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Lean Works Better When Agile

Monday, January 4th, 2016

Advocates of Lean production and Agile development both want the same thing. What’s different is Agile’s much higher end-user collaboration — which great software requires.

Making software is not like making cars. When you make software you have the opportunity to ask end users for feedback on working pieces of the product as it is still being created — so the software will likely match what customers actually want. But when you make a car you have to wait until the car is finished before you can get user feedback on the actual car, not just on images or descriptions. Yes, it’s possible for customers to go on the automaker’s website or dealer and specify various options — colors, features, and design alternatives. But those options are already listed for you. That’s different than when users give software developers feedback on how to tweak the product while it’s still being worked on.

That’s what Agile’s advocates say software companies should do: leverage customer feedback during development to avoid the waste of making something customers don’t like. Manufacturers (carmakers included) obviously have the same goal; they would just have an issue adopting a method like Agile that requires frequent user feedback during production. Instead, they have adopted Lean, a methodology that optimizes production workflow. But if manufacturers can’t adopt Agile, some software developers have adopted Lean. What they’ve found is that Lean and Agile work much better together.

Two Paths Toward a Common Goal

Given that Lean manufacturing concepts originated in a car company, Toyota, and in the 1940s, it makes sense why Lean did not incorporate the Agile principles that the software industry introduced in the 1990s. Both methodologies were responses to the different needs of their respective industries and eras: one a better way to make things, the other a better way to make software. Yet, both defined success the same way — customers getting what they want with the least amount of waste in the process. Lean optimizes the workflow to achieve a happier customer faster. Agile optimizes the product by asking customers what they want early and often — thus also avoiding misdirection and waste. But because making cars is not like making software — Lean has traditionally left out the “ask customers early and often” part.

But just because Agile may not be practical for Lean car making (or other manufac¬turing), that doesn’t mean it isn’t practical when it comes to Lean software development. (That’s if you already think Lean is a good way to make better software in the first place.) In fact, you can make a case that Lean development really isn’t very Lean without Agile.

How Lean Makes Better Software

One global IT strategy consulting company that proves the case for Lean software development is Capgemini in its iSAP practice. iSAP stands for industrialized SAP. Capgemini is making the logical connection between the industrialized making of things (like cars) and the industrialized application of software, where SAP certainly qualifies. Capgemini’s insight is that for too long the focus of SAP implementations has been on configuring SAP modules — in other words, in creating a “happy” module, rather than a happy customer. With Lean, iSAP is focused on the customer and so has redefined project deliverables in terms of the customer value they bring — “order to cash” or “procure to pay,” for example — rather than as traditionally defined SAP modules, like FI (financial accounting) or GL (general ledger).

iSAP also makes heavy reuse of existing content (e.g., blueprints, configured modules, test scripts) so that it can focus on those relatively few “difference makers” — or the “acceptions” as Capgemini calls them. This is a play on “design by exception,” another key Lean concept. An acception is something that delivers on the customer’s key value proposition, rather than merely provide vanilla SAP functionality.

How Lean Gets Agile

So, if it’s clear how Lean might benefit software development — by making it more about the customer and less about the module — then the connection to Agile should also be clear. Agile answers the question, “How do you focus on the customer?” Agile assumes that customer requirements change as customers see the product develop — which means they need to see the product as it develops. It’s a simple idea: the best way to know what the customer wants is to ask the customer. And the best way for customers to really know what they want is to show them a working product (or at least a working piece of the product). That way, there’s no guessing. Without that collaboration, a lot of waste can happen — exactly what Lean advocates are looking to eliminate.

But Lean also benefits Agile. Take content reuse — a key Lean principle. The more content developers reuse, the less code there is to implement from scratch. That means sprints (coding/review iterations) can be shorter and encompass more of the end product — so users get an even better idea of what the end product will look like. Design by acception is another way Lean makes Agile more Agile. That’s because sprints are more likely to be developing something the customer actually cares about — thereby increasing customer satisfaction faster than if developers were just sprinting along making commodity code.

So not only are Lean and Agile better together, but they work especially well together in an industrial software environment like SAP, which is something of a poster child for long, costly, and highly regimented software projects. Maybe you can’t make cars this way; but SAP proves that you definitely can (and should) make software this way.

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Five Traits of a Great Virtual Consultant
February 15, 2013

Not everyone is cut out to be a great virtual consultant. But those that are often find the experience highly rewarding, both from a monetary point of view and a quality-of-life point of view. Virtual consultants get to work at home, at a Starbucks, or anywhere else they choose. They set their own hours. And in most cases they are not prohibited from working a full-time job in addition to doing one or two virtual consulting projects on the side. Handling a few virtual consulting projects successfully is also a great way to build a reputation, and therefore a good business, for yourself — which can lead to more independence and more projects.
Sound inviting? Great! But before you apply (or at least before you apply through the ERPCX) you should reflect on whether you’ve got what it takes. If being successful on a virtual consulting project can help “make” your reputation as an SAP consultant, than messing up on one (especially your first) can do a lot of harm. Like the adage says, you only get one chance to make a great first impression.
So here are the top five traits of a virtual consultant we would consider crucial (and which we will ask you to demonstrate, should you still decide to apply):

1. Ability to work independently (highly motivated, meets deadlines, etc.)
This should not be too tough to prove. SAP consultants often work on their own even when they are employed full time by a large consulting firm. If you have that experience then you know, working independently is a lot of different even from working on a small team. The only way anyone knows you’re doing a good job is if you meet deadlines and turn in good work. Face time doesn’t count. And you can’t “BS” your way through meetings to score political points. Nor do you have the support of teammates, either emotionally or professionally. You’ve got to develop your own support system, usually through the Internet. So, show us some successful projects where you were working on your own (regardless of your employment status) and we can check this box off.

2. Uses the latest technology (good Internet connection, latest tools, etc.)
Other than a missed deadline or shoddy work, there’s nothing more frustrating for a client than being told the consultant can’t open a file or recreate a problem on his or her computer. You should have remote access to a fully provisioned SAP system (like we offer here at ERPCX), the latest development tools, and great connectivity — including screen sharing tools and high bandwidth.

3. Active in forums (like SDN, ERPCX) so you know what’s going on in the industry
Do you blog? Do you read and comment on articles published in the SDN, ERPCX or other SAP developer forums? Have you built up your own professional network using social networking tools like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter? As we said above, independent contractors have to know how to create their own support systems. They should also be highly motivated. If you’re someone who engages with your peers and has informed opinions about the latest industry trends and issues, then it’s a good bet you’re not going to need a lot of handholding. It’s also likely we won’t have to sell your skills or background very hard to clients because they (or someone they know) will know who you are already.

4. Great track record of project success
As stockbrokers say in their TV commercials, “past performance is no guarantee of future results” — but it sure helps. The key here is knowing, and also being able to say, what was so successful about the project you worked on. What problems did you solve? Were they technical or business problems? What role did you play in that success? What can the client do now that they could not do before — new functionality, faster performance, new business opportunities? At the core, a virtual consultant is a small business owner, and as a business owner you have to be able to describe what your value is to customers. No one else will.

5. Great communications skills (phone, email)
Selling yourself doesn’t end when you get a virtual consulting job. You have to sell yourself every day. Again, it’s the difference between just being a worker bee on a project and being able to truly collaborate as a professional with your customer and with other independent consultants. When you work in a team, under a project manager, you can rely on the manager to be that interface to the customer. But when you’re a virtual consultant, you have to get along with the client on your own. And if you’re working offsite, and collaborate with the client mostly through texting and email, it gets even harder. Of course, if you’ve got all the other traits on this list, then you are probably a successful communicator as well.
And we would sure like to communicate with you!

ERPCX Welcomes SAP Users

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

By Herbert Goertz

As announced in my last post, the ERPCX is adding a third member category — users. Why users?  Because every “solution” needs them.

Have you ever sat in a meeting of SAP consultants and users — like when the users are giving feedback on a system the consultants just designed? It can be painful, especially for the consultants.  No matter how great the consultants think their new system is — even if it is “bug free” — users will have their own opinions. They have a perspective and knowledge that no one else does — not the consultants and not the customers (unless the customers are users too).

Users also have the most to lose. Like the decision-makers who actually buy SAP, users’ careers and incomes depend on how well the software performs. But SAP buyers don’t have to live with the software every day. It’s not facing them every morning when they come to work. With few exceptions, senior executives don’t sit in front of a computer screen all day. If something about the software is slow or hard to use, it’s the user who has to make up the difference by working harder or finding workarounds.

We want to tap into that knowledge and perspective, because we think our other members — consultants and customers — will benefit. So we invite users to participate in our blogs and online discussion threads.

But the ERPCX also offers benefits that users will like. For example, they can use the same career tools that consultants use – like resume posting, job boards, and access to SAP systems for training. They can also use many of the same services we offer SAP customers, like help desk and operations support (e.g., sales order entry).

And because this is an “exchange,” our SAP user members can even “exchange” roles to become part-time virtual consultants themselves — like working on the virtual helpdesk, in operations support, or as a virtual consulting team member.  We think that by bringing all three sides of the SAP project together — consultants, customers, and users — in an ongoing exchange, each side will benefit enormously from the other two.

Why Not an Association for SAP Consultants?

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

By Herbert Goertz

There is strength in numbers. That is why there are SAP user groups like ASUG and partner groups like the IA4SP (International Association for SAP Partners). They exist because members have shared interests they can advance better collectively than they can individually. For example, groups are better than individuals in their ability to:

  • Bargain for preferred rates of payments and discounts
  • Create political support for government or industry actions
  • Establish standards of member performance and certificates of compliance
  • Evaluate, approve, and in some cases deliver, services of value to members
  • Offer educational programs that promote member professionalism
  • Educate everyone on the good work done by members

This concept obviously isn’t new. During the Renaissance, independent craftspeople organized guilds for precisely the same reasons. Take apprenticeship. The guilds invented apprenticeship as a way for customers to recognize certain people as masters of their craft — not for any altruistic purpose, but simply so masters could get paid more. The guild’s stamp of approval meant something — because the guild meant something — for members and for customers. Guilds knew that one of the best ways to raise rates was to protect customers from amateurs and frauds. And they also knew they could only do this as a collective group, not as independent freelancers.

So why not have an association for independent SAP consultants?  The answer is that, in their hearts, most independent SAP consultants still don’t believe they need one. All they know is a culture that says the best way to win is for their competition (i.e., other consultants) to lose. Those days are long gone, of course, but old thinking dies hard.

The objective reality today is that consultants would do much better if they belonged to an independent association with strong leadership, high standards and high-value services for members and SAP clients. But such an association can’t be imposed from outside by a vendor. It has to come from the consultants themselves.  They need to organize it if the association is to attract members and have any real authority. Members might wish to hire professional management, sure, but at the end of the day the association would have to truly be “by SAP consultants for SAP consultants.”

Does anyone want to talk about how to get this started?  Comment here or send me an email.

As 2009 Evolved, So Did We

Friday, December 18th, 2009

by Herbert Goertz

In the rush of day-to-day business it is instructive to take a step back and see how much progress was achieved in a year. And so as we close out this year I’d like to reflect a moment on how far we’ve come.

In 2009 the ERP Consulting Exchange really took shape. Some significant milestones include:

  • We published 70 blog posts by eight contributors mostly about the work life issues facing SAP consultants, a subject that had previously received scant attention despite this industry’s unprecedented economic and career challenges
  • We launched our newsletter (look for the Winter edition coming in January 2010)
  • We rolled out a resume writing service specifically focused on the unique talents, backgrounds and opportunities of SAP professionals
  • We designed and implemented the industry’s first database allowing employers to search for consultants by skill, language, years of experience, countries worked and other criteria
  • We more than tripled membership — now over 3000
  • We greatly expanded the hardware and software resources supporting our SAP system landscape
  • We established a successful relationship with Winshuttle as part of our Solution Referral program
  • We relocated our corporate headquarters to a new state-of-the-art facility at the University of Central Florida incubator campus
  • We launched Herbert’s Team, an elite group of SAP consultants and the first global virtual consulting practice
  • We started the Country Ambassador program to sponsor in-country entrepreneurs who represent the ECX locally and coordinate our virtual consulting engagements with the global team
  • We partnered with cumulusIQ with whom we launched the first SAP Virtual Helpdesk

We started the ECX because we saw the need for a more open supportive environment for SAP consultants and customers, allowing them to work together more productively during this turning point in our industry. Clearly 2009 was all about foundation building. In 2010 we will see how much of an enterprise we can construct on top of of that foundation. Our goal is to become a well-established provider of virtual consulting services to the SAP customer base.

Happy Holidays to all our members, partners, customers and friends. May we all see great success in the coming year!

Is SAP Still Cool?

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

by Herbert Goertz

If ever the time were right for an industry anti-vendor conference this seems to be it.  The tagline for Sapience2009 (Cambridge, MA, December 8th and 9th) is “a journey of independence.”  Speaker after speaker (who each pay $10,000) will describe the benefits, strategies, and enabling products for those seeking “all possibilities outside the original vendor’s scope.”

Tradeshows built around a single vendor typically and implicitly promote that vendor — and can falter if the vendor no longer supports the event (think Macworld, which Apple has famously decided to abandon). Not so Sapience2009, whose organizers apparently know a pretty full bandwagon when they see it coming.

So what of SAP’s own efforts to reach beyond the corporate moat?  Nowhere on the conference website does the phrase “SAP ecosystem” appear.

The approach is pure genius.  On the one hand this is an SAP conference — and thus reaches SAP’s very blue chip audience.  On the other, it makes a virtue out of not having SAP’s support.  As such, it is essentially the marketing version of the very strategy its speakers and attendees will advocate. Or to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, “if you can’t afford ‘em, you got to beat ‘em.”

SAP’s high prices and lock-in practices may have reached a tipping point.  It is not only good business now to beat up on the vendor, but it is also fashionable — which, from a brand value standpoint, may actually hurt SAP more.

Support Innovation

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

by Herbert Goertz

It’s great to see that cloud-based services are starting to attract more general IT media attention, as in Monday’s InfoWorld article called “Startups take SAP consulting to the cloud.”  The article focuses on a couple of companies, one of which is our partner cumulusIQ.  Herbert’s Team and cumulusIQ have been working hard to make cloud-based SAP support a reality.

The article reinforces many of the things we’ve been saying for months:  SAP customers won’t waste resources (time or money) on traditional consulting models for any issue that can be resolved faster, less expensively, and more easily by a virtual helpdesk — especially one populated with world-class consultants like those on our Team.  It doesn’t matter whether customers are large or small, or whether this is a good or not-so-good economy.  Companies won’t spend more money or wait longer for support just because they can — regardless of the environment.  Furthermore, all companies want access to the same tier-1 consultants previously available only to those companies willing to pay the most.

Which brings me to the point raised at the end of the article where Jon Reed is quoted as saying that services like ours are “creatures of the recession.”  That’s like saying that technology only gets less expensive because of recessions, rather than because of innovation.  Of course, SAP maintenance and support prices are not going down — in fact, just the opposite.  However SAP’s prices do not reflect innovation in the underlying support model.  Ours do.

Rimini Street Buries Its Lead

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

by Herbert Goertz

If you read Rimini Street’s October 6th press announcement, two messages come through loud and clear: 1) the company can actually perform the services it promises; and 2) customers save lots of money.  According to the press release:  “Rimini Street has responded to and successfully resolved hundreds of client cases for SAP systems . . . ” while also (now quoting a customer) “significantly reducing operating cost . . . .”

This is news?  The company is in business to save customers money on SAP maintenance — and it actually does that?

What is different about Rimini Street is not that it provides discounted support.  Lots of firms do that. Rimini Street provides an SAP-like support experience that is equal to or better than SAP itself.  That better-than-SAP SAP experience is the real killer — so why doesn’t Rimini Street position itself on that basis?

Any marketing textbook will tell you that positioning yourself as a cost cutter is a slippery slope.  It leaves you vulnerable to discounting.  But it also hurts the market as a whole (that’s the rest of us, folks!) by making the work itself seem cheap.  So, I guess anybody can do this stuff, right?

What would be more helpful is if Rimini Street brought the value add into the headline — rather than simply say they didn’t screw up.  Don’t devalue the fact that you solve customer problems that SAP could not solve; or that support was “ultra responsive.”  A lot of good content is actually in there — if you read down far enough.  The problem is that they’ve buried the lead, and buried a lot of good consulting value along with it.

ECX-University Collaboration Invites Student Involvement

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

By Herbert Goertz

The ECX headquarters has moved.  We are now at the University of Central Florida Seminole County/Winter Springs Incubator.  Opened in 2008, the incubator is a partnership between UCF, Seminole County Government, the City of Winter Springs and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.  

What’s got me excited is not just the state-of-the-art facility here (super fast Internet, conference rooms, etc.) but also the ability to interact closely with students.  As a collaborative community of ERP consultants worldwide, there is much we can offer them — like the opportunity to see firsthand how an emerging virtual consulting practice grows from the ground up. 

Students can become virtual interns on consulting assignments, assist senior ERP consultants, collect project status information, help check software functionality, work in our datacenter maintaining our SAP systems and perform other tasks.

In exchange for this learning experience students earn class credit.

But students are more than a source of labor.  They bring fresh insight and enthusiasm into our organization; and their very presence validates that we do indeed offer a forward-looking environment that benefits everyone involved (like our members).

The future of ERP consulting unfolds faster every day.  The sheer energy of a university environment can only help keep us in front.

If Siemens Can Do It, Why Can’t You?

Friday, September 18th, 2009

by Dirk Leifer

The news reports sent shockwaves through the IT industry: Siemens, the German electronics and engineering giant, has fired SAP, the German software giant, as a provider of SAP software maintenance. Forget notions about national pride and loyalty — this (as yet unconfirmed) move would test a lot of longstanding conventional wisdom:

  • Third-party maintenance is too risky, especially for very large SAP implementations
  • Companies with strong ties “in a multitude of areas” (Jim Dever, director of SAP Americas media relations, as quoted by CIO) have too much invested to sever any of those ties
  • Credible third-party alternatives to SAP maintenance don’t exist
  • Customers are hostage to SAP maintenance contracts and price increases
  • Huge economies derived from recent trends like virtualization, cloud computing, and software as a service don’t impact software maintenance

Every day there is increasing evidence that these beliefs are becoming more myths than reality. How else would you explain the growing popularity of third-party providers like Rimini-Street? Other players will emerge, and so will alternative forms of service delivery. See for example the recently announced partnership between the ECX and cumulusIQ to provide on-demand cloud-based support.

True, some software-specific issues (e.g., bugs) may still require SAP support. But for a growing number of SAP companies, and a growing number of service issues, one question is increasingly relevant: If Siemens can do it, why can’t we?