Why do transportation management systems (TMS) implementations get off track? When the implementation team doesn’t know what they don’t know, there’s little to be done to prevent over-budget TMS projects. Just like you “can’t manage what you don’t measure,” TMS implementation teams can’t manage what they fail to plan for.
A TMS can be implemented successfully, on-time and within budget, but it takes a lot of planning before kick-off and subject matter expertise throughout implementation. This isn’t the case just around the TMS software, but around the business case, transportation operations, upstream and downstream business processes, relevant order management requirements, enterprise resource planning software, warehouse management systems integration requirements, and the ever-important change management approach.
In this post, we’ll explore considerations and best practices for managing a transportation management system project. Read on or use the table of contents to skip ahead to the section that interests you most.
Table of Contents
- Tip #1: Build the business case 3-6 months out from the implementation kick-off meeting
- Tip #2: Don’t underestimate the importance of the selection process (and choosing the right partner)
- Tip #3: Utilize project timeline and documentation best practices to maintain project focus
- Tip #4: Make sure your team is set-up for success at the implementation kick-off
- Tip #5: Be prepared (and proactive) regarding potential roadblocks and delays in implementation
- Conclusion: Be prepared and informed
Tip 1: Build the business case 3-6 months out from the implementation kick-off meeting.
A successful TMS implementation starts about three to six months before the implementation kick-off meeting. It begins with a strategy project that documents the current state process, information, and data flows. It involves understanding the ground-level requirements through observing the “3 actuals” – the actual people, doing the actual process, in the actual place. It requires gathering data, driving towards answering the question “Where is the money?” It includes a TMS-agnostic, but functional capability aware, future state process design, which typically leads to organizational changes and task re-alignment.
The integration design must be done with supply chain IT and corporate IT so that all parties understand the level of effort required. Then, the business case items and roadmap must be agreed upon by the internal stakeholders and signed off by executives, with a toolset identified. Once this is complete, the transportation leadership team can make an informed decision about what TMS is right for their organization.
Tip 2: Don’t underestimate the importance of the selection process (and choosing the right partner).
How important is the selection? Extremely.
Not because there is only one TMS that will fit into the design, but because it is important to select the right partner that is willing to invest in your company. Selection projects involve a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money to do it right.
This is a dating game. During this process, the eventual buyer and seller agree upon objectives. This project also validates the design and gets the buyer to a point where they understand the total cost of ownership (TCO) and refine their implementation budgets.
Organizations should plan to add roughly 30 percent to their implementation budget for good measure, as there are still going to be unknowns. The selection process also includes identifying the super-user, aka the TMS administrator. We will come back to the importance of that super-user shortly in tip #4.
A well-run TMS selection project should take about 12 weeks, not including the time it takes organizations to contract, which probably takes another four to six weeks, depending on the speed of the legal teams. If both the strategy and selection projects succeed, then there is a greater chance that a TMS can get implemented on-time and within budget, but not necessarily.
Tip #3: Make sure your team is set-up for success at the implementation kick-off.
Now you’re at the implementation kick-off. Do you have a steering committee formed? Do you have a project manager in the business and in the IT group? Is the super-user identified with their operational responsibilities off-loaded and their calendar cleared?
The Steering Committee
The Executive Steering Committee will ensure that the leadership team has allocated the right amount of attention and focus within their parts of the supply chain. They will serve as the group to identify, manage, and pay for risks that arise throughout the implementation. They will also ensure that folks remain accountable throughout the organization.
The IT Team
IT and the business should have part-time (50 percent preferred) resources dedicated to this project. They do not have to be super-technical, but should understand the relevant systems touching the TMS, as well as have a strong understanding of the future state design (hopefully they were part of the previous projects!) They will track tasks, keep resources focused, maintain the budget consumption, and ensure that milestones are met throughout this slog.
The super-user should be nearly 100 percent dedicated to this project. It is very difficult, particularly for shippers, to take a resource out of the transportation operations and have them full-time on this project. Great TMS super-users are very hard to find, so developing one (and retaining them) is critical. Going into this, it is not necessary to have a seasoned super-user that already knows the selected TMS – that is over-emphasized. This person will learn the tool during implementation and be able to support the organization on the TMS long-term, if they have the right DNA.
Tip #4: Be prepared (and proactive) regarding potential roadblocks and delays in implementation.
Finally, you are in the implementation. It is not over-budget and late yet, but it likely will be. But how is this possible? You did all of this work leading up to this point. Here is why: integration and “things out of our control.”
First, integration. TMS implementations involve integrating orders (purchase orders, sales orders, transfer orders, return orders, etc.), which requires a lot of internal and external IT folks to manage. The assumption here is that there is not an enterprise service bus (or hub-and-spoke middleware for integration) already in place that has all of the necessary order types ready to plug-and-play into a TMS.
There are also just “things out of our control.” An ERP is over-customized and IT did not realize it until they started integration and found out that 17 business processes are driven by legacy applications. Introducing a TMS, or replacing a TMS, disrupts those workflows and now IT has to extend the timeline and add resources to figure this out.
Or, a business change happens (an acquisition, a large new customer or customer(s), commodity prices shift, etc.) and attention is needed in other areas of the business, putting a pause on the TMS implementation.
Sometimes it is something simple like the transportation agreements contract structures are misunderstood and need to be renegotiated to support systemic rating.
Maybe someone, like an important member of the steering committee or the super-user, leaves the organization. These, and many other “things out of our control” happen all the time.
Tip #5: Utilize project timeline and documentation best practices to maintain project focus.
TMS implementations can be as short as 12 weeks, but usually last 18 to 24, so maintaining focus can be difficult. Accomplish this through good documentation, which should have started in the pre-implementation projects.
These documents, if leveraged properly, are what keep people honed-in on the right activities that support the business case. There are going to be squeaky wheels, but make sure the focus remains on the savings opportunities and the activities supporting the business case and roadmap.
Also, don’t skimp on travel budgets – folks focus when they are on-site shoulder-to-shoulder and literally working together in a conference room.
Zooming out some, a multi-phased methodology keeps the project organized. Best practice says that you should have a design or assess phase, a configuration / development / integration phase, a testing phase, and a Go-Live + Hypercare phase. Whether it is 3, 4, or 5 phases in a project, this helps maintain a macro-level focus.
Conclusion: Be Prepared & Informed
Do not be discouraged by the complexity of TMS implementations; rather, be prepared and informed. Systems implementations can be high-risk, but when you take the time to prepare and overcome many of the unknowns, your team will be best equipped to succeed. Just make sure that the communication channels are open and bad news is surfaced quickly.