ArticleFebruary 24, 2021 · 5 min read time
I was recently involved in an analytics project that is best remembered from the flow of working and achieving results together. I have been in great customer projects before, but with this one, I felt many things fell into place in a whole new way. In this blog, I analyze the elements of this successful project in order to foster them also in my future work.
Support from data
The project's goal was to make visible the data flows and key figures related to the supply chain in a company manufacturing consumer products. Material sourcing, production, inventory management, logistics, sales, and maintenance are the same continuum in which changes in one function – for the better or worse – directly affect other links in the supply chain.
Therefore, reliable data, and harmonised indicators and forecasts refined from it, are prerequisites for data-driven decision-making in daily operational work. In this way, up-to-date data-based information is equally visible to all, and we can avoid situations where data creates divergent truths at different stages of the supply chain.
From user stories to goals
Before my part in the project began, the team had already made careful preparations. A group of experts in production, sales, maintenance, and sourcing had described their routine work as user stories and their hopes of what kind of information and key figures would bring relief to it. Instead of manually prepared Excels on shared network directories, the hopes were to update reporting views automatically.
During these preparations, business experts and end-users themselves had been able to paint a better future, and the seed for how to put their working hours to better use had been sown. Thanks to this, end-users were committed to the project because the goals were their own.
The project team had both technical and business expertise. My role was to act as a developer who implements the data reading from different sources, looks at the quality and suitability of data, codes, aggregates, and visualizes it from different angles with various filters. In order to get results out quickly and accumulate development expertise internally, two of the customer's own developers were also involved in the implementation with me.
A product owner acted as an interpreter for how the process works in practice at different stages of the supply chain and how this was reflected in the source data. Because a developer is not an operational business expert, understanding the connection between source data and business was crucial.
A scrum master took care of everyday running matters: access rights, organizing sprints, dailies, and expert meetings. An analyst mapped and studied the quality of different data sources, and an IT team provided views to the data. In addition, the end-users tested and commented on the reports from the beginning and gave immediate feedback on the solutions developed.
Every day started with a 15-minute (remote) daily, where we quickly recapped what we had achieved and what is on the table today. Not only we immediately spotted possible problems, but during the Covid epidemic, this was also an excellent opportunity to sense daily moods and encourage colleagues.
We organized the work into two-week sprints and broke down our goals from user stories into actionable tasks. These were further prioritised to backlog items together with the end-users. At the end of each sprint, we reviewed our achievements. These sessions always had a good participation rate, and people conducted lively discussions after the demos. At this point, we also compared progress with the budget and outlined how to use the remaining amount best.
There were plenty of problems to solve, and things didn't always go as we hoped. Instead of explaining the delays for the best and sticking bullishly to the plan, we immediately solved any upcoming issues together as a team. If a problem appeared to be unsolvable within the limits of the budget or the schedule, we reviewed the backlog and continued on another front to make progress.
As soon as we had completed the new reporting views and validated their information, we transferred them to the production environment. We also organized end-user trainings to cover the functionalities and the information included in the reports: how the metrics were constructed, where the data came from, how often the reports were updated, and what phase of the supply chain they portrayed.
This way, the reports were made available to all users simultaneously, and confidence in the new reporting views began to grow. With all this, a broader and more coherent picture of the entire supply chain opened up as data from different stages became visible throughout the chain. It became easier to understand the supply chain as a whole.
As the project was closely linked to operational business, it also revealed possible differences in operating practices. For example, different data entry practices could distort the data, and as a result, the developed metrics showed anomalies. Also, further needs related to data quality, gathering, and maintenance needs became visible when the reported numbers were validated. This is how the analytics project also added value by improving operational practices.
With this project, I would crystallise the cornerstones of a successful analytics project as follows:
Building a clear goal is based on concretely describing the need for a change, which crystallises it for both the development team and end-users. The trick of concrete user stories is that they make the bottlenecks in everyday operational work understandable to the development team and motivate them to seek solutions. This way, the business is also engaged in the project from the very beginning. Support and immediate end-user feedback are essential for fast progress. They are also fuel for the team, which creates a flow of working together.
Agile working methods (scrum) keeps the project work on track when the routines are clearly framed. You don't have to waste your capacity on agreeing on extra things when you have a knowledgeable scrum master and a clear methodology to follow.
A capable team includes technical and business expertise, and the common goal is equally clear to everyone. The team is forward-focused and doesn’t seek causes for any issues by looking at the rear-view mirror. In addition, good mood and enthusiasm catches on: the first one who has the skills and is available does the job.
Training ensures the results are taken into use widely across the organisation, and creates confidence in them. This way, we can gradually get rid of scattered reporting practices and competing truths.
Business harmonisation can be a valuable by-product of an analytics exercise if data validation and built metrics also reveal potential process deviations and differing practices across the organization.
I believe these tips pave the path for a good analytics project, and success will follow when you prepare for it!