Why do inventory management systems fail? Take a deep breath…exhale slowly, and repeat your new mantra: “I need to implement a new software system.” If you’ve been through it before, your desk is probably well-stocked with antacids already (and if you haven’t, go ahead and get some now before you need them). In the entire history of mankind’s coexistence with digital technologies, exactly zero companies have ever rolled out a new system that was warmly received by the staff, solved every issue, and generated absolutely no blowback whatsoever. Fear not though, for there are lessons to be learned from other’s mistakes that will make your life a helluva lot easier as you navigate your way through the journey to come. Granted, one could spend a lifetime documenting and sharing these lessons, so for the sake of keeping things tight and to the point, we’re going to focus on the three biggest categories we’ve encountered over the years, starting with the events that lead up to the software selection process.
Right now (assuming you’re not already using an inventory management software of any real sophistication), you know you have problems, but they’re cloudy. When Inventory you need is missing in action but it’s nobody’s fault despite asking everyone responsible. Customers are angry because you sent them out with incorrect or worse, faulty gear, but your shop tech’s are certain no one told them anything needed to be serviced. Bottom line, things are falling through the cracks and you need to get a hold of the situation. So you start talking to people about it, and someone suggests, “Hey, maybe we should look into getting something that helps us track inventory.” Then, the ball gets rolling.
Phase 1: Long Meetings and Human Nature
Sooner or later you’ll schedule a meeting, put a few people in charge of figuring out what software to implement, and that’s when two things are almost certain to follow. First, that team is eventually going to devolve. When things first get started they’re going to be glad (on some level) that you picked them to be on that committee and they’re doing serious work. Then at some point, the tone is going to shift and for a little while, you’re going to be paying three people to sit in a room and complain for two hours a week about how they were stuck in a lose-lose scenario. They aren’t experts in inventory management systems, and that’s probably not the reason they were hired, but here we are.
The second thing will happen. After a while, they’ll put pen to paper, and you’re likely to start seeing a lot of “If/Then” statements that have little – if anything – to do with software selection criteria. “Well if the managers would just do a quick inventory before and after every project, then we wouldn’t spend so much time hunting for missing items.” “If we made the delivery personnel and installers responsible for documenting all the items used, then we’d know what to bill for and be able to create change orders faster.”
Fundamentally, the problem you’re up against in this made-up scenario is that by and large, people tend to think more or less alike. Finding (and fixating on) the symptoms are more natural than finding the root cause to those symptoms, and when they do start coming up with solutions, they tend to be rooted in behavioral changes and rules (i.e. “Everyone just needs to be smarter and more responsible, and we’re going to create a bunch of new rules to make sure they do it”).
For a moment, let’s go back to the beginning and introduce a couple of core concepts that’ll help things run a little more smoothly.
- Leadership: Assuming you’ve got more than two people working on this project, someone needs to be appointed to run the show. Whether or not you give them any decision-making authority is up to you, but their primary functions are to maintain a productive conversation, keep an eye on the clock, and keep everybody rowing in the same direction. He/she needs to understand that the only thing you want coming out of that conference room is an answer to, “What are our core problems, and what inventory management system is going to address those problems?”
- Forward Momentum: Assume from the get-go that this project is going to face inertia along the way. People might not actively work against it, but you will absolutely have people who for one reason or another just won’t want to be bothered with it. Be prepared ahead of time to remind those folks every once in a while that regardless of their thoughts and opinions on the matter, this is happening.
- Realistic Expectations: Any project manager worth their salt will tell you without hesitation that very few plans ever go off without a hitch. If you know you absolutely need to be up and running on the new system by August, tell the team you expect it done by June. Already know you can’t allocate more than 50 hours? Tell your managers they’ve got 30 hours and not a minute more. As long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, your project is going to hit some rough patches along the way, and the more you’ve done to prepare for those eventualities, the better you’ll sleep at night.
Phase 2: Stay the Course
Once you’ve settled on the inventory management system that works best for your business, now comes the part where you actually have to start putting it into practice. Assuming you went with a service that provides you with a dedicated implementation specialist, you’ll be working closely with them throughout the process. Coincidentally, that’s right about the same time you’ll be reacquainted with two of the people you’ve already been working with for a while: the optimist and the pessimist. How you choose to work with them (e.g. motivate the nay-sayers, promote/elevate the early-adopters, etc) is entirely up to you, but above all else, the one thing that is most critical to your success at this stage is that you must keep moving forward.
Establish clear expectations with your staff, update people’s job descriptions, schedule 5-minute weekly standup meetings, and do whatever else you have to do to make sure everyone understands that they’re allowed to voice their concerns, but the response is always going to be framed in terms of how to make the new system work for them.
Phase 3: Reinforce
Now you’re several days, weeks or months in. Everything’s been inventoried, tagged and entered into the system, everyone’s been trained, and with the exception of a few loose ends here and there, the system is up and running. Your customers are happier, and your operation is tighter. And then there’s little turnover in staff. And you keep getting pulled into sales meetings you don’t have time for. And the operations manager forgot to label the new lighting trusses before they went out with Carrie Underwood and then they got loaded onto the wrong truck and now no one knows where the hell they are. And the installers forgot to activate the warranties on the projectors they installed last month so now you have to eat the cost of the repairs. And before long, those old problems you had a year ago are going to start creeping back up again. Remain calm, and see the problem for what it is: human nature.
Without repetition and reinforcement, it’s all but a matter of time before people start slipping back into old habits, and the companies who survive unscathed are the ones who saw it coming (which now includes you). Remember those enthusiastic early-adopters? Put them in charge of training the new-hires. Unsure how to determine whether the roll-out is succeeding? Get on the horn with your implementation specialist, figure out what metrics you need to pay attention to, and have them coach you through it a few times. The only way this thing really works is if the system and the processes are woven into the fabric of your organization, and like it or not, making that happen is most likely going to fall on your shoulders.
On a related note. Depending on the nature of your staff, there is an often unforeseen side effect that follows the successful rollout of an inventory management system, and that’s the impact on some people’s jobs. In a best-case scenario you’ll have just a small number of people who can be reassigned or retrained to serve a different function within the organization, but in some cases that option just won’t be on the table. Naturally, no one looks forward to having “There’s no easy way to put this…” conversations under even the best of circumstances, so while you’re still in the early planning phases, do a quick review of your staff roles and responsibilities. Having that forecast could mean the difference between a smooth, painless transition and scheduling some Friday afternoon meetings that you’re not looking forward to.
There is a sinister creature you’re likely to encounter while you’re reviewing service providers, and while it takes many different forms, you’ll soon recognize it as the “All-In-One” package. Here’s how it unfolds: you’ll have six different people from four different departments all jockeying to make sure their problems get solved as their single priority. Weeks will go by, no more than three of them can agree on any one solution, tensions start to run high…and then someone finds it, the “All-In-One.” It emails, it integrates, it inventories, it handles support tickets, it imports, it exports, it has a report builder, IT DOES EVERYTHING!! Until you use it.
There’s a reason decathletes rarely compete in single events, and it’s the same reason that one central application is never going to meet the needs of every person in every department of your organization. Does it email? Technically yes, but the threads are bizarrely organized and the Search feature is basically useless. What about the report builder? Well, it’s there, but the templates stink and that one guy in IT is the only one who’s figured out how to get the custom thing to work. And so on, and so on…
No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to make everyone happy. It’s a fool’s errand. Focus all your energy on drafting the tightest possible list of the problems you’re trying to solve, find the solution that excels at addressing those issues (preferably one with a STRONG customer service/support department), and make the call. Somebody’s going to hate the decision no matter what, so you just have to ask yourself, do you want a horse, or do you want a camel?
TRXio (pronounced “tracks-i-o”) is a scalable inventory management solution for any size organization and business, and TRXio helps you organize inventory, create consistency and minimize costs while providing you accurate and real-time reports, analytics and data on the status and item detail of your products, inventory and equipment.For information having a successful inventory management system rollout, please contact the TRXio team at 844-868-7225.