You Want Me To Manage 500 Projects? What Planet Are You From?

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues—first running the retail technology department for Dunkin’ Brands (Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins) and now running IT for Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

When the CIO of a large national retail chain launches a chain-wide technology rollout, it can be a huge project, but it comes with a tiny number of comforts. IT can craft one plan and insist that every store follow it precisely. IT can also expect some steep cost savings, leveraging the efficiency of volume purchases. Alas, franchise IT directors have a very different experience.

A 500-store franchise chain, for example, could easily have to indulge more than 50 different POS configurations, given various owner demands. Each location is likely to have it’s own nuances and, in a franchise environment, each store will likely have different needs than the rest. So what do you do when you have 500 locations that each have their own needs? You need to think of the rollout as more like 500 little project plans. Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

Some might say, “Managing at that level isn’t scalable.” I think that is a huge cop-out. People who say this about large-scale retail IT projects are in the wrong business.

What the person is really saying: “We need to find a way to do this that doesn’t take as much work, because there is too much work to do.” If this attitude isn’t addressed from the very beginning, the project is destined for failure. If you are in a franchise environment, you had better notify the Red Cross, because you are about to have a disaster on your hands.

Let’s look at a basic example of a POS upgrade. In most cases, the POS is as a complex, mini-network of computers and peripherals in each location. These networks have all the complexity of a small office environment or more and the impact of an issue or outage is magnified by the direct results these issues have on the business. So instead of trying to successfully manage 500 branch offices, the likely analogy, one is actually trying to mange 500 enterprise systems.

As far as consistency goes, forget about it. The more locations there are, the chance of having a ubiquitous approach goes down exponentially, especially in a franchise environment. There are many reasons for this such as a POS project being stopped halfway through due to significant problems or a new system that was deployed as the chain’s size grew.

Or perhaps a new CIO comes on board. Sometimes it can be because a new piece of technology the retailer “had to have” to stay competitive. And there are even times when the chain only “recommended” an approach, but stores had the option to purchase whatever system they wanted. The impact of this is that even diligent retailers often have several different POS platforms in operation at any point in time. One large franchise restaurant chain has more than 100 different POS platforms.

For projects like a POS upgrade to be successful, it must be managed on a store-by-store basis. If you have created the appropriate team structure and are collecting the right information, managing the project can become highly data-driven.

The project manager should facilitate a meeting (or meetings) at least weekly to review the status of every location, even if there are several thousand locations to review. I cannot stress this enough.

I was once involved in a large retail IT project deploying technology to 6,000 locations. The project was completed in two phases. The first 2,000 deployments were managed with this type of detailed review done for every location (“Where are we with store 12345?”).

I am not going to lie; these meetings were excruciating and mind-numbing. But in hindsight, I believe these reviews were a huge factor in the projects success. The second phase of the project that included 4,000 locations was managed at a summary level, instead of a detailed level (“We deployed to 85 locations last week.”)

The first phase of the project was delivered on-time and on-budget. The second phase was plagued with delays, was in a constant state of “catch-up” and was delivered well past a critical due date. I strongly believe that the lack of detailed management was one of the biggest factors leading to the problems in the second phase.

By accepting the fact that a retail technology project will not just be “Lather. Rinse. Repeat” you have already won half the battle. If you manage your project as a collection of small projects, one for each store, you are ahead of the game. Besides, you are going to have to do it anyway and don’t those meetings sound like fun? Questions or comments? You can E-mail Todd at [email protected].