By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2003-01-17 Print this article Print

If it's possible for an office chair to create buzz, Herman Miller's Aeron did. But it's still counting on 3-D technology to juice sales.

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Mr. Norman Goes to Headquarters

Norman became CIO in 1998 as part of a reorganization that included the integration of SQA into the parent company. "They brought me in as a guy who knows how to integrate technology for business results," he says.

"Project Renaissance" included an implementation of a fourth generation of the Baan planning system. But it got into trouble, threatening to bust both its budget and its schedule. Originally budgeted for $80 million, the project wound up costing close to $100 million, participants say.

Bringing the project under control required a conscious effort to narrow its scope. Participants say it wasn't so much an issue of "scope creep"—the tendency of projects to bog down as new requirements are continually added—as that the scope of the project was already pretty ambitious to begin with.

Donald D. Zook, an independent consultant who worked on Herman Miller's Baan implementation when he was employed by the vendor, says the 100 or so consultants from Deloitte & Touche working on the project seemed to do little to bring the project under control. "Some of the consultants were knowledgeable, but many of them seemed to me to be trying to learn how Baan worked on Herman Miller's dollar," he says. Ultimately, Herman Miller ushered Deloitte out and finished the project with its own employees and a handful of consultants from Baan itself.

Deloitte declined to comment on its past work for Herman Miller. James Walsh, a Texas-based consultant who was part of that Deloitte team, said part of the issue was that Herman Miller "set certain management criteria that turned out to be difficult to achieve just by putting in an ERP solution."

For example, it soon became clear that Baan alone could not deliver the level of "availability to promise" functionality Herman Miller was looking for. The goal was to be able to quickly analyze current inventories, as well as the capacity of suppliers and subcontractors to provide necessary components, so that Herman Miller could respond to an order with the promise of delivery on a given date and meet that promise reliably. Achieving that meant integrating supply-chain software from i2 Technologies to supplement Baan's capabilities. "But if they could get accurate availability-to-promise data, to give a dealer that promise over the phone, then it was worth it," Walsh says.

did put a strain on the budget and the schedule, Walsh says. He believes Deloitte brought the right level of Baan expertise to the project, but acknowledges it did not have as much expertise with i2 or the manufacturing configuration software from Trilogy that had to be integrated with Baan.

The complexity of the goals also meant more time and energy had to be invested in the planning phase of the project. Even within the context of the original $80 million budget, "the trouble with that is by the time the implementation guys show up, 75% of the budget is gone," Walsh says.

By all accounts, Norman's major contribution was to add a focus—reliability. SQA became known for on-time, complete shipments, but the parent company was only achieving that goal about 70% of the time. So Norman made reliability the central target of the enterprise systems overhaul—requirements that contributed to that goal were kept, and those that didn't were dropped.

Today, Herman Miller says its reliability performance routinely exceeds 99.5%.

Norman says it makes sense that Herman Miller ultimately decided the systems it had built around Baan and i2 made the separate technology infrastructure derived from SQA unnecessary. What bothers him more was the decision earlier this year to drop the SQA brand and the organization behind it. The marketing strategy focused on small businesses "was separate and distinct and is still separate and distinct," Norman says.

Norman won't say much about why he retired. But parties close to Miller say his forceful personality led to clashes with top executives. With or without the clashes, however, Herman Miller got results, says Bovet, the Mercer Management consultant. He is particularly impressed with its near-perfect performance with on-time, complete orders. "I've been working day in and day out with clients whom, if they could reach 85% or 90%, they'd be quite happy," he says.

Even if small business customers have different needs, Bovet thinks Herman Miller's management is correct in changing its focus to purchasing styles, rather than company size.

A big company may want access to the full range of products, finishes and fabrics Herman Miller offers when they're refurbishing the executive suite, even if they have to spend more and wait longer for delivery. But the same company may want a simple, quick and affordable solution for furnishing a single, new sales office.

The z-Axis sales tool has evolved to reflect this change in emphasis. No longer dedicated solely to small business sales, it supports an expanded product catalog, with new products and product options, added in updates every few months. The very first screen a z-Axis users sees asks whether they would like to limit the graphical furniture catalog to just those products that can be shipped in 10 days or 20 days, as opposed to those that require a specific negotiation.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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