The road ahead

With the potholes behind them, Algonquin Automotive's new HRMS is beginning to pay off.

They knew it was going to be tough, setting up a new human resources management system, but because nobody had ever done it before they didn’t know just how tough.

This was a new experience for the HR department at Algonquin Automotive and looking back now, they underestimated just how much work it would be.

On top of that, once they found themselves in the middle of the implementation, over their heads in work, with unattainable deadlines approaching, little could be done to get the project back on track because there wasn’t anybody to take charge and force it back on.

Ostensibly, one person was leading the project, but she was unable to dedicate the time and attention it needed and like everyone else, was inexperienced and not fully aware of the challenges that lay ahead.

And so, in the first few months, the team from Algonquin struggled.

“I don’t think the people who were put on the project were really aware of the amount of time it would take,” said Shelley Bilz, an HR co-ordinator and one of the primary players in the implementation. “It was brutal. It was a lot of long hours and a lot of weekends, we worked through Christmas,” she added.

The go-live target date of January 2000, came and went. If the end was in sight, it didn’t feel like it was getting any closer.

Rarely are implementations flawless, said Tony Berardine, general manager of Best Software Limited, supplier of the HRMS software for Algonquin.

The problems Algonquin faced are common at Canadian mid-size businesses. And in fact, Algonquin did quite well. They only missed their go-live target by a couple of months.

But he thinks “underestimating” isn’t even the right word to describe what happens — it’s undervaluing, he said. Canadian businesses tend to be leaner and meaner than American firms. Consequently, they are more apt to cut corners where they can and they often go into an implementation knowing it is important and a lot of work, but they are reluctant to make the investment of resources up front. You need to make sure somebody can take ownership of the project and reduce the workload of the key people involved. When you don’t, that is when things can go off the tracks.

By the early summer of 1999, Algonquin Automotive knew something had to change. The company had been expanding very rapidly. In a little more than two years, head count nearly tripled.

The Hunstville, Ont.-based company makes automotive running boards and fender flares and most of the approximately 550 employees are dedicated to production, although there is also a sizeable product development and design contingent.

The increase in contracts was great, but the accompanying explosion in staff became a logistical ordeal.

They had little in the way of formal policies, or procedures and therefore little need for a system to administer them, said Bilz. That wasn’t an issue when they were so small, but it became obvious in the midst of their growth spurt that they needed a more structured approach to human resources management.

There were problems tracking time and attendance. People were overtaking vacation, and unique requirements with overtime and shift premiums were a challenge. Payroll had been outsourced, but that wasn’t going well either, and they wanted to bring it back in-house.

“It just became more clear that we needed policies. You couldn’t wing it and you needed to document and formalize policies,” said Bilz.

The company just needed more information, explained Anne Cool, vice-president of strategic capability development. A new HRMS would solve those problems while providing the company with previously unavailable information from data processed and reported by the new system.

After getting the go-ahead in the summer of ’99, the company began the search for a vendor. They had detailed requirements for the system itself, the ability to transfer data from the time-card system to the new HR databank, for example. But ease of use was also a top priority, and they wanted a supplier that would provide the support and training necessary to ensure success.

And while to some extent this was new ground for Algonquin, since they never had an HRMS before, they did have some related experience to draw on.

After a disappointing period where payroll was outsourced, Algonquin wanted to make sure they did a better job selecting their new HRMS. “We sort of felt burnt,” said Bilz, of their outsourcing experience.

“I think we felt we rushed into the (outsourcing agreement) and there were so many things we didn’t ask and we didn’t do right.”

This time, they could refer back to the problems and issues they were facing with their payroll provider and make sure they would be able to deliver the HR services in the way they wanted.

Algonquin was extremely diligent in their selection, remembered Berardine. A good fit is vital, but a lot of companies have “gatekeepers” who get in the way by excluding users who need to be involved both to get a clear sense of what they need and what they think of the prospective software. This wasn’t the case with Algonquin. Berardine was impressed with their selection process.

Typically, customer satisfaction is highest right after buying a software package and almost invariably there is a dip in satisfaction moving through implementation. The key is to try and minimize that dip, he said. The vendor can do somethings, by providing the training and support for example, but ultimately it will be up to the client company to contribute the resources to do the work on their end.

One of the biggest problems in Algonquin’s implementation: “We all went into it still keeping our full-time jobs,” said Bilz.

Regular responsibilities suffered while they spent time inputting data and configuring the new system. Or else when they couldn’t ignore their regular duties, the implementation was neglected, leading predictably to delays.

“We tended to work around things,” said Bilz. Day-to-day HR activities were balanced with implementation tasks, with corporate Christmas party planning and writing bonus letters squeezed in between.

They struggled to have everything ready for the target launch date. But that date passed, and still they were entering data, doing test runs and trial payrolls. All through January and February, they were effectively running two payrolls as they tested the new system.

On one cold, freezing-rain-kind of Monday night, already well behind schedule the team was preparing to go live with the new system. But as they got closer to deadline they were having second thoughts. Little glitches kept popping up and there were too many concerns it wasn’t going to work. At nine o’clock they had to abort and began once again inputting for the old system again.

It wasn’t until Anne Cool joined the organization in early February, 2000 that things started to improve. She brought experience and expertise and she knew what problems to look for and how to solve them, said Bilz.

“Just trying to figure out how we move forward on an issue. Anne could come in and say “Lets try this. This isn’t working, lets try this.’ Where we sat there for possibly weeks on end and trying to figure it out for ourselves.”

Cool had gone through an implementation of an HRMS at Husky Injection Moldings, and before that, she had seven years of experience in business systems implementation. “When I came, I knew people were struggling. You could almost see the stress,” said Cool.

The vice-president of HR had originally planned to have the department off the project by January but when they missed that target, there was no revised plan, no new timeline to keep the project moving and no list of what was holding it up, said Cool. With no hard targets and deadlines, commitment waned. They had to revisit the whole project and begin setting targets again.

Cool also recognized that all of the extra work was becoming a problem and although she was supposed to stay clear of day-to-day HR operations, Cool pitched in by handling some of the many interviews the company was conducting as it continued to grow. A co-op student was kept on for an extra term to help out around the department.

With someone driving the process forward once again, they went live just a few weeks later.

Best Software’s Abra system has a number of capabilities. So far, Algonquin has launched the HR database, as well as payroll and attendance modules. To maintain its QS 9000 certification Algonquin is required to track training. They have bought the Abra training module to help them in this tracking, and they hope to have all of the data transferred from an Access database to the Best Software system by the fall.

Ultimately the real strategic benefits for the HR department will come when they can use the system to move employees to HR self-service. That’s a goal for next year, but once again it will be a question of how to use limited resources. They have to replace their job evaluation system and with 260 job descriptions for a plant of less than 600 employees, they also need to review that.

However, the new system is already paying dividends, said Cool.

With the recent downturn in the auto sector, business for Algonquin has also trailed off and the company was facing layoffs. However the new system has enabled them to participate in a workshare program with the federal government. Instead of laying people off they can keep people on part-time with the government making up some of the employee’s wage losses. Algonquin can keep those employees with the company so that when things pick up again they will be able to bring them back on board full-time.

Having the system back in house they had the technical functionality to make the changes to their payroll and get the data analysis to the government in the time frame required.

It’s a great employee relations opportunity that would not have been possible with the old outsourced payroll system, said Cool.

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