Earlier this year, French hurdler Wilhem Belocian became the poster child for heartbreak when his false start in an early Olympic heat resulted in immediate disqualification. In the process, he joined the ranks of famous medalists like Usain Bolt and Christine Ohuruogu, both of whom lost their shots at being 2011 world champions for the same reason.
Anyone who's ever worked on a 3PL start-up should be able to relate, because whether it involves establishing a contract warehouse in a new location, switching from one provider to another, or outsourcing some element of logistics for the very first time, it's hugely important to get off to a good start. And without the right approach, even world-class competitors can occasionally miss the mark.
That's why a formal project management approach to 3PL implementations is so important—and why using some of the best practices like the following could prove to be especially beneficial.
1. Bring Your A-Team to the Kick-Off Meeting
It's easy to view a project kick-off meeting—which is a standard part of almost any major 3PL implementation—as a prelude to the real work that will take place further down the line.
However, it has the potential to be far more significant than that, because it's usually when you and a new 3PL will work on a detailed business requirements document. And without the right mix of personnel present, some important project details could inadvertently get overlooked or misinterpreted.
Treat this meeting like the red-letter event it is by bringing a complete, cross-functional team of your best and brightest people along. It will go a long way toward putting everyone on the same page right out of the gate so that you can avoid delays, additional costs and other quality issues further down the line.
2. Set a Realistic Timeline
When it comes to establishing a timeline, bear in mind that the 3PL's implementation team is usually just as interested in making things happen in a timely fashion as you are. As a result, it's neither necessary nor productive to "motivate" them to go faster by insisting on an overly ambitious pace or aggressive go-live date.
Like it or not, there are some elements of a start-up or transition (like ensuring that all construction is completed safely) that simply can't be rushed—and many others that really shouldn't be if your company wants things done well.
Plus there are some steps—most notably getting the contract signed, developing EDI, and doing training and testing—that almost always take longer than companies anticipate, often by as much as 25%.
Be fair, realistic and thorough while helping your 3PL put together the project schedule, especially if you know that similar projects for your company have experienced unanticipated delays in the past. Ultimately it will help things run more smoothly and efficiently for all involved.
3. Expect to Provide Some In-House Project Management
Just as the famous buck stopped at Harry S. Truman, the most successful 3PL implementations usually hinge on the skills of an experienced project manager who is adept at everything from assembling and leading a team to using formal planning and reporting methodologies.
Although the 3PL will probably supply this manager, don't assume that your company can't—or shouldn't—add something to this equation. In other words, it's often a good idea to appoint an in-house project manager, too, because there will be many occasions when the 3PL project manager will need not just a primary point of contact but a highly qualified counterpart within your organization to run things through the proper channels or escalate responses when questions and issues arise.
While your in-house project manager won't necessarily need to focus as intensely on the project as the 3PL's project manager, he or she should be prepared to spend a considerable amount of his or her time on this endeavor until it goes live—perhaps as much as 50%. It's an investment, to be sure. But it's one your company won't regret.
4. Don't Confuse a Go-Live with a Grand Opening
Premieres or opening days tend to attract a crowd—even if the premiere in question is a new 3PL project rather than a baseball game or Broadway production.
As a result, be prepared for the possibility that your company's highest-ranking executives will probably want to be present on your project's go-live date. More important, be prepared to head them off at the pass, because your start-up team members' bandwidth will be especially limited that day, and the last thing they need is another "to do" like entertaining or accommodating multiple VIPs.
The presence of so many dignitaries can also add an element of stress for the new project's employees, many of whom are probably going to be nervous enough during their initial days of work.
Plus it's important to note that even the most seamless of start-ups usually experience minor but temporary glitches immediately after the switch is flipped—and it can take some time to get those kinks resolved. Thus any observers that are present that day won't get the chance to view the operation in its normal state.
For best results, give your start-up team and operation the opportunity to go live quietly, much like the "soft opening" that restaurants, hotels and other establishments have. Then hold an official grand opening or launch celebration that your VIPs can attend at a later date.
5. Expect and Support a Smooth Hand-Off
By the time your 3PL project goes live, you will probably have established a very close and productive working relationship with your 3PL's project manager and start-up team—and understandably so. But there's a reason why the terms "go-live" and "goodbye" aren't located very far apart in the dictionary.
Expect these professionals to work closely with your company for as long as it takes to get your new endeavor not just started but running like clockwork. But don't be surprised or distressed to see them moving on soon thereafter.
This is not only a standard way of executing a project-managed approach to a start-up, it's usually the best way for all involved, because start-up professionals are essentially sprinters, not marathoners. As a result the very qualities that make them ideally suited to get your operation off the ground wouldn't necessarily make them a good fit to keep it running smoothly in the long run.
Trust your start-up team to choose and train a permanent operations team that you'll ultimately feel just as comfortable with—if not more so. Then trust that permanent team to help you execute the next leg of the race with the same level of dedication and skill.
Gerry Jeffs is senior director of project management with APL Logistics, which designs and operates smart globally integrated supply chains.