THINK Before You Leap: Strategic Leadership in a World of Chaos

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Neglect can lead to disasters: here is an example and the key to success. The chaos came quickly — and silently at first. Finish Line, a US retail chain specializing in athletic footwear and apparel, introduced new order and warehouse management systems in The idea was to modernize order management, inventory, and storage facilities along the supply chain, in retail stores, and online shops.

The project attracted little attention until the planned go-live scheduled for the autumn of — and then ended in disaster. The result: Empty shelves at retail stores. Even online sales ended up unfulfilled. And all that during the Christmas season.

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They announced plans to close stores in the coming four years. How did this happen? One of the reasons for the launch ending up in disaster was that the new software was implemented before the efficiency of the systems could be properly vetted. It could be compared to performing untrialed emergency open-heart surgery procedure with untrained staff.

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Tests were ignored, employees were not integrated into the test scenarios, and the collaboration with IT partners, consultants, and service providers left much to be desired. The Finish Line case study is certainly an extreme example. But it well illustrates the critical role of testing and change management when new technologies are introduced. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for this. But the following seven tips can offer good guidance in examining and improving your own testing. Instead of looking for errors after the fact, define in advance which processes must run flawlessly.

When you implement a new software solution, you need to accept that some things are simply unknowable. A process that error-checks all the functions described in the program documentation is not very helpful. Instead, the company planning to deploy a new system must ask itself: Which of the processes managed by the software are mission-critical?

Run through and test realistic or potential scenarios, including shifts of volumes along the supply chain during the peak season. The company should define stress parameters — thresholds that determine whether, in their view, the system is working properly. These stress parameters should be individually monitored during the project to provide early warning of any gradual decrease in performance.

One key factor for successful testing is the right preparation of the test phases. This includes defining the scope, timing, and responsibilities within the organization so that project planners, for example, can take this into account. Realistic time and resource management is also important, since employees may be on vacation or unavailable for other reasons.

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When multiple systems are introduced or updated at the same time, the tests must be synchronized and orchestrated. But even if just one solution is being implemented, the project often involves multiple departments whose test phases must be coordinated. An agile, incremental approach can be beneficial to make the test planning phase simpler. If problems already emerge when smaller groups of functionalities are tested, change managers can quickly intervene and improve the outcome in successive iterations.

When an old solution is replaced by a new one, you can have employees test the new system at certain times each day or week, for example. Then day-to-day business continues in normal operations. Quality is more important than quantity. Employees who test software need to feel certain that they have the full support of management. Those inside a company implementing new software need to understand the significance of the tests and — if necessary — offer support and embrace the vision that the new software is intended to serve.

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Listening to and addressing the concerns of users makes them in turn more willing to participate constructively in the tests. If employees fear that the successful implementation of a new IT solution will eliminate their jobs, testing is often done poorly or ignored altogether. Many workers feel a culture shock when in-house applications are replaced with new software or formerly manual processes are managed with an IT solution.

Employees should not only comprehend the underlying principles of the new solution, they should also help define it to adapt the system to the specific needs of the company or their department. Equally important is communication within the team — at regular meetings, for example.

look before you leap

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