With Siemens asking for and apparently getting a huge break on SAP maintenance costs, it is time to take a look once again to take a look at the whole issue. Understandably, there is a lot of emotion and name-calling and confusion around this; it’s not quite the health-care debate here in the United States, but the real issues have been buried under rhetoric in a strikingly similar way.

SAP Charges for Improved Support

Let me first state SAP’s position as sympathetically as possible. SAP believes (quite correctly) that the customer’s TCO (total cost of ownership) ought to go down, as software and hardware gets better and cheaper. It also believes that if it does something that would help TCO go down, it should get a share of the benefits.

Who would disagree with either point?

Roughly two years ago, therefore, it introduced a series of software and support improvements that it believed would indeed reduce TCO. These improvements largely revolved around a newly improved version of the Solution Manager, a piece of software that is supposed to do what its name implies.

The Solution Manager (or Sol Man, as it is called familiarly) was actually introduced roughly ten years ago. In its original version, it was a separate piece of software (one that ran on its own Windows box) that one used to communicate with SAP support (filing bug reports, etc.) and to monitor the performance of your SAP installation.

In the version introduced two years ago, the Sol Man EE (or enterprise edition), it did considerably more: it allowed you to do more extensive monitoring, test and manage upgrades, and even document your business processes. This new edition also beefed up the connectivity with SAP Support, so that support could use it to troubleshoot your installation more rapidly and effectively.

When SAP introduced its new, higher-priced Enterprise Edition support package, it placed the Solution Manager EE front and center. In every speech and every press release, it wasn’t, “We’re raising prices because Oracle got away with it.” It was, “We’ve developed new tools and support services based on those tools, and we’re increasing the cost of maintenance, because the maintenance has improved.”

The tools it was referring to were the various components of the Sol Man EE, and the improved support services were made possible by and delivered through the Sol Man.

To sum up, SAP’s position is that it is improving enterprise support by providing customers with new and better support tools. It is in the software business. So it is only reasonable for it to charge for those tools. That it charges via a maintenance price increase rather than by charging for the product itself is reasonable, presumably, because many of the benefits involve improved services, which are provided through the maintenance contract.

The Customer Reaction

It’s just a plain fact, of course, that nobody paid much attention to this. It took me, for instance, almost a year (until John Krakowski’s excellent presentation at ASUG last May) to figure out what SAP was getting at when it talked about new tools. (Before that, I wrongly, but honestly believed that the talk about tools was pure hand-waving.)

Other commentators on this, like Vinnie Mirchandani or Ray Wang or Dennis Howlett , may have gotten to a proper understanding of the argument faster than I did, but for the most part, they didn’t try to address its merits.

Today, for instance, the Enterprise Advocates, gave a webinar on Reducing SAP Maintenance Costs. (The Enterprise Advocates include the aforementioned three, plus Frank Scavo and Oliver Marks.) Not once during the main body of the talk did they even mention SAP’s recommendation for reducing maintenance support costs, which is to implement the Solution Manager and use it.

I don’t blame the advocates for this; it’s not their job. But I do blame SAP. If the Sol Man is what justifies the price increase, then SAP need to explain this in clear language.

Once SAP fails to do this, the Advocates and the SAP customer base are entitled to believe what you and I would believe when somebody offers an unclear explanation for something that seems to require some explanation: they dismiss the explanation that’s offered.

At some point, though, it does seem that someone should give SAP the benefit of the doubt and ask the question that SAP wants you to ask, namely, “Can the Sol Man EE deliver so much benefit that it justifies the maintenance price increase?”

If the answer is, “Yes,” that would of course be the best thing all around. Customers would have a clear path to reducing maintenance costs. SAP would have a product that keeps its customers paying maintenance. Total cost of ownership would go down.

And the Answer Is…?

Over the past four months, I’ve spent a fair amount of time finding out what I could about the Sol Man. I don’t have access to the documentation (all 1000 pages of it), but I do have the more public documents that SAP has issued, and I have talked to a number of Sol Man users and consultants.

What I found out is so complicated, and this blog is already too long. So I’ll delay a full report to another post. But here’s the answer in a nutshell:

1. To get the benefits of the Sol Man absolutely requires significant investment on the part of the customer.

2. It does not appear to be the case that the Sol Man was designed with the goal that SAP now has for it top of mind. It appears to be a product that was designed to be one thing that is now being turned to a different purpose.

3. The areas of benefit that the Sol Man promises are indeed important, and it is at least possible that customers can get significant benefit from it, if they put in the work.

4. At the end of the day, though, it appears to this humble observer that SAP needs to put more skin in the game.

Hope all this whets your appetite for the next post on the subject.

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“Brittle” design isn’t limited to enterprise application software. You can find brittle design in cars, bridges, buildings, TVs, or even the vegetable bin. (What are those 1/2-pint boxes of $5.00 raspberries, 3/4 of which are moldy, but examples of brittle design?)

What do brittle designs have in common? The designer chose to accentuate high performance at the expense of other reasonable design parameters, like cost, reliability, usability, etc. A Ferrari goes very, very fast, and it feels good when it goes fast, and that’s a design choice. And it’s part of the design choice that the car requires a technician or two to keep it going fast for longer than an afternoon.

So why are most enterprise applications brittle? You can see this coming a mile away. It was a design choice. The enterprise applications in question were designed to be the Ferraris of their particular class of application. They were designed to do the most, have the most functionality, be the most strategic, appeal to the most advanced early adopters, be the most highly differentiated, etc.

To get Ferrari-like performance, they had to make the same design choices Ferrari did. They had to assume the application was perfectly tuned every time the key was turned, and they had to assume that the technicians were there to perform the tuning.

Enterprise applications, you see, were intended to run on the best, the highest-end machines (for their class). They were intended to be set up by experts. They were intended to be maintained by people who had the resources to do what was necessary. They were intended to satisfy the demands of good early-adopter customers who put a lot of pressure on them, with complex pricing schemes or intricate accounting, even if later on, it made setting the thing up complex, increased the chance that there were bugs, and made later upgrades expensive.

This wasn’t bad design; it was good design, especially from the marketing point of view. The applications that put the most pressure on every other design parameter got the highest ratings, attracted the earliest early adopters, recruited the most capable (and highest-cost) implementers, etc., etc. So they won in the marketplace and beat out other applications in their class that made different design choices.

I lived through this when I worked at QAD. At QAD, the founder (Pam Lopker) made different design choices. She built a simple app, one that was pretty easy to understand and pretty easy to set up and did the basics. And for about two years, shortly after I got there, she had the leading application in the marketplace. And then SAP and JDE and PeopleSoft came in and cleaned our clock with applications that promised to do more.

Now, none of the people who actually bought SAP instead of QAD back then or chose (later) to try to replace QAD with SAP did this because they really wanted high performance, per se. They wanted “value” and “flexibility” and “return on investment” and “marketable skills.” They literally didn’t realize that the value and flexibility came at a cost, that the cost was that the application was brittle and that therefore, the value or flexibility or whatever was only achievable if you did everything right.

If they had realized this, would they have made different choices?

I don’t know. I remember a company that made kilns in Pittsburgh that had been using QAD for many years. The company had been taken over by a European company that used SAP, and the CIO had been sent over from Germany to replace the QAD system with the one that was (admittedly) more powerful. He called me in (years after I had worked at QAD) to help him justify the project.

I looked at it pretty carefully, and I shook my head. Admittedly, the QAD product didn’t do what he wanted. But I didn’t like the fit with SAP. I was worried that the product designed for German kiln production just wasn’t going to work. I didn’t want to be right, and I was disappointed to find out that two years later, despite very disciplined and careful efforts, he was back in Germany and QAD was still running the company.

I’m glossing over a lot, of course. There are secondary effects. Very often, the first user of an application dominates its development, so the app will be tuned to the users strengths and weaknesses. It will turn out to be brittle for other users because they don’t have the same strengths. Stuff that was easy for the first user then turns out to be hard for others.

Two final points need to be made. First, when a brittle application works, it’s GREAT. It can make a huge difference to the user. Brian Sommer frequently points out that the first users of an application adopt it for the strategic benefit, but later users don’t. He thinks it’s because the benefit gets commoditized. But I think it’s at least partially because the first users are often the best equipped to get the strategic benefit, whereas later users are not. I think you see something of the same issue, too, in many of Vinnie Mirchandani’s comments about the value that vendors deliver (or don’t deliver).

Second, as to the cause of failure. Michael Krigsman often correctly says that projects are a three-legged stool and that the vendors are often blamed for errors that could just as easily be blamed on the customers. Dennis Moore often voices similar thoughts. With brittle systems, of course, they’re quite right; the failure point can come anywhere. But when they say this, I think they may be overlooking how much the underlying design has contributed.

It may be the technician’s fault that he dropped the beaker of nitrogycerin. But whose brilliant idea was it to move nitroglycerin around in a beaker?

Brittle Applications

August 31, 2009

In a previous post, I said that MRP was a “brittle” application, and a commenter questioned me. What is a “brittle” application? Is this a technical term? What makes MRP brittle? All good questions.

A brittle application is one that doesn’t work at all unless a lot of disparate conditions are met. MRP, for instance, doesn’t work unless all the data is right, people know how to use the program, the demand for the products is stable, purchasing is also committed to minimizing inventory levels, etc., etc.

The notion applies to a lot of other programs besides MRP, though I’ve rarely heard the term used. But notice that it brittleness isn’t so much a feature of the program as it is the purpose to which the program is put.

Let’s take a simple example: a word processing program. For normal purposes, a word processing program in this day and age is not brittle. A rank novice can use it to type and print. But even today, if you want to use, say Microsoft Word, to put out a 16-page brochure, complete with illustrations, well, good luck, is all I can say. You try to get an illustration and have it float and change the size and put in a table, and–well, just try it, it’s a nightmare. So, to put a 16-page brochure together, Microsoft Word is brittle, but to print out a letter, it’s not.

The point about the MRP program that QAD wrote, which follows the APICS standard religiously, is that it’s brittle relative to the purposes for which it was intended. Pam and Karl and Evan (the founders of QAD) really believed that QAD’s could do supply chain management for manufacturing facilities very effectively. My point was that the program is too brittle. To get things right, you have to get all the data right and keep it right, etc., etc. And if you don’t, what you have is an overwrought and overcomplicated Kanban system, without Kanban’s virtues.

Are there other enterprise application systems that are brittle? Lots and lots of them, I think. Almost all the old, Siebel-style CRM systems were simply too brittle; they depended too much on the good-will of the salespeople, the accuracy of the sales model embedded in the system, the reliability of the sales cycle, etc., etc. You wouldn’t think that financial systems are brittle–after all, they have to work–but they often had components that were overly brittle: cash management systems, for instance, and fixed asset systems and budgeting systems.

What do most companies do when they have an overly brittle system? They use the system for lesser purposes. And they feel REALLY bad about it. So, the Microsoft Word user makes a brochure that is far less fancy, but more manageable, and the QAD MRP user uses the product for tracking inventory. And both of them keep on saying, “Well, one of these days, I’ll get around to really making this product sing.”

They shouldn’t. Brittle applications are brittle for a reason. A lot of the time, it’s because they’re really a special-purpose product, but yours is not that purpose. Some of the time, they’re brittle because they’re badly designed. Some of the time, the model they’re using (MRP is a good example) just doesn’t fit the situation you’re in. In any of the cases, the fact is that they really can sing for the right user, but that doesn’t mean it’s your fault if they don’t sing for you.

What do you do if you have a brittle app that isn’t singing? Give up on it. It won’t work for you. Get another app, one that works. Or change the process. Or just accept the fact that it will never work the way you thought it would.

In any case, good luck.

I used to work at QAD, a small manufacturing software vendor. I subscribe to a QAD chat group, and occasionally people ask questions like the one in the title.

It sounds as if the person asking is peddling something–who knows–but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. What kinds of knowledge are necessary (key) for an ERP implementation? If you run a manufacturing company, is APICS (that is, supply chain) knowledge particularly important?

Certainly, QAD used to think so. When I was an employee, you got a bonus for becoming APICS certified. (APICS is the American Production and Inventory Control Society; to get certified, you had to learn how MRP worked and how inventory should be managed.) And certainly, when the product was designed, the focus was on matching supply and demand. The product was built originally for Karl Lopker’s sandal manufacturing business, and the idea was always to have simple, usable product that managed inventory well.

So you would think that the answer, at least for QAD users, is, “Of course APICS knowledge is key. Duh.” But I don’t think so.

You see, while I was at QAD and then for some years afterward, I looked at a fair number of installations. And what I saw was disheartening, at least if you believed in good supply chain practices. The systems weren’t really using good supply chain practices, at least as APICS defined them.

Let me give you an example, which APICS-trained people will understand immediately. One of the ideas of these systems is to reduce the amount of inventory you have on hand at any one time. To do this inside the system, there are two parameters that you have to set, lead time (which is the amount of time it takes for an order to be fulfilled) and safety stock (the amount you want to have on hand at all times). The longer the lead time or the higher the amount of the safety stock, the greater your inventory expense.

So what would you say if discovered that in not one or even two installations, but many, the safety stock and lead time numbers for most of the inventory were set once, en masse, and then never set again? Well, I’ll tell you what to think. These figures, which are key to making the system work, are not being used.

Now this was not just true of QAD Software; it was equally true wherever I went, no matter what software was installed.

So doesn’t this say that supply chain knowledge is key, after all? If they had supply chain knowledge, wouldn’t they have paid more attention? At first, I thought so. But then after a while, I realized that more supply chain knowledge would have made very little difference.

You see, that’s not why they were using the software. All these companies, it turns out, didn’t really care about getting supply chain stuff right. They managed the supply chain fairly sloppily–tolerated a lot of inaccuracy and suboptimal behavior–and they got along (in their minds) just fine doing that. They didn’t want to put in the kind of care and rigor that is the sine qua non for doing with these systems what they were designed to do.

What were they using the software for? Well, mostly to manage the paperwork virtually. Please don’t cringe, Pam, if you happen to be reading this. This is not a hack on you. The plain fact is that the companies needed to keep track of their commitments (orders), their inventory, and their money, and that’s what they used the system for. They needed a piece of paper that told people what inventory to move that day and where to move it to. And the system gave it to them.

To do this, though, you didn’t need much APICS knowledge or, if you didn’t believe in APICS’s recipes for inventory management, other supply chain knowledge. All you really needed was to be able to count, which most of the users could do without being APICS-certified.

So is supply chain knowledge key for an ERP implementation? Not at all. You can have perfectly happy users who have got exactly the nice simple implementation they need without much supply chain knowledge at all.

This answer, of course, raises lots of questions. What is key? Why do these companies tolerate sloppy supply chain practices? Wouldn’t they be better off if they cleaned up their act. Herewith, brief answers.

What is key? At a rudimentary level, the financials. You have to get the basics right, here, or you’ll never close your books. In a system studied recently by a grad student at Harvard Business School, 65% of the inventory records were inaccurate. Can you imagine the upset if 65% of your account balances were incorrect?

Why do they tolerate sloppy supply chain practices? I think it’s largely because more finely tuned systems are much more brittle. They take a large amount of care and feeding and their ability to take hard, rude, unexpected shocks is limited.

And wouldn’t they do much better using the systems? In many cases, no. You see, at most of the companies I’ve run into, the MRP/APICS model that QAD (and every other software vendor) provided is not actually all that accurate. To make a really significant difference, you need more sophisticated tools that are better suited to the specifics of your supply chain.

Comments welcome.

This is one of a series of posts on the high cost of buying enterprise applications and the high cost of selling the products. This high cost, I’ve been arguing, is just plain bad for both sides and almost certainly unsustainable. So the question for the analyst is, “What can be done about it?”

In the background, I’ve had a lot of discussion with industry pundits and the Twitterati: Vinnie Mirchandani, of course, and Jason Busch and @dahowlett and Brian Sommer and Dennis Moore and many others who don’t regularly comment over the airwaves. What accounts for the high cost, I’ve been asking? Two answers seem to emerge.

1. Too many cooks.

2. Too little trust.

If you’ve ever been involved in buying applications, you’ve seen the first one happen over and over again. Too many people get involved with the decision, each with their own agendas, each more or less connected to one of the contenders, and getting all these parties to agree requires too much head-banging. It’s Congress trying to pass health care, writ small, and it’s just as pathetic.

The lack of trust. Well, I get why people don’t trust, and I get why they erect structures that are supposed to control the vendor. But in my experience, it’s always been a losing game. Buyers are nowhere near as devious, oops, I mean sophisticated, as sellers–how could they be, the sellers do it for a living? So if you go into a deal, it’s natural to feel skittish, but giving in to the feeling doesn’t really protect you and does slow you down.

So what’s to be done? In the long run, you can’t do much about either problem without cooperation from the other side. If you’re going to have lots of cooks, the cost of sales for the vendor is just plain going to be astronomical, and the cost of buying will rise accordingly. If the vendor behaves in what has become the normal fashion, alas, defensive (and expensive) buying will be only too appropriate.

Granting that, you have to start somewhere, and here are some suggestions for the buyer, suggestions that should save money. All of these will really help, even though the second sounds completely ridiculous.

1. Limit the scope of what you’re buying as much as possible. Look only at what you clearly need; prefer things that you’ll use immediately; go for immediate results; and don’t buy anything else. You can always buy the rest later. (This reduces the number of cooks.)

2. Use a tape recorder and a camcorder. Keep track of what the vendor says, in full, precisely. Look the transcripts over. If you have questions or don’t understand, follow up. In the long run, it saves a lot of time. (This can help you to get more trust–kind of trust, but verify.)

3. Prototype, prototype, prototype. Get a small team to set it up and try it out, rather than assembling a large team to review demos that were set up by the vendor. If you have to pay the vendor to help you with the prototype, do it. You’ll save in the long run. (This, too, reduces the number of cooks.)

Enough from me. Suggestions from the readership are welcome.

It stands to reason, doesn’t it. The more thorough and rational the buying process for enterprise applications, the better the outcome. For sure. Right?

Well, the other day, Dennis Moore, aka @dbmoore, a well-known figure in the industry, posted a query on Twitter asking for data that would show this is true. The more thorough the buying process, the more effective the implementation has to be true, doesn’t it. But no, the guy wants data. “Not anecdotes,” he said later, “but data.”

He isn’t going to get any. There are three reasons for this. First, there isn’t any reliable data of any kind on whether implementations were successful, at least none that I’ve seen in a career of nearly two decades. Second, most effort expended on pre-purchase analysis of software is misdirected, adding little to the quality or accuracy of the decision. And third, if you work backwards from failed implementations and identify the causes of the failures, it is very rare that the cause is the kind of thing that could have or should have been caught by a more thorough analysis.

The fact that there is little reliable data on whether an enterprise application product works is, of course, a scandal, but the fact remains and will continue to remain just so long as enterprise application companies want everybody to believe that the odds of success ar high and customers are embarrassed to admit failure.

I have been involved in at least two attempts by large, reputable companies to get a good analysis of what value, if any, has been gained after an enterprise app was implemented. The first interviewed only project managers and determined that the project managers found many, many soft benefits from the implementation. The second, a far larger effort, was eventually abandoned.

But let’s say that we had some rudimentary measure, like number of seats being actively used versus seats planned to be used two years after the initial projected go-live date. Would it show that thorough investigation really helps?

I don’t think so, and here’s why. The question of which software application to buy and/or whether one should buy one at all is usually a very simple question, one with a relatively clear right answer, at least to an objective observer. But it is rarely, if ever, treated as a simple question. People wrongly worry about a lot of irrelevant things; they are (usually) distracted by the salespeople, who naturally want the purchasing decision to be based on criteria most favorable to them, and because there’s a lot of risk (A LOT), people tend to create lengthy, rigorous, formal processes for getting to a decision, which do very, very little to improve the accuracy of the final decision.

Honestly, I can usually tell in an hour’s phone conversation what a company ought to do, and I often check back later — sorry Dennis, more anecdotal evidence — and I’d say I’m right at least 2/3 of the time, maybe more. And because of the way my business model works, I don’t even charge for these conversations.

What do you need to look at? Well, it’s a complex question, don’t get me wrong. But because the number of providers is limited, the capabilities are limited, and the likelihood of failure pretty high, there are usually only a few things that actually matter. And when there are only a few things, it shouldn’t take you that much time to figure them out.

Give a call, any time, if you want to test this out.

In many previous posts, I have complained, bitterly, about the sales tactics that every enterprise application vendor uses, mostly to defend aging, poorly designed products. It’s one thing to put lipstick on the pig, I’ve essentially said, but it’s outrageous to charge admission, just to see the pig.

This is, of course, what happens in most sales situations. Companies big and small buy the software through a highly-paid salesperson, part psychologist and part snake-oil salesman, who listens to you, discusses your pain with you, and then arranges a long, long process that you and your team will go through: functionality requirements and demos and business cases and who knows what all.

Let me fill you in on a little secret. It’s mostly a waste of time. And money. Not just your time and your money. But also the software company’s. You are both driving up the cost of software, simply by accepting and perpetuating a system where rigmarole is the rule of the day.

In a time of economic growth, maybe both companies could afford it. So what if you use up a lot of IT hours compiling functionality lists and sleeping through demos. (Who could stay awake in them?) The IT guys like it well enough, and they like to be asked for input. So what if the software company wastes a lot of, er, resources flying in executives or taking the team out after all their hard work to a place where attractive women perform. (Happens, believe me.)

In a time of economic frailty and, not coincidentally, a time of doubt about the value and merits of enterprise software, no one can afford it any more. Not you, who has better things to do with your resources. Not the software companies, whose sales resources are being spread thin by companies that are insisting that the salesperson do more and more for them.

Wouldn’t it be better to use some of the resources squandered on these endless sales cycles for something else a little more worthwhile? LIke getting both parties to the right solution faster?