Today I would like to talk a little bit about things that are important to me: Long Term Continuity bundled with Honesty and Trust.
Software is never perfect. Especially in the logistics area, processes are hard to standardize (except maybe the pure document flow when using the software as a type writer). For more than 15 years I worked on the SAP Transportation Management solution being responsible for the transportation network and the planning components, but our customers teach me new things almost every day: Inbound is not like outbound. Road transports are not like rail transports. Pallets are not like bulk. Almost no customer scenario is like the other. Transportation optimization needs to be balanced with warehouse efficiency while considering a high customer satisfaction.
Transportation planning and optimization is about fighting for the last second, the last cubic meter, the last quantum of process efficiency. While I do not doubt the importance of the underlying document flow, I think this is why companies invest into a Supply Chain Execution platform. When customers manage to reach a good coverage of their scenarios, this has a huge impact. Just last month a customer reported back to us that using just the combined power of the Supply Chain Execution Package Builder and the Transportation Management Load Consolidation alone he saved many truck loads and millions of Euros and that the solution is live globally in different scenarios.
I also learned that small things matter a lot: Requirements that sound minor can have a huge negative effect in reality when not being covered. When detailed mixed package building can’t consider additional package materials below product layers, you simply can’t use the solution when your product set or customers require this. When products groupings or customer groupings are not considered correctly, the delivery efficiency goes down to a rate where you simply can’t manage the daily load. And that list goes on and on. For some of the limitations manual workaround exist. For some skilled partners can come up with a solution. And for some there is simply no way to make the process run without.
All of that being said: It is impossible to cover all of this complexity in a single release. So how to tackle this? From my experience having collaborated with many customers and partners directly, the only way is to stay honest and give them trust in the road map. And I almost never met anybody not being responsive to that approach. Be true about the capabilities of the standard, tell what is on the road map (and what is not). And finally delivery on this road map. As an addition to that – keep the solution from an architecture perspective as flexible and as enhance able as possible.
I would like to give 2 examples of long term continuity in my area.
End-to-End Load Planning
The following picture shows the current planning process in SAP Transportation Management. On the left it starts with building Freight Units, continues with manual or automated vehicle and scheduling to create a transportation plan, and finally executes consolidation package building and load planning. All of this can be done completely automated, or using the extremely powerful Transportation Cockpit. This includes map based planning, a Gantt chart, and a 3-D visualization of the load plan.
But it took a while to get there. In the first releases the load planning was purely capacity based.
With TM 9.1, the whole topic was kicked off driven by a new C++ optimizer being capable of creating a load plan. With the usage of SAP Visual Business, we managed with the first release to already provide a 3-D visualization.
The new feature was well received, but customer did let us know that the gap between product based orders and to be load planned main cargo items (some would call it handling units) is too wide. And so we started the journey of Package Building.
Having understood into which direction SAP TM was going, customers approached us to cover new processes. I guess this was the time when the external network understood that we were serious about this and gained the trust. The new topic of load consolidation provided an alternative to select the right resources for s set of given requirements.
But one essential step was missing: Knowing the competition a bit (and I typically really don’t almost never know as I am keen to design and solve problems with an open mind), the SAP Load Planning missed physicality when building packages. But it looked like we did build enough trust that a huge company wanted to go this way together with us as a frontrunner with many customers following. The TM 9.6 release saw the detailed mixed package building using the newly created package builder optimizer come to life.
With the latest S4 release we took on the integration challenge: Centralizing the packaging engines to enable customers using Packing Instructions, Packaging Specification, or the Package Builder consistently.
I skipped over the many, many small features along this way as I wanted to focus on the big chunks.
I am extremely proud of the teams involved in those developments.
Integration of Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
The integration of GIS from our perspective covers 4 topics:
- Geo Coding of addresses
- Distance and Duration determination
- Geo Route
- Geo-Map visualization
The first 2 functions are extremely crucial for transportation planning, while the last 2 bring visibility to the planner. And with this list I don’t even mention the huge innovation potential still unleashed.
All of this started with limited standard SAP Net Weaver functions.
Analyzing customer feedback, tickets and new requirements, it became clear that for the new Transportation Management solution enhancements would be required. So we invested into an open integration framework at least enabling the customer to get external quality data into the system. Also we took our first step together with SAP Visual Business for the Geo-Map integration. They were coming out of SAP research and we helped them to jump into the standard.
Having the pure visualization of master data and business documents on the Geo-Map covered, TM 9.0 brought the first real interaction capabilities – create and adjust master data, plan using drag and drop.
Speaking of continuity, we have a break here. But I guess when you check the load planning enhancements mentioned above, you get an idea how busy the team was during that time frame.
And I remember the TM internal feedback very well: A geo-map is nice as a display component, but never, never, never ever would anybody want to interactively plan using a map! Well, you should never, never, never ever say never -> the number of ‘real’ customers explaining us why this is valuable, how it should work and why we need it grew. And having a bit more room to breathe TM 9.4 brought full blown configurability and map based planning functions with it. Especially with the combination together with the Gantt Chart (by the way also designed and party developed by the very same team), the load plan visualization, and the mighty power of the Transportation Cockpit the planning reached a competitive state.
One major gap remained – TM did not bring a standard integration to any external GIS vendor by default. I always declined this as this is no core competency of TM and should be covered centrally. We fought for this for at least 10 years and finally with SAP Spatial Services on the SCP we reached this ultimate goal. I was also very happy to see that the first global contract available was provided by the partner that guided and supported us along this way. Considering all the transitions this partner went through it is amazing that still the same people counterpart us.
To underline the importance of this central function, we enabled country based GIS with S4 2020.
From my perspective this long-term thinking proved to be successful. No only did we bring the core planning piece of TM forward, but for SAP’s and our customers good we:
- Made SAP Visual Business as re-use component covering the Geo-Map integration
- Supported the evolvement of SAP Spatial Services as a cloud service
- Provide a future ready solution for the package building across SAP’s product portfolio
- Delivered a re-usable Gantt Chart
Even though almost all of my posts focus on my team’s topics (how could they not?), I always tried to incorporate what happens before and after the process I laid out above. But I learned over time that addressing what needs to be done in addition to make ends meet does not always lead to the required solution. You can only really affect what is in your hands. To give an example: Since the introduction of the Package Builder, the TM – EWM integration is not supported having the PB activated. Is this due to the pure existence of the Package Builder and the features it brings into the process? No, it is because the business documents can not handle updates coming from the warehouse. What they also can’t in case the package item hierarchy was created some other way.
Wrap-Up and Goodbye
If I did not lose you until here, you might have noticed the untypical length of today’s post. The reason for this is simple – the Monday Knowledge Snippet series is coming to an end as I will leave the SAP Transportation Management standard development.
It is my deep belief that complex requirements should be the hardest obstacle to overcome and not internal politics and personal agendas. The strive for the best solution should be based on arguments and not bias. Nobody owns the one truth and the only valid ‘Big Picture’. Roles should stick to their responsibilities and be held accountable for that.
It was a pleasure to take you along with me on this MKS journey. I hope you liked my style and I was able to provide some valuable insights.
I can still be reached using my LinkedIn account.