haven’t had time to do it. Automation of our financial record keeping; scanner utilization in support of repair-part supply operations; mobile manager approval of work items from handheld devices; and vegetation field management work order updating from the field are some of our opportunities.
Outside of that, the other big dream has been to do automated parts ordering for our field stations. This is because we have a bad habit of buying automotive and machinery air and oil filters with our credit cards and paying extreme prices for it. I want to get to where SAP is looking at the minimum/maximum levels in a warehouse toward parts that we need to run all our equipment. Then it gets down to two parts left—SAP automatically orders and it shows up at the door.
A year from now, we’re going to move to a more handheld input environment. We want to get to the point where everyone can access and use SAP away from their workstations. For example: managers approving work items, mechanics updating work order performance, and vegetation management personnel adding field findings to work orders.