Small Steps Before Quantum

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-06-01 Print this article Print

Retailing is getting cutthroat. In major metropolitan areas, direct rivals are opening up shop across the street, daring the other to blink and pull up stakes. Among neighborhood pharmacy chains, Eckerd is now in a fight for its life, as Walgreens threate

Small Steps Before Quantum Leap

The first steps of Quantum Leap weren't effortless. It was a project, according to Hale, "unlike anything Eckerd had undertaken."

The project management team, which stayed together for a little over two years, included Eckerd managers and staff from finance, store operations and pharmacy. Two managers were dedicated to "change management"—preparing to handle all the cultural and procedural disruptions that would come along with the new technology. But for the technical work, there was really only one choice on how to get things done: IBM.

"At the time, IBM owned our information systems," Hale says. In July 1999, the team started its analysis of existing store systems. From August through October, they worked on a business process model that laid out "this is what we do, and this is how we do it," Hale says. Then they created an early prototype using Retek software and let employees scrutinize how the software handled those processes.

From there, Eckerd and IBM started mapping out the new business processes they wanted to put in place, from reordering for perpetual inventory to tracking the dispensing of pills. That took from spring 2000 to early 2001.

By May 2001, the first test implementation was running at headquarters. As of January, Eckerd had 22 stores live on the new system, beginning to implement perpetual replenishment. The company expected to have 100 live by the end of April.

A complete system overhaul was impossible to achieve in a single step. Moving to the new system meant completely restructuring the data used to manage each store and track each item in inventory. Not only would database fields have to be changed and added to match the new application design, but also inventory data would have to migrate from IBM's IMS hierarchical database to Oracle's relational database. Data had to be reorganized from an arbitrary hierarchy to a series of connected tables, which also meant adopting a completely different approach to indexing and optimization.

The challenge was that older applications built around IMS and running on the mainframe would have to keep working while the Oracle-based Retek applications were phased in. "How do you do that without disrupting the business?" Hale asks.

Hale's team created a new database called the Foundation Item Repository that reflected Eckerd's new inventory data model—what the company would track and how. The master copy of the database was maintained within the Retek system, but the same data was replicated into an IBM DB2 database on the mainframe, where about 80% of Eckerd's critical business applications resided.

New code had to be written for each existing application so their routines for grabbing data could be redirected to DB2, rather than the IMS databases they were originally designed to work with. IMS was largely phased out as part of this process. Because DB2, like Oracle, is also a relational database, synchronization between them is easier than between IMS and Oracle.

Eckerd also had to augment the Retek software, which has never been used in a pharmacy operation before.

One attractive feature of Retek's technology was the fact stores could use cheap, fairly dumb computers, if they chose. In principle, pharmacists and store managers could place orders, modify inventory, and print reports on a desktop terminal using a general-purpose viewer, such as a Web browser.

But it wasn't that easy. The Retek standard viewer software is an Oracle-designed Java applet viewer called JInitiator.

The catch: Oracle supplies only a Microsoft Windows operating systems version of JInitiator. Although Eckerd had some Windows-compatible computers in each store, it also wanted store personnel to be able to access the Retek application from a console attached to a manager's server running on the SCO Unix operating system. If Eckerd couldn't get a viewer running on this version of Unix, it would have to invest in an additional Windows PC for each store.

To lick that, several of Eckerd's top programmers created a modified version of Sun's applet viewer that worked with Retek—the Eckerd "E-Viewer." This viewer has superior caching and printing capabilities, leading many Windows users at Eckerd to use E-Viewer instead of JInitiator, Hale says.

The next big challenge was training field personnel on the software and the new business processes that come with it.

"The stores had never had any kind of inventory management at all," says Regina Hunt, a senior project leader for Technology Education Consultants (TEC) Inc., which assisted with the transition. Previously, ordering was done at the discretion of the store manager, within broad parameters set by the company. "So this was a cultural shift for them, in addition to a technology shift," Hunt says.

TEC worked with the drug chain for more than two years, documenting the system while it was under development, then offering a "train the trainer" program through which Eckerd employees were taught the system, then sent forth to train the rest of the staff. TEC also created an online course, distributed on CD-ROM to the stores, which taught the basics of system navigation so classroom training could start with more advanced topics.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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