Best of breed, best of enterprise: Integrating CMMS and ERP

Implementing a "best of breed" solution that integrates a CMMS with enterprise resource planning (ERP) functions is a complex, multifaceted task.


Implementing a "best of breed" solution that integrates a CMMS with enterprise resource planning (ERP) functions is a complex, multifaceted task. It requires teamwork, careful evaluation, and consideration of a variety of risk factors, as I found out last year when I participated in a CMMS selection process.

The process was a team effort from the start. The client was looking for an enterprise-strength CMMS package to support operations at three plants. The company chartered a cross-functional team consisting of representatives from maintenance, purchasing, and information systems (IS).

The selection process was part of a company-wide effort to improve maintenance operations. Early in the endeavor, we determined that a CMMS package would play a critical role in this improvement program. Unfortunately, the client's current system couldn't meet the demands of the new improvement program. The client needed a more full-featured, enterprise-strength solution.

The evaluation process

The client was also in the process of implementing a new ERP system to support everything from financials to manufacturing. The IS infrastructure was based on an IBM AS/400. The ERP vendor offered a plant maintenance module, so naturally it had an inside track for making it into the first evaluation round.

The team did not start out with any preconceived notions. It executed its charter correctly by first developing functional requirements, then evaluating prequalified vendors against the requirements. From the start it was apparent that integration to the ERP was a significant factor.

Not surprisingly, the IS people were major proponents of integration. They were also predisposed to an AS/400 solution because this system was already the backbone of their shop. They expressed a strong desire to stay away from a CMMS that used an Oracle database server. Their expertise was in the native AS/400 database (DB/400) and they did not want to support another database package.

Although other IS issues were important, only integration was an absolute requirement. The integration issue soon evolved into discussions about the nature of the information flows between the CMMS and the ERP system. Both IS and maintenance management wanted a comprehensive, tightly coupled integration. The goal was to have a single entry point for all data, eliminating the need to key the same information into the two systems. Obvious information flows, such as purchasing, were examined. But the requirement of no duplicate entry was even extended to such unlikely candidates as human resource information and time and attendance data.

Integration was only part of the overall equation. The team was shooting for a "best of breed" solution. They wanted the best fit for their needs. Requirements were developed and published. Vendors were qualified. Finalists came in to make presentations. A top-tier CMMS vendor jumped to the top of the list, but the team continued to do its job, meticulously evaluating each vendor's product.

Making the decision

The process served to solidify the top-tier CMMS vendor's lead. However, some questions remained about the vendor's ability to integrate the product with the ERP system. Although the ERP package was not on the CMMS vendor's list of certified software partners, the vendor did supply references from customers who claimed to have interfaced successfully with the ERP package. However, the references gave mixed reviews of the vendor's integration performance in this environment.

As a result, the top-tier CMMS vendor dropped down in the running, and the team took a closer look at the ERP vendor's plant maintenance module. In this selection, the integration requirement was a given. The prospect of some potential problems in the integration arena with the CMMS gave the ERP vendor's plant maintenance module a momentary boost. But all the other factors kept the CMMS package at the top of the list. When the team made its final decision, the CMMS package was the unanimous choice.

As the team made its final selection, the ERP vendor made the client's management an offer they couldn't refuse -- a significant reduction in price. It would not be surprising to learn that the offer gave the client's IS people second thoughts. Responsibility for making the interface work fell partly on their shoulders. In addition, the prospect of implementing both an ERP and top-tier CMMS package was undoubtedly intimidating.

A directive came down from management to reconsider the choice and the team reversed its decision, selecting the ERP vendor's plant maintenance module over the top-tier CMMS package. The decision was not a consensus and some dissension arose. Charges were made that a "best of breed" solution was being sacrificed to IS expediency, cost factors, and a simplified enterprise system architecture.

Just what is "best of breed?"

The term "best of breed" is frequently used during software selection processes. Most people who use it would probably agree it means selecting the best software solution for a particular job. That job might be running a distribution center, administering employee benefit programs, or managing a maintenance department. We all want to select the solution that best fits our functional requirements.

In today's interrelated world, however, the equation always contains an enterprise component. The solution being sought is part of a bigger puzzle. It must fit with all other related pieces. Integration does play a role in determining "best of breed".

Maintenance, replacement, and operations (MRO) purchasing is my favorite example of the value of integration. Many organizations create and administer MRO purchase orders in their ERP systems, but they generate purchase requisitions and performing receipts in their CMMS. Without an interface that seamlessly moves information between the systems, the same data must be entered separately into each package: Purchase requisition data entered into the CMMS must be re-entered into the ERP; purchase order data created in the ERP must be keyed into the CMMS.

So many purchasing operations dedicate full-time employees to the process of entering redundant data, it is impossible not to appreciate the value of an integrated solution. But that is only part of the equation. The time and energy it takes for duplicate data entry can degrade overall service levels resulting in delays in getting parts, increased inventory levels, and hoarding shop stock. This example can be applied to a variety of information flows, including inventory master data, vendor master data, labor charges, material issues, employee information, project data, equipment status, and more.

Synchronization, accuracy, and efficiency are driving forces behind integrating maintenance systems into the enterprise. But "best of breed" provides another. We want each enterprise entity to use only the software tools that are best suited to their job functions. If the human resources department maintains employee certification data, maintenance still needs to view these data in their CMMS or plant maintenance module.

So, does "best of breed" mean using the best functional software packages and integrating them every possible way? Answering that question requires consideration of another factor -- cost. A "best of breed" solution is meaningless unless its cost can be justified. Functional features and integration capabilities produce tangible benefits, but they also incur acquisition, implementation, and administrative costs. According to my definition, the "best of breed" solution is the one that produces the best return.

Risk factor

One final factor to consider in the "best of breed" equation is risk. "Best of breed" can be terribly complex. Our business software has evolved from transaction processing and management reporting packages to execution systems that must be finely tuned to all aspects of an operation. The benefits of this approach are immense, but so are the complexities of the implementation process.

We only have to pick up a trade journal or talk to business acquaintances to hear ERP implementation horror stories. Many implementation projects go over budget, exceed schedules, and fall far short of original expectations. These failures can be attributed to a variety of reasons from poor management to software flaws.

Software implementations, like most other endeavors, have greater risk of problems the more complicated they get. We embrace the complexity because of the potential rewards. But we must factor risk into our plans. I appreciated the risk the company in my story faced in implementing and integrating ERP and CMMS packages. Both were complex systems with considerable desired information flows between them. Perhaps if the interface had been "certified" or more a standard product than a custom solution, the final decision may have been different.

No simple answers exist to determining "best of breed." What works for one company may not work for another. For every company using an SAP plant maintenance module, there are probably a dozen other SAP sites that use separate CMMS packages for mainten- ance. Which solution is "best of breed?" Perhaps both.

Plenty of ERP packages do not have plant maintenance modules. Does "best of breed" demand that companies using these packages interface all possible data flows between their ERP and CMMS systems? No, but it does require that companies evaluate the benefits, costs, and risks involved in these interfaces.

"Best of breed" means many things. It means getting the best solution for the situation. It means considering the overall needs of the enterprise, as well as the specific requirements of the maintenance department. It means getting the highest return for the money invested. It means living within your risk profile. Most of all, it means doing your homework.

Tom Singer is an information technology consultant who specializes in designing, developing, and implementing systems solutions that meet client operational needs. He has worked both as a developer and integrator of CMMS solutions. He is a project manager with Tompkins Associates, a total operations consulting firm headquartered in Raleigh, NC. He can be contacted by phone at 630-472-1524 or by e-mail:

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