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Thoughts on SAP from a Veteran Super User

Mel O'Sullivan - April 9, 2021

In January 2011 I started a job with a local concrete manufacturing plant that produces things like box culverts, bridge decks and kerbing for a large multinational quarrying and concrete production company. I had some knowledge of database operation and was a fairly competent operator when it came to computers. All the same, my job interview included a lot of "I can learn".

Luckily, I was filling an opening left by retirement and the previous incumbent was kept on to train me in my role. Many of the processes in use in the office were still manual and paper based at the time (2011). Their chief operating tool was a database system I had never heard of - Systems Applications Products in Data Processing or SAP as it is most commonly known.

According to Google as of 2020 77% of the worlds transaction revenue touches an SAP system (I believe it) and 98% of the world's most valued brands are SAP customers.  As of 2020 SAP had the third highest revenue of any software company in the world behind Microsoft and Oracle. $16 trillion of consumer purchases worldwide go through SAP Systems annually (I believe this too!). Interestingly women make up just over 27% of the SAP management team.

You can read a lot of blue sky language about what SAP is and how it does things - Enterprise Resource Planning, Human Capital Management, synergistic process, optimisation, end to end solutions, business integration. If you believe the hype SAP will deliver all of your business information management solutions in one neat integrated package. SAP has an application product targeted at every function in every business (including military)- and they will custom build if you can pay enough money. 

The short version is that SAP is a really big, complex database - data goes in, data gets processed and decisions get made based on the data. Like all databases, it is only as good as the information in it and the people who operate it.

A login was obtained for me and I was introduced to the operating system by a woman who was clearly afraid of the application and did not trust her ability to operate the system - despite the fact that she had quite extensive training on SAP. The change management on the implementation by the multinational did not engender employee buy in on the application at operator level or in middle and lower management. Nobody was using the database at full capacity.

I administered Purchasing, Supplier Payment, Payroll, Inventory Administration (Stock Control), Maintenance Spending and Manufacturing Production Entry. The only key cash flow process I had nothing to do with was sales - but I had visibility on that and Distribution too.

The first thing I noticed about SAP was the somewhat confronting and unfriendly user interface (GUI). In true veteran fashion I ignored the interface and focused on learning the capabilities of the tool. After all, how much does it matter what a rifle looks like as long as you can rely on it?

The second thing I noticed was that the data across the board for this particular plant might have been about 30% accurate at best and that almost no-one trusted the stock levels, the purchasing or the payroll figures. Cost capture reports may as well have been fairy tales - and production quantities & outputs? - 80% accurate at best. The whole plant was riddled with redundant and parallel processes. Every time a customer wanted to buy something the yard man was sent out to visually check the accuracy of database stock levels - taking the only crane out of action for manufacturing. In short - they were entering rubbish into the database, and getting the inevitable rubbish out. Money was walking out the door and washing down the drains simply through slack information management practices and poor supporting processes. Of course SAP got the blame.

Enter the champion for accuracy and attention to detail - me! In true veteran fashion I just saw that something needed to be done and set about doing it. I started with the key entry nodes - making sure my production, purchasing and time sheet entry was 100% perfect at the point of entry - no amending after the fact. Making sure that what went into the Database was 100% perfect or as near as I could get it.

Then I set about fixing the people. I set standards, communicated them clearly and held people accountable to meeting them. I was a key player in driving compliance with stock control practices. I insisted on absolute and complete transparency in dealing with broken or substandard stock (no hiding stock write offs to make KPI's look good). People got paid correctly and on time every time. When it came to purchasing compliance there was nowhere to hide - I knew exactly where every dollar went and when. Suppliers loved me because they always got paid on time in full as agreed. Managers? - sometimes not so much.

By the time I left the company production entry into stock had been 98% accurate for about two years (my data entry accuracy was 100%). Inventory accuracy on Annual Stocktake was down to about a 7% variance (best in the country - and no fudging figures). My purchasing & supplier invoice payment KPIs were perfect. Most important to me - the team trusted me implicitly to get their pay cheques right.

I couldn't have achieved any of that without the out of silo visibility SAP delivers across business functions. If you know what to look for in SAP you can find everything you want to know about a business - even when you are "only the office lady" with restricted access. The good, the bad, and all of the ugly. I rapidly fell in love with the analytical capabilities of the database and used them to save millions for my plant over the years. I used it to compile maintenance budgets, crystal ball raw material stock forward orders, reduce capital tied up in obsolete stock, address payroll/labour inconsistencies, spot theft, and reward achievement.

SAP is big and complex and takes time to learn - but the payoffs are well worth the effort.

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