On the Fly

Huwel spoke several times every day with Berent and Troccoli to make sure that the operating and systems plans stayed in sync, and the team held a weekly meeting in person. "We were trying to weave in operations, systems and hiring so that they would all come together at once," says Huwel.

The weekly war-room meetings were largely effective—in part because the tight schedule left no time for second-guessing decisions. "There was a frankness to the conversation that really mattered," Troccoli says. "The question was, can we do something right now, yes or no? If not, then it doesn't happen, get it out of my way. And you've got to be flexible. One day, about five weeks from launch, our collections manager pointed out a big hole we'd missed in our invoicing operation. Everyone just looked up and said, let's get the resources there, now."

Even so, communication sometimes sputtered. "We didn't engage with headquarters as much as we needed to," Troccoli says. "The physical separation was an issue when it came to things like speaking with our sales people about customer expectations."

But success required more than setting priorities in a hurry. "On any failed project, they'll tell you what their priorities were, and you can usually see the exact moment where they lost their nerve," Troccoli says. "People are going to want things that are really valuable, and you have to be able to say, I'm sorry." Precious Moments, for example, sells some products exclusively to certain dealers, but Troccoli knew he couldn't build that screening feature into his new systems in time for the launch.

"It made the people who have to deal with those customers very uncomfortable, but it just was not a priority compared to getting the basics in place."

Precious Moments' 90-day project was not a job for a control freak. "There is always a balance between control of a project and delaying the process," says Huwel. "Given the time frame here, we had to tilt that balance far away from control. We gave up some measure of an ability to sleep at night, but the business need overrode things that would otherwise have begged for caution. You can't do an exercise like this unless you have a command and authorization process that allows decisions to be made in a decentralized way and on the fly."

That's one reason Huwel put so much of his focus on hiring the right people for the new organization. "We had to get people involved and trust their judgment. We asked them to develop plans and methodologies, and if we signed off on it, then we gave them the freedom to go for it. You've got your time frame, you give me an estimate, just come back to me if it changes."

Teamwork was essential, but it could only go so far, Troccoli says. "There was zero operational blame-ism, and a lot of the tension was taken out with humor, although that started to wear after a while." Not that he's done. By Labor Day, Troccoli was thinking about a real warehouse management system to replace the kludge that got him through the summer. Berent was talking about product lifecycle management software and demand planning applications. The sprint was over, and the long race had just begun.

This article was originally published on 10-05-2005
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