Making major business systems work requires planning, vision, leadership, teamwork and great effort. This presentation explains the role of the Conference Room Pilot (CRP) in helping to ensure success, how to help re-engineer the company business system, how to set one up and function it.
What is a Conference Room Pilot?
A methodology to develop and simulate operation of a system, to learn how it works/should work and how best to manage the business with it — prior to “live” implementation.
On-Line, interactive, integrated systems and software confound traditional evaluation and implementation planning methods. Various “friendliness” issues and software “personality” are much easier to estimate and understand in a live simulation than by documentation review, flow charts and vendor sales pitches. It can be on line or on paper.
The CRP has traditionally been associated with the testing and business modeling with new computer software, but can also be used to manager evaluation of policies, procedures, organization, forms, training and performance measurements. It can be used to test changes to existing systems. The closer one gets to reality, the more effective the training experience. It is becoming more shared to leave a CRP database in place to use as a long-lasting test bed and education/training tool.
Some people use the term CRP to average testing software prior to implementation. While this is an excellent application, the list below indicates that there are far more uses:
The CRP may be used to:
o analyze policy/procedure issues, different solutions and begin improvements.
o slightly or completely re-engineer the company system for improved performance.
o aim employees in the operation of the system/software- policies, procedures, software, forms, and reports.
o Gain a functional understanding/estimate how the software really works- approach, strengths, and weaknesses.
o Test accuracy of vendor proposals, claims, and documentation.
o Help develop a workable plan for conversion, implementation and utilization of the software as part of an overall system.
o Provide education in how a manufacturing system and software could work- especially interdepartmental relationships.
o ease constructing system descriptions and displays of regulatory compliance.
The CRP may be used during one or more system lifecycle phases:
o Identification and development of policies, procedures and operating approach.
o Shakedown cruise to improve/debug software, policies, procedures, training and already organizational approach.
o current training tool.
o current test bed for new/alternation software, policies, procedures, application areas, including system integration.
There are several major advantages over other approaches:
o estimate, test and learn at minimal risk.
o Test more alternatives, more comprehensively.
o Easier to control conditions.
o Far faster and cheaper than complete simulation, “live” pilot, similar operation or “cold turkey”/”big bang” (total implementation all at once).
o Much more realistic than program/module technically- oriented testing.
o The CRP is slow, but it will usually consequence in better, faster implementation results in the long run.
Disadvantages exist in addition:
o CRP’s are time-consuming.
o They initially slow down the implementation cycle, but can provide improved results.
o Require high degree of discipline, but so does implementing a major system – think of it as good practice.
How It Works
Recommended meaningful elements of a successful CRP are outlined and briefly explained:
o Objectives – It’s a good idea to reiterate the system objectives or write them if you haven’t already. Good objectives are clear and quantifiable where possible. They directly sustain company strategic plan goals and objectives. CRP objectives should be chosen from the applications section above and tailored to company objectives.
o Scope – It’s important to state what’s included – and not included – in your CRP. State the applications, organizations affected and the thoroughness of involvement desired. for example, do you want to completely re-engineer the time of action to eliminate all non-value additional operations, or merely automate or transform an existing approach? Does the project include all company business systems, or just purchasing, MRP or accounts payable?
o Organization – Who will be responsible for directing, performing and acting upon the results? What is the role of each player? What degree of autonomy/empowerment is assumed? How will MIS, vendors, consultants be involved?
o Approach – How will the CRP project work? How will players go about their stated responsibilities? What tools will be employed to accomplish the time of action?
o Project plan – Create major milestones, dates, supporting activities, responsibility assignments, precedence relationships, durations, resource requirements (people, equipment, outside sustain). The plan becomes the principal project management tool and may truly be a subset of a larger plan, such as MRPII implementation. Each application area needs to have its own milestones, responsible people and activity plan. We have found it works better to use at the minimum some people whose regular job responsibilities lie in the affected areas.
B. Requirements definition/documentation
Some people say this shouldn’t be part of a CRP. It appears here for three reasons:
o Make sure it’s not forgotten.
o Put a business instead of a technical emphasis on the CRP.
o Put structure into the CRP effort.
Without a methodical foundation for the planned operation of a new system, the CRP will tend to wander aimlessly and will be unprotected to manipulation by vendors or others with a different agenda. If requirements are defined already — great. However, my experience is that most companies claiming to have this complete have done a shallow or incorrect job. Don’t dive into the software before this important homework is done first!
It’s imperative to know where you’re going and where you’re coming from when embarking on the dangerous journey of major system change. The as-is and to-be systems definition approach can only be shortcutted so much before running into trouble. While we don’t think that an existing system, if it’s to be replaced, should be exhaustively and elaborately proven, it is necessary to understand how it operates and what issues and problems exist. Following that, a more detailed and comprehensive first cut “to-be” definition should be produced. It may be successively perfected as the program moves forward.
Experience has shown that most initial system documentation efforts do not mirror the actual richness, complexity, ambiguity and varied of the real system operation. People usually assume that the current system is logical and rational, but it isn’t always so. First pass analyses often appear “single threaded”, in that they show what would happen if everything went right. In real life, there are many, many exceptions, requiring complicate branching and different activities. To make matters worse, not everyone handles things the same in all situations. In fact, there is usually a good deal of ambiguity and already blind alleys in most de facto systems. MRB, customer returns and outside processing are good examples of this in most companies.
traditional development and documentation tools are often not used in a way that deals with the above effectively. To better deal with these problems we have used the “living flow chart” method with a fairly high degree of success for some time. Instead of documenting systems in boring, complicate diagrams that get hidden away in books, try this:
use systems users/project team members, not systems professionals, to construct the charts. Use the systems people as facilitators. Why?
o Instills user ownership.
o Users know better “where the bodies are buried.”
Project management and systems people are often real nervous about doing this because users often come up with a poor examination, unrealistic requirements, or worse in addition, attempt to automate the position quo.
How to avoid these pitfalls
o First, provide education in modern systems approaches and provide a thorough grounding in the applications to be studied. Set up well qualified and well balanced teams. Expose people to methods used by more successful companies, but allow for differences, making sure that they don’t claim that “it won’t work here because we’re aerospace” or some similar nonsense. Next, carefully explain how you want the documentation done.
o Then, set goals to be achieved, such as: reduce paperwork 50% in order processing, or cut procurement time by 33%. This will force people to look past the current approaches to unprotected to the desired approaches. It will also help ensure that the project will generate a healthy return on investment. press that processes need to be re-engineered, not just replicated on a new computer system.
Try putting flow charts up on the walls, life size, using actual forms, screens and reports. Connect the flows together with highly visible arrows. Record cycle time, responsibilities and applicable policies/procedures for each course of action. Put notes on the wall explaining what is being done, how and why. Review these flows with various departments, auditors, already customer and government people- anybody who will listen and provide feedback! The day before this was written, the President of one of the companies using this approach was out with the team as they were working on the wall charts- making suggestions! When’s the last time that happened at your company? An amazing range of people have contributed to the time of action at this company.
Now here’s a meaningful point…
Have people write down all their suggestions, their name and the date on little cards or yellow “Post-It”(TM) notes and slap them up on the wall where they apply. The project team can record, classify, edit and prioritize them on an issues list, used to excursion change activities. Talk about empowerment! Once the as-is configuration is proven, discuss issues and direction, then start right in on the to-be.
The to-be charts may be reworks of the as-is, but it seems to work already better with new charts, side by side with the old ones. By the way, these charts can become enormous. We saw one that consumed eleven large walls. The re-engineered “to-be” version was less than half of that. More words of advice: don’t let specialists work in isolation- use cross-functional teams to get a balanced picture and complete knowledge of system interactions.
Also, It stimulates the team’s creative juices if they are provided some challenging objectives, such as: “reduce cycle times and administrative paperwork by 50%.”
Competent administration contributes considerably to a successful CRP. It is recommended that an administrator be stated to provide a focal point for all CRP activities. In a smaller project, this person might very likely be the overall project manager or an MIS person. In larger projects, this would typically be an all-consuming activity for months.
Working to the project plan for task assignment, scheduling, control, follow-up and reporting helps keep the program on schedule, on budget and on track.
The administrator should plan the CRP, set course of action and documentation standards ensure that functional leaders publish meeting announcements, release comprehensive meeting minutes, keep adequate records of meetings/decisions and refer unresolvable issues to the steering committee. This person should also monitor the time of action to ensure that it’s being followed as prescribed.
continue system parameters – defaults, settings for things such as netting methods, costing methods, exception reporting rules, posting rules, default charge accounts, etc.
Ensure that databases are maintained:
o CRP databases, used for structured business testing of various likely scenarios.
o “Play” databases for free form/ad hoc experimentation.
o Training database, used for formal and informal instruction.
o MIS should continue live (production) databases for the various organizations employing the software after implementation.
Required maintenance of CRP databases includes such things as maintaining parameters per instructions of project management. For example, the administrator may be instructed by a functional leader to change a parameter, such as default inventory posting account number. Before that is done, it’s advisable to review the impact with the team and take appropriate steps before/after implementing it. It might be necessary to inform the other team members of the impact of this change. Changes tested in the CRP may be afterward moved to other databases after the team has indicated that is the direction to go. For best results, MIS should probably perform this after evaluating the impact and consulting with the team, which should have already consulted with meaningful systems users.
The administrator may also be asked to continue archives of CRP databases and to roll back/restore various versions at various times. MIS should give the administrator a free hand and the proper tools/utilities to accomplish it efficiently and quickly.
The formation of proper facilities can enhance results, reduce costs and time required to successfully complete the CRP. A project headquarters area should provide adequate space for teams to assemble, perform wall flow charting activities, conduct classroom training and simulation testing. Figure 2 depicts a facility employed for a medium sized company implementing an integrated MRPII/financial system.
An adequate number of terminals/workstations and both line and slave printers should be made obtainable in close closeness to each other and to the room facilities (the slave printers are needed to document screen contents at basic test points). This permits more effective interaction of the group performing its responsibilities. Equipment can later be recycled for production purposes, unless a small current CRP test bed is maintained.
o MIS needs to provide databases as described above, back them up regularly, provide roll back/restore capabilities and/or sets, adequate equipment and sustain sets.
o Provide help with batch job flows.
o Continuing MIS CRP participation in providing technical and applications sustain will help ensure popular results. Technical consultants, software and hardware vendors can play an important role here in addition.
F. Operational Phase
There are many ways to organize the CRP activities. Here’s a good one:
o Functional leaders direct construction of as-is and to-be flows, clarify issues.
o Team works on prioritization, assignment and resolution of identified issues.
o CRP administrator does an informal run by of system flow charts, trial runs the software on-line and develops a “story line” to guide the scenarios to be written.
o CRP administrator lays out overall CRP plan and schedule.
o CRP administrator lays out CRP scenario guidelines. Keep test situations small. You want a good cross section of products, processes and organizations involved, not a enormous data entry exercise.
Functional leaders construct detailed functional scenarios using guidelines, own knowledge of roles, issues list and advice from system users, managers and other authentic interested parties. Others review and augment this product.
Functional leaders walk cross-functional teams and possible system users by flow charts. Issue handling is discussed. Leaders take group by on-line scenario exercises. Various questions and additions to the foreseen problems are raised and different approaches are tested. Most issues should be resolved by the team during the exercises or delegated for further action. sometimes, issues will be referred to the steering committee when the group is unable to resolve them. This should be uncommon if the group composition is correct and they are empowered to address most issues. It is advisable to have had at the minimum some of the vendors software training and certainly “generic” or industry-specific education before attempting these steps.
It’s a good idea to do the walkthroughs and resolve most issues on paper first, before starting the computer simulation. Why: Too hard to keep reloading the database, re-doing exercises and resetting parameters all the time.
Don’t be afraid to try ad-hoc approaches to issues encountered. If worried about contaminating the database by deviating from the tried and true, try tests under different contracts, parts, accounts, or already on a separate database. This is one of the reasons we recommended having a “play” database earlier.
Don’t fall into the trap of testing individual roles or software vendors’ “modules.” Run a comprehensive, integrated test of the complete system, with data that flow by all portions, so that interaction can be tested in an ecosystem as close as possible to the one to be implemented.
Don’t just run by the vendors’ screens and reports, or slavishly replicate your existing approaches. Use all policies, procedures and forms that will be used to truly run the business, but look for improvements/streamlining in the time of action. The software is only one business tool and will only work as part of an integrated whole.
Document results of tests and discussions, using screen and report copies in addition as written notes and published summaries.
In most situations, the group will begin to realize how little is really known about the time of action and how many issues have gotten away from it in the past. The CRP course of action permits knowledge to expand rapidly, and will permit them to better resolve issues raised.
Bringing closure to the effort is meaningful to benefiting from all the work to be done. A structured, methodical approach, documentation of results and control of open issues will help make this happen.
It’s important to capture the results and issues raised and to relentlessly pursue their resolution to continually enhance the system approach. Issue resolution is what really drives the change course of action.
Use the empowered team to resolve issues whenever possible. continue a dialog with affected organizations. Use the steering committee as the “secret weapon” to conquer obstacles when they can’t.
Don’t just “automate the mess you already have.” Focus on re-engineering the time of action for improved performance, but don’t get carried away. In some situations, it’s possible to make major improvements after the initial implementation.
Put mechanisms in place to rapidly translate findings and recommendations into change. The best way to do this: competent team members should be drawn from affected areas, be empowered by their management to make changes, given guidelines for rapid change implementation and promoted to do it! To break bureaucratic logjams, we suggest that suggested changes be approved by default, if entered to a regularly published issues resolution log, discussed at a project meeting and keep unchallenged for a stated time.
It may be apparent from the preceding material that the CRP approach provides an excellent opportunity for evaluation, testing, development, education and training. This is a great way to build a trained team ahead of time, to ensure a more successful implementation.
It has been noted by veterans of successful system implementations that testing and other conference room pilot activities took much more time than originally planned, but that it was worth it. Some of these same people noted that it was necessary to run by the CRP more than once, in order to incorporate lessons learned into another try(s). Some unsuccessful project teams have remarked that they should have spent more time on these.
We have found that almost nobody initiates these on their own unless they have been exposed to them before or unless someone experienced helps them introduce the time of action to the project. In fact, there is sometimes active resistance or indifference from some of the uninitiated, who feel that the approach would waste too much time. While not intuitive, this and other CRP approaches are found to be logical, easily understood and accepted once tried with an open mind.
The Conference Room Pilot is the single most effective way we know of to truly learn and understand a system for evaluation, education, testing and implementation planning purposes.
This article is also obtainable on our website: PROACTION – Generating Best Practices. It is an excerpt of a paper originally written by George Miller, Founder of PROACTION. It has been alternation and updated by Paul Deis, PROACTION CEO.