A sophisticated bespoke business management system
Think’s internal processes had developed organically as the team grew. As a consequence there was a lack of joined up thinking, with a prevalence of spreadsheets containing silos of data residing on individual’s computers, combined with a number 3rd party services delivering specific (but still not joined up) functionality. As staff numbers increased, senior management decided it was time to implement a company-wide system, but were unable to find a single ‘off the shelf’ package that met their requirements and therefore approached Yammayap to architect and deliver a bespoke business management system.
Interestingly, Think initially decided to test Yammayap’s capabilities with a small pilot project, which was delivered promptly and to budget! Following this, a discovery phase was undertaken with senior management and key personnel (representing sales, production and finance) drawing up a detailed requirements document with milestones and an agreed payment schedule. From there, an agile project management methodology was adopted, whereby weekly project team meetings were held to introduce new functionality and discuss upcoming work packages. During this process ongoing checklists, actions and discussions were recorded using Basecamp (an online project management tool). This resulted in the project being delivered on time and on budget, and staff being successfully transitioned onto the new business management system.
Think now has a secure (single sign-on) solution resiliently delivered via an AWS-hosted web application, database server and file storage. Delivering a ‘single version of the truth,’ all staff can view and manage project stages (opportunity/bid/contract) while both forecasting future costs and recording actual delivery costs in order for management to keep close control of budgets. In addition staff now have access to a centralised risk log and checklists which ensure best practice across all projects. A number of existing 3rd party solutions have been retired and previously manual tasks have been removed – including an integration with Xero (an online accounting system) which allows Project Managers to create draft invoices and Finance to approve and pay staff expenses via a totally electronic workflow.
What did Think Think?
"We have been able to replace our makeshift, home-made disparate systems with a single, integrated, custom built solution. We have been able to cancel our "paid-for" subscriptions bringing instant savings and we have a single reference point for all aspects of our business from customer management, bid management, operations and finance. The system not only integrates with our workflows and processes but improves them. Our staff have full and instant access to all the information they need to make their jobs easier, to improve our operations and ultimately to increase efficiency and profitability. It will change the way we do business."
Post-launch, Ed Morey, Solutions Architect at Yammayap, sat down with Steve Leighton who is Operations Director at Think, to chat about the implementation process.
It's a mix of aviation technical and management consultancy in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. It can be responding to, or helping draft, regulations at the national or European level, or all the way down to helping people be more effective in their business, helping airports get more passengers or aircraft through. It's a range of things.
When I started at Think in 2018, I’d come from an environment where I'd been the Ops Director in a larger consultancy. I'd been running that post for about 5 years and we’d got the ops processes nailed. When I arrived here, the first thing that was immediately apparent was all of the processes were quite loose. The means of resourcing people on projects and managing projects, everything was done by separate pieces of paper, systems and spreadsheets. It was very hard to take a view across the company without asking someone to go around and ask everyone what they were doing, having to dig into stuff. In terms of managing a company like that, it's incredibly challenging when everything's bespoke, ad hoc and needs manual intervention to sort out. It was clear within a couple of days of walking through the door, that we needed a solution to help us manage the business more effectively.
We looked to see if there was anything off-the-shelf that we could buy. We had a timesheet system which had some aspects of the things that we looked to do, but it wasn’t a complete solution for us. We sit somewhere between needing a solution which is project-orientated versus something which is business-orientated versus something which is a CRM-type solution, with a sales aspect included. You could get something off the shelf which could do one of those, but we couldn't find much to deliver the total picture. That was when we started to make some calls.
We looked at that, but you can see the price tag that's associated with it. Unless you’re a San Francisco-based start-up selling solutions to the world, you look at someone like SAP and you see that you're going to have to have a consultancy package around a tailored implementation of something which they're used to selling to massive businesses. You can write that stuff off, it was never going to happen! It was going to be something more bespoke from that point in time, which in itself is quite advantageous. You could have SAP come in and give you best practices in all areas and 95% of it would be overkill for an organisation of our size. It would be a hell of an implementation. You'd be teaching everyone about things in new terms, it wouldn't be familiar to them and the implementation would be painful, so we wrote that one off quite quickly.
We started to have a look around for software developers who worked in this sort of space who tailored things for SMEs. We could go anywhere in the country and get that sort of thing, but my prior experience said, 'We want someone local to us who can drop in and we can work things through at our own pace.' So we went out to tender, and did actually have discussions with companies who were far away, one of them was even in Yorkshire. However, we were pretty clear from the onset we were going to go with someone closer, it was finding the right company in the local area who could do this sort of thing.
It was more to do with the sort of companies that we're comfortable working with and which sorts of companies they had experience working with. Most of them ended up being smaller than us, with varying degrees of size, scale, experience and professionalism. We even considered one-man-bands, but were aware of the risks of that option, and that if they get hit by the bus, then your implementation stalls. We knew we wanted someone with good experience, with a bit of resilience to staff turnover. You want them to be small enough to have that personal working relationship with people and not to have a different person popping up every time you're in a meeting. It was a balance.
We asked each one to come in and give us their sales pitch so we could get to know them a bit before we asked for proposals and, subsequently, talked technical details with them. There were a range of solutions. It was a spectrum in all dimensions in terms of size, experience, how they presented themselves and price. We ended up with what we thought was a reasonably clear brief, but we had a diverse range of prices in terms of what came back. You expect a one-man-band to be reasonably cost-efficient and they were. The top-end quote we received was too much. You’d think that if you bring them in, show them the office, they'd see that an organisation who is only 3 or 4 times their size wouldn’t easily be able to drop the sort of money they were asking on a project. Price was of course an important factor to us.
I think it was the nature of the solution and the people who turned up balanced with the price. It ticked all the boxes. We could see that we could work with you all, you're a very personable bunch and we didn't want it to be something that was incredibly formal and process-driven. We knew that, even though we had a view about what we wanted, we were still going to discover and learn stuff during the implementation. We wanted someone that we felt we could work through those options with and we wanted someone who was technically competent. You gave us enough examples of similar work and case studies and spoke about how they could be tailored to what we did, which ticked the boxes for us. Plus you had enough of a team that we didn't feel exposed in working with you.
Yes, that helped. Knowing what our environment is like, if our client rings up and says, 'Can you come up tomorrow?' we have to do that. If someone's travelling down from Yorkshire, it's a bit of a bind to tell them, 'I'm really sorry you got on the train last night but we have to cancel.' Having someone down the road makes that frictionless. Surprisingly we found there aren't that many software development companies in the local area, doing this sort of stuff. I thought there would be loads. Want a website? Fantastic, a million and one places, but want some sort of business product? It's surprisingly niched.
I like the idea of short, agile sprints whereby you can quickly start to understand a particular aspect of process and start to knock something out for us to trial. That was really useful. It de-risked things from our perspective a lot. We quickly saw that there was progress and that we could comment on things and that there was scope to see something and tweak it and change it. I like that way of working. However, a big part of the value-add for us wasn't just the fact that you were running an agile approach, a lot of companies could have come in and done that. It was the fact that you had someone thinking about it from a business perspective, and not just from a software perspective. That forced us to think through our own processes. I had a view as to what the solution would look like at the end, but there was a lot of ‘devil in the detail’ which we hadn't thought through. Having that sort of rigour is really beneficial. If we'd just gone with a software developer, even if they had a methodology for use cases and things like that, that wouldn't have got us to where we needed to be. We needed someone thinking about it from a business perspective. Things like ‘What is it that you need to see?’ ‘How frequently do you need to see it?’ ‘What about these situations?’ It's that part of it which I think was a big part of your added value and we spotted that at the onset, when you included it in your pitch. Compared to the other people we spoke with, you put more onus and emphasis on that. All of that was really beneficial.
A lot. Everyone's adapted to it very easily. In part, that's because we've kept similar terminology and similar ways of presenting things to how we'd done it before, but implemented them in a digital format. Everyone has realised that it's so much easier to work using a system like this, one that requires less effort to collate the data. It’s allowing us to be more proactive about spotting projects which are going off the rails while it's happening, rather than afterwards when looking at a sheet of paper which says, 'You've made a big loss.' We can be more proactive about how we resource people and the implications of a project slipping by two months and all of the people suddenly having a window of time available. We can manage that in real-time now. It's allowing us to step forward in terms of the maturity with which we manage the business. From my perspective, it's getting much more like I was used to before I came here. That sort of environment where you can spend productive time actually talking about how you're going to deploy people and what they're going to work on. We can put people on projects they want to work on because it's not a last-minute rush to find them some work. We've also got happier staff because they've got visibility of what they're going to be doing. They can intervene and have some say in that. From a project perspective, we can track and monitor the projects and see how they're going. We can head off problems in advance. From a sales perspective, we've got a pipeline we can visibly see. All of the account managers can do all of their reporting through the system and pull the data down rather than having to spend ages with a spreadsheet each month plugging in what's going on. From the finance side, we've got visibility of all the invoicing for months ahead, giving us a handle on where the business is at financially. It's been transformative for us.
It's been really positive. The biggest change has been a confidence thing, moving from an environment where they controlled everything that went into the financial management system to an environment where things were suddenly going to be coming in in an automated fashion. There was a concern about lack of control and whether things would add up and whose responsibility that was. So we took the approach of, 'We'll push all the finance information over, but we'll still give the people the last say on most things.' Even if the system pushes stuff through, we can still change it in Xero and it gets ported back. That has helped in many respects, the invoicing side is going well and expenses are working. It's been a real positive and wasn't something we envisaged at the onset. I thought we'd keep a clean break between the two systems, but the more confidence we got as things progressed, the more comfortable we were about throwing more across the boundary. That side's been a real positive. A lot of that, we wouldn't have had the confidence to do if you hadn't implemented the test system with Xero. That was a really valuable approach. If we'd gone straight into trialling it, we would have been all over the place. It's also made us shine a light on why we do a lot of things. Previously our finance activities have been driven because our accountants have said to do things and it turns out the accountants have said to do things because it makes their life easier not ours! Going through the whole process, trying to understand what needs to go where and why we need it, has been really useful. We've been able to say, 'Why do you need big boxes of paper receipts?' It turns out because it makes the accountant’s life easy in terms of doing a quick audit. Open a box and sift through, you pull out a few receipts and check they're reconciled somewhere. We shouldn't be collating all of that and storing it and shipping it around and requiring people to keep it all. We can do it a different way and we're getting a degree of maturity over what we do with the business now, which is a positive thing.
There are two aspects. I'm really pleased with what's been achieved. We said, at the onset, that we were shooting for an 80% solution the first time around and accepted that we'll have 20% left to do afterwards, to sort it all out. However, I think we've got closer to a 95% solution, a lot further towards our ultimate objectives than we thought we would, and that has put us in a really strong position. In terms of the working relationship, I think it's been really good fun and we've achieved something at the same time. If we'd known at the onset it was going to be like this, we wouldn't have bothered going through the tendering process and life would have been a lot easier! It's been overwhelmingly positive and still is.