Instill Operational Agility Into Your Organizational Fabric
By John Yuva, Editor, SAPinsider
Companies face an onslaught of marketplace volatility, requiring an approach that balances people and technology. The market landscape is in a state of rebuilding. Raw material shortages, supplier insolvencies, and a host of other issues pose challenges to companies and their supply chains. Those enterprises that have adapted have one thing in common — operational agility. The ability to leverage their SAP solutions and partner applications with transparency and real-time decision-making keeps them on a growth trajectory.
SAPinsider sat down with Peter Rifken, Principal Solutions Consultant for Quickbase, a no-code operational agility platform, to share his thoughts on the concept of operational agility, particularly as it pertains to supply chain strategies. Rifken understands first-hand how critical real-time insights and automation are when bridging complex processes and disparate systems across an organization and supply chain. Rifken has significant experience working with Fortune 500 manufacturing operations, many of which are SAP customers, and implementing no-code technology into their digital environments. What separates Quickbase from other providers is bringing together connectivity, governance, data, and reporting into one environment for employee accessibility — where a variety of skill sets may exist.
Criticality of Operational Agility
In his role, Rifken says he sees companies fall into one of two buckets: reactive or proactive. Within a reactive enterprise, outside forces dictate how the organization responds, whether it’s spikes in customer orders, supply chain shortages, or equipment breakdowns. However, proactive companies look to the future to identify risks and work backwards to better prepare for what that potential future brings.
“Proactive companies often realize that it’s the coordination of people and resources at the very edge of the business — with the teams closest to the actual problems — that are most critical to solving both day-to-day challenges and preparing for the risks down the line,” Rifken says. “And we think of operational agility as the ability to handle the day to day but also have the preparation in place for the bigger risks in the future.”
Process improvement and team coordination has a significant impact on agility. Rifken says he measures an organization’s operational agility by examining three areas of the business:
1. Ability to extend and customize Core Systems such as SAP and Salesforce
2. Bridge-point solutions, such as CRM and PLM, that solve a core set of business problems
3. Last-mile tools and solutions at the employee-desk level, like paper, pencils, spreadsheets, and Access databases.
Rifken suggest practical steps teams can take to begin the process. “Put together a task force to build a strategy that bridges those three. In most cases, those bridges don’t exist in companies. We see individual business technologists trying to solve problems at the edge, needing information from the core and one-off systems,” Rifken says. “Instead, focus on putting together the people and the processes to form a strategy that solves problems in the short term — the quick wins. Ultimately, you’re on a journey to a larger transformation that achieves agility.”
Connect and Integrate Core Systems
More organizations are taking a top-down, centralized approach to achieve transformation, explains Rifken. One that involves investing in core systems to make developers more productive — a classic model where technical teams write code and work on core systems. However, he says companies fail to understand how to balance the core systems and large migrations, such as SAP S/4HANA, while enabling those at the edge of the business to innovate and self-serve.
“We’re seeing demand from that side of the business for tools that connect and integrate with those core systems,” Rifken says. “You see this with companies that are growing fast and aggressively, where they’re buying several one-off tools to stitch together workflows. There are only extracts coming out the core systems as a result. It has led to conversations about the need to create bridges across systems.”
This is where Quickbase can help teams extend their core systems. Rifken says a company’s source of truth is its SAP solution. The Quickbase platform connects to SAP and allows employees to add their own fields, reports, roles, and permissions on top. As part of the connection lies the ability to bring information in from other core systems. The platform automates manual workflows by importing spreadsheets into Quickbase and eliminates the need for paper-based business processing. One integrated platform combined with a very fast in-memory database retains the information and tracks it within a workflow/integrated engine. Thus, the platform can pull information from other systems while also connecting to Outlook and tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Layered on top is the reporting and dashboarding to build customized reports and charts in one place, says Rifken.
“We have a very granular permissioning model, allowing you to define as many roles as you want and what fields those roles have access to and what dashboards they land on,” Rifken says. “So, we’ve got those capabilities and make it available in a no-code manner. Anybody can really create solutions without the technical know-how.”
Citizen Development Movement
The ability to create solutions without a technical background is what lies behind the citizen development movement. Rifken defines citizen development as the idea of giving almost anybody the ability to automate nearly anything in both a self-service and governed way. He describes a long tail of technology, application, and automation needs within the business that cannot be addressed by core IT teams. In an ideal model, there is a close partnership between the technology teams and the business teams within the enterprise. However, until there’s a handshake with IT, companies should avoid allowing anyone from using low-code, no-code tools to start building and automating.
“If you empower those teams to solve their own problems, you can reduce the burden on core teams, enabling them to turn their focus on more strategic projects — but in a manner that avoids increasing the risk in your business. The no-code movement is simply the idea that something in a classic environment requiring a developer to accomplish, such as setting up a website or a database or creating a form, can now be pushed to the business,” Rifken says. “The business can then create those and to their own exact specifications. And when there’s a change or a customization required, they can do it themselves. The cycle of submitting a requirements change, sending it out, and receiving it incorrectly is eliminated.”
Yet, there are misconceptions about citizen development. Rifken says the way he thinks about low code versus no code is that low-code tools and platforms help coders code faster, develop faster, and deploy faster. There are many products and platforms in the marketplace servicing the IT developer space, but they still require a coding skill set. Those tools are sometimes associated with no-code-type tools. However, Rifken is targeting the business technologist, citizen automator persona who doesn’t have a coding background but wants to solve their own problems using a no-code tool in a visual drag and drop-type environment. The simplification of no-code tools separates them from more developer focused low-code options.
Supply Chain Use Case
How are companies using a no-code solution? The need for operational agility coupled with Quickbase’s platform is often seen in supply chain quality contexts. Consider a company that utilizes its SAP solution to track purchase order requisitions and supplier defects. While SAP tracks potential defects, there can be 10, 20, or 30 milestones created as part of the service level agreement (SLA) between the company and its supplier to coordinate key deliverables. If a supplier defect does occur, Rifken says there’s coordination between the two entities to resolve the defect — often called corrective action tracking.
“Deliverables of an SLA are custom workflows that are almost cost prohibitive to build out standard in SAP or invest in an external module. Instead, it’s often created within Excel,” Rifken says. “However, we’ve found a lot of success in giving companies a flexible environment to work with the core SAP data, but then create that coordination layer between the supply chain quality team and the supplier to work through those tasks, report on them, and ensure they’re getting done within a defined timeframe.”
Operational agility is at the core of supply chain planning and execution. Rifken adds that many of Quickbase’s customers seek a holistic picture of their suppliers to build a more resilient supply chain. How do KPIs roll up with regard to supplier defects, parts availability, and the like in an overall scorecard? How agile is the company in the face of supply chain disruption? Is there a second or third source for raw materials? If not, is there a process in place to quickly identify and approve new suppliers? These are all areas where customers are using SAP and Quickbase to both track and streamline processes to prepare for an uncertain future. Companies need a contingency plan. To get there, Rifken advises loading every supplier into the application. The next critical step is adding all the regulations and controls, ensuring that everyone is adhering to these controls. Use the application to highlight the company’s risks, as well as manage the action plan. For example, is the company single sourcing a critical part? What is the action plan to secure a second source and the multitude of steps necessary to accomplish it? Rifken says all these steps require coordination across different teams from product development to manufacturing to legal.
“This process has many moving parts, which is where we see a lot of inflexibility, tools, and systems. We try to bring all that together where there’s a scorecard, a contingency plan, business logic, and controls and regulations,” Rifken says. “And cross-functional teams must coordinate together to move all the pieces through the process.”
Lessons Learned on This Journey
The complexity is real. Terms like operational agility and digital transformation are overwhelming because there’s too much associated information for any one person to digest. Rifken says most companies are just beginning their journey to learn how to transform. First and foremost, however, is that transforming is not just tools and platforms, it’s culture and mindset.
“You have to think of this as a people, problem, challenge opportunity as well as a tools and platform, problem, challenge opportunity. We’re talking habits and developing muscles. The most important thing with any habit is taking that first step or making a small change,” Rifken says. “With those small changes come quick wins that lead to larger changes and bigger wins.”
Assembling the right roles and business units is critical to identifying and solving the right problem quickly, Rifken advises. The first challenge is always the most difficult. However, once that first win occurs, companies are surprised by what can be accomplished in a year to five years.
“In the literature, there’s often a five- or 10-step plan to completing a digital transformation. Companies often see themselves as way behind the curve in what they’ve accomplished,” Rifken says. “However, take comfort in knowing that everyone’s on a journey. The most important step isn’t to have it all figured out, but to take a step and move forward.”
What Does This Mean for SAPinsiders
- Avoid trying to standardize one platform to rule them all. To have organizational agility, it begins with a strategy, principles, and culture. The solution is a combination of tools and platforms that are flexible enough to meet the evolving needs of that strategy.
- Begin with a cross-functional group or task force. Any change typically involves five to 10 key individuals that can really affect change and align on a business case.
- Simplify the problem. Too many companies try to boil the ocean with a big change effort. The advantage of no code and citizen automation tools is the ability to solve smaller problems very quickly. Solving a problem quickly creates a mindset shift and momentum toward a culture of operational agility and continuous improvement.
- Build a pilot and test out the solution. Solve for a business challenge, but keep the timeframe to three to six months, or shorter depending on the problem addressed. Shorter timeframes translate to quicker wins.