We write pretty regularly about public sector procurement disasters, probably more than we cover private sector failures. When I was researching and writing the Bad Buying book, I found it easier to find stories about government entities than those featuring major private sector firms.
There are a number of reasons for that. Some areas of government spending – such as defence – are just very difficult and complex. So it is a challenge in any and every country to execute that type of procurement well. There is also the political factor, politicians who want to leave a “legacy” for instance, or who want to pursue a certain policy despite the fact that there is no procurement solution that is likely to work.
But the biggest reason is probably just the nature of government, meaning there is a higher probability that a disastrous IT system implementation will get into the public domain. So we find out about numerous tech failures in the UK public sector, going back to the DSS ICL “Benefit Card” fiasco, to the ongoing Home Office/Police Airwave failure.
So it was interesting and unusual to see a high profile private sector firm mentioned in the press recently for a significant IT problem. According to the Times, Waitrose, the upmarket supermarket chain and part of the John Lewis Group, has seen problems with stock management in recent months, which is being blamed on the implementation of a new Oracle / JDA ERP system.
But it is an odd example, because although the Times report was quite detailed, Waitrose has strenuously denied that there is a problem. So the newspaper says, “The idea is to replace the partnership’s antiquated systems with the Oracle system. But during the switchover, when the two systems have to temporarily “talk” to each other, the Oracle system has been producing incorrect numbers. Every time a new part of the system is introduced, more problems emerge… “
The report says that product availability has slipped from 3/94% to around 91% compared to an industry average of 92%. Well, to be honest, that does not sound like a major problem, although many readers did comment on the article to back up the claim, complaining about lack of product in their local stores. Particularly cheese …
Waitrose then denied that there is a particular problem or that there are system issues, claiming that their product availability is still better than several major competitors. But one point which did make me wonder was the statement that the implementation has been ongoing for 6 years now. That does seem like a long time – even given Covid – to get a new system in place.
Coincidentally, I heard from a friend the other day about another organisation in a very different industry (but one that will be well-known to most readers here) that has had major Oracle implementation problems this year. Now clearly many ERP implementations do succeed, or Oracle and SAP would not have grown to be two of the largest tech firms in the world. But it is also clear that things can go wrong.
I included a salutary tale in the Bad Buying book, all about FoxMeyer, a US pharma distributor. That ERP implementation appeared to set off a train of events that ended up with bankruptcy, and illustrated a number of common failings in IT disasters. The case study seemed to show defining the requirement wrongly; relying too much on external consulting-type expertise for the implementation; several suppliers sharing unclear accountability and blaming each other when things went wrong; trying to integrate different systems that did not really want to integrate; and poor programme management. We all probably recognise some of those warning signs.
So whatever the truth about Waitrose, if your organisation is planning or going through a major systems implementation, be very careful. Get the right expertise lined up, including at a minimum, some internal “intelligent client” resource even if you are using consultants for much of the work. Be cautious, do your risk management properly, define accountabilities, never assume different systems will integrate easily (e.g. consider the data architecture), plan carefully, put the governance and reporting in place….
It is a long list, so good luck!