Building a Ship While

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

A manufacturer of scientific instruments forced a troubled British subsidiary to do things its way.


Building a Ship While Sailing

The only untouchable differences were aspects of Micromass' business that met regulatory requirements or compellingly improved on Waters' method.

For instance, since the Taiwanese government dictates how invoices there must appear, the SAP invoicing system would have to be altered. And it was clearly worth changing the system to accommodate Micromass' practice of collecting 50% of each sale up front, something Waters itself did not do.

The real challenge would be getting the "gap" analysis honestly accomplished. Ornell remembers managers' initial reactions to the meeting as "OK, here comes Corporate. Here's another complete burden coming my way." But by Wednesday, as discussions turned to the nitty-gritty of sales territories and commissions, the nonchalance gave way to worry. Managers began questioning the fate of particular departments, projects and jobs.

Waters could offer no assurances.

"There were many times when I questioned, 'Can we pull this off?'" recalls Yvonne Talon, Waters' worldwide director of business systems.

Years of installing SAP software had given Waters a series of highly structured processes. By the end of the week, managers were shown the five-part plan. Preparation until August, alpha prototypes until September, full development until October, and then production. A steering committee would keep on top of completion dates. And the project teams would not be disbanded until after a quarterly financial report was completed without a significant hitch.

If the 99-day rush to judgment hadn't worked out, Waters was prepared to give the project until the end of December to finish the Micromass transformation. But on Oct. 28, Waters turned off the old order-entry systems and was able to take orders for the entire Micromass product line.

"There were no showstoppers," Newton says. "And we never considered the fallback plan. Management never blinked."

The 99 days did not pass without pain. Waters had to figure out how to build "configurable choices'' into the SAP system, to end Micromass' practice of selling unique products to almost all comers. Converting all available data into a single view of products and customers required resolute determination.

"What is the best way to synchronize two files?'' Newton would ask later. "Eliminate one of them."

In addition to running disparate systems, every country where Micromass did business had its own product codes and sold whatever it wanted. Duplicate part numbers kept emerging. "It wasn't possible to [fix this problem] programmatically," Talon says. "You needed someone with product knowledge to sit down and say, 'Here is what this means.' "

Not all Micromass employees completed the journey. About 30 jobs were eliminated. A few other employees left.

The practical travail was evident more than 99 days later. Closing the books on the 2002 fiscal year took weeks longer than expected because Waters underestimated the time required to reconcile Waters and Micromass data, Talon says.

Newton says the hardest part was keeping the rest of the business going—"building the ship while sailing," as he puts it. Employees responsible for the Micromass integration still had to handle their regular jobs.

This article was originally published on 2003-10-01
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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