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ERP Strategy and Transformation Roadmap for the Food Industry

Increasingly, companies in the food manufacturing and distribution industry are seeing ERP selection and adoption as a strategic pillar in their digitalization journey. In addition to forming the foundation of the enterprise’s core processes and data, food industry executives are evaluating investments in advanced ERP functionality for strength in automation, data reporting, transparency, and process enhancers. Just as requirements for each company may differ based on the sub-industry, business model, and organizational maturity, defining an organization’s ERP strategy is a tailored process requiring thoughtful evaluation of current and future needs. However, generally, a good ERP strategy for the food industry considers the following key principles:  

  1. Fit and Scalability: in crafting your ERP strategy, consider your organization’s current operational requirements while accounting for future projected growth  
  2. Structure and Rigor: enable thoroughness and objectivity in defining your ERP strategy and vendor selection through a structured evaluation of requirements, ERP software options, and vendor partners 
  3. Transformation-minded: the success of strategy execution lies in good planning and clear enumeration of the transformation impact  

Principles for an ERP Strategy in the Food Industry

Principle #1: Fit and Scalability  

In order to fully evaluate fit of an ERP solution, one must assess both technical and functional fit. At the highest level of the ERP strategy is alignment with the organization’s overall IT strategy. This includes evaluation of cloud ERP solutions, on-premise solutions, or a hybrid solution. In addition, assessing the myriad of ERP solutions – deciding on Tier 1, 2, or 3 ERPs – will depend on several factors, primarily the size of the company, near-term growth trajectory, and other future state considerations, such as merger and acquisition objectives. Comparatively, Tier 1s (e.g., SAP S/4HANA) tend to support large organizations with complex business processes enabled by richer functionality and often commensurate with cost and implementation duration than its Tier 2 or 3 counterparts. The differentiator in realizing the value of the ERP strategy then becomes the structure and rigor of the requirements definition, the thorough evaluation of ERP software options, and the implementation partner. 

In general, ERP vendors and IT executives are increasingly leaning toward cloud solutions, for they require less IT maintenance and ongoing support. The automatic enhancements pushed as part of regular, often quarterly releases, help to ensure organizations stay up to date on improvements and latest innovations in software. One key limitation of cloud ERPs is the rigidity of functionality – the push to “fit to standard” means it usually cannot support complex, nuanced process requirements. However, top-tier ERPs often package their “standard” functionality using industry-specific requirements and best practices; to augment, implementation partners may have their own set of industry-specific accelerators to facilitate the implementation experience as well as provide industry-specific tools and enhancements in the solution. 

Regardless of ERP tier and hosting options, an understanding of the organization’s business processes is key is defining the requirements, which then feed into the selection process. To do this well, conversations must take place at the executive level as well as at the shop floor level. As an example, Clarkston recently guided a food distributor through the requirements gathering process and gained perspectives from analysts, managers, and executives across Finance, Operations, and IT functions. As ultimate end users of the ERP and members of the organizations intimately aware of the pain points and limitations of the current ways of working, each perspective was a critical piece of the mosaic that ultimately painted a holistic view of areas for improvement, such as critical areas to target for automation to reduce waste and to smooth out bottlenecks. Table stakes requirements, such as the need for the ERP to transform products, e.g. from fresh to frozen, were documented along with more aspirational requirements. Leadership’s growth objectives generated requirements that laid the groundwork for future geographical expansion, e.g., the need for the ERP to support multiple languages and needs of the Latin American market.  

Common Pitfall: Companies often over-index on the organization’s current requirements, with little to no consideration for possible future needs. We’ve seen new business requirements introduced post-implementation that required complex code to address and heavy reliance on a select one or two IT team members to maintain the code. The key is to simplify by reducing complex codes in the software.  

Principle #2: Structure and Rigor 

To further ensure the right ERP fit, craft an objective set of criteria to evaluate ERP options that are defined and contributed to by a cross-functional team.  

Work with a partner with vendor selection experience in your industry – one that is equipped with the methodology and tools to ensure a rigorous and structured selection process. The criteria should include the merit of the software on its ability to address the business requirements (both stated and demonstrated by the vendor), pricing of the software as well as implementation cost, and considerations of ongoing fees such as annual licenses. 

For a food distributor, Clarkston worked with their IT, Finance, and Operations representatives to establish a weighted rubric of requirements. The team considered the relative importance of requirements, such as the ability to view and select freight rates from multiple providers and the ERP’s ability to provide cost and pricing information by component that allows decision-making to optimize margins. Working with byproducts is a key component of the business, so the team emphasized the need for the ERP to maintain parent/child relationship for by-products and calculate expected yields from the production of the finished good. At the end of each vendor demonstration, Clarkston collected the client representatives’ numeric assessment of how the software met the stated requirements in the rubric. This provided the grounds for an objective evaluation of the ERP solution and implementation partner. 

Common Pitfall: Clarkston has seen clients overlook the benefits of a structured vendor selection and instead choose a software because an influential stakeholder in the organization has used the ERP solution in the past. The involvement of a cross-functional team and a weighted model of the key requirements reduces subjectivity and provides the foundations for a thorough evaluation of ERP options.  

Principle #3: Transformation-minded  

To realize the value of the meticulously defined ERP strategy and selection process, organizations must thoughtfully define the execution roadmap accounting for the transformation required to truly reap the benefits of such endeavor. Often, the implementation partner’s ability to visualize this transformation and appropriately detail the implementation timeline, activities, milestones, and roles and responsibilities is telling. A committed implementation partner who truly understands your business will be able to lay out a roadmap that brings quick wins, considers risks and provides mitigation strategies, and lays out a resource model with clear roles and responsibilities that are feasible and responsible, allowing the organization to continue business operations with as minimal disruptions as possible during the implementation.   

Common Pitfall: Companies sometimes look at execution plans strictly from a software implementation standpoint with minimal to no consideration for solution adoption. It leads to end users resorting to old ways of working and organizations failing to reap the full benefits of the new ERP. Training and change management components must be integrated into an implementation roadmap with careful thought and early planning. 

Key Takeaways: ERP Strategy for the Food Industry 

When your ERP no longer supports your business needs or is limiting your growth goals, it’s time to evaluate your forward-looking ERP strategy in the food industry. Evaluate your ERP needs with a trusted cross-functional team, diligent to look at the needs of today while also empowered to envision the requirements of tomorrow. We suggest working with a partner who understands your current needs against the context of the overall industry, ensuring that you can fine-tune your ERP strategy to support your business today while setting the foundations for future growth. 

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Tags: Consumer Products Trends, SAP ERP