A tree outside the London 2012 Velodrome

Image - London 2012

The nursery divisions at Hillier used an ancient green-screen computer system for production control and sales management. They also used a separate, elderly accounts system. Thinkers helped Hiller make the strategic choice to adopt a single integrated production, sales and accounts system – an ERP system. We ran the vendor selection to choose the most suitable one, and then ran the implementation project to adopt it.

Hillier’s core system was written before email even existed, and the company had got stuck in the 1980s.  Business processes relied on paper print-outs, and re-keying data into multiple spreadsheets.  It was slow and error prone, and required near superhuman feats from Hillier’s staff to provide satisfactory customer service.

At first, Hillier thought that they wanted a new production control system.  Thinkers were instrumental in introducing the idea of adopting an integrated ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning system).  The project began with demonstrations from three candidate vendors, to open Hillier’s eyes to what is possible.  This sowed a seed of ambition.

ERP vendors often focus on a sector and produce modules that address the needs of that sector.  But horticulture is not a big enough or sophisticated enough sector that vendors had already created products to address its needs.  We worked hard with each division to understand the key business processes, and the main things that the company wanted to be able to do.  We differentiated between:

  • The peculiarities that are unavoidably inherent in the horticultural domain
    • An example is that the stock changes size as it grows.  Normal “industrial widgets” like shoes or aeroplane components do not do this.  This presents an inventory management problem which is unavoidable.
    • The new system must handle these, somehow.  There is no choice.
  • The peculiarities that stemmed from the way that Hillier do business
    • An example is that the Wholesale division did not pick customer orders individually; rather, they produce a consolidated picking list for multiple orders.
    • For these things, Hillier could choose whether they wanted to continue to do business that way, or change, but that decision would be affected by the capabilities of the new system.

We wrote an internal document which described all aspects of the business.  Somewhat surprisingly, this “book” became a popular read across the business, but importantly it enabled high quality debate about what the business really wanted, and to generate a real enthusiasm for change.

We then conducted a vendor selection process which comprised:

  • Writing an Request for Information (RFI) and devising an efficient method of assessing and scoring vendor responses, so that the RFI could be sent out to a wide range of potential vendors
    • The aim at this point was to cast the net as wide as possible.  Perhaps the right system would be one that we hadn’t heard of before.
  • Choosing a medium list of 8 vendors.
  • Designing a 1 day workshop to assess these vendors and their systems
  • Picking 2 shortlist vendors, and designing a 3 day workshop for assessing them

We encouraged a wide participation of Hillier staff in the appropriate sections of these workshops.  This engendered a feeling of ownership of the decision across the business.

Hillier chose the Priority system from eMerge Information Technologies.

Thinkers then planned and led the implementation project.  This including master-minding the way that the business would use the system, specifying the customizations, and designing all customer-facing documents.  We set very ambitious timescales, and met them:

  • The time between making the decision and going live in the first divisions, including accounts, was only 15 weeks
    • Reference customers had taken between 15 and 22 months to achieve this
    • This enabled the business benefit to be accrued an entire financial year earlier than a “normal” plan
    • This was only  made possible by creative thinking about how to phase the project
  • All divisions were on the system by the end of the first year, enabling the old system to be switched off

Hillier are very pleased with the outcome.

In the first season, we did 25% more business than ever before. This simply would not have been possible on the old system. And furthermore, there is an air of calm and organization in our dispatch office which has never been there before.

Kevin Hobbs, Director of the Shrub Nursery