Helping small jewelry companies to automate their manual processes
Smaller jewelry businesses usually use different manual tools for tracking their processes: excel sheets, Google sheets, various documents, sometimes even pen and paper. As long as there is not a large amount of data that needs to be copied across these sheets and kept updated, this is fine and is (for the most part) convenient and cost-effective.
The problem arises when there are many people involved in the process or the complexity of the process increases.
For example: if there are only two people involved (let’s say you and your customer) then the communication and documentation is simple - it’s one-to-one; however if you add one more person (let’s say your accountant who has to get the order from you and send the invoice to your customer), then the communication will most likely double; and if you add another person (let’s say a designer) in the mix, you will have 4 times the communication.
This complexity multiplies with every new person added. Now, the same works for the need of documentation also – the more steps there are in your processes, the more complex documentation you need to generate, and every level of complexity will also increase the possibility of errors.
Vlog - part 1
At a certain point (this can happen as soon as you have more than 4 people involved in your business) it becomes obvious that growth cannot be realized with manual tracking – it is just too time consuming. Also, it’s usually a good sign for the need of implementing a management system is when you see that managing a piece of jewelry needs more time than actually making it – or if you have a lot of human errors that could have been easily avoided with the right communication, or documentation, or system. So in any case, at some point, you will need a system that integrates your communication and can automatically keep all documents (which essentially is information) up to date and in sync.
Since communication is the flow of information, and documentation is the storage of information, you need an information system. In business terms, such an information system is called an Enterprise Resource Planning system or ERP. Now, while the name may not be self-explanatory, it basically means that it’s a system that helps you plan (and by extension, manage and control) your resources, like people, inventory, time, and so on, on the enterprise or business level – so not just in your own head. This system can be as simple as just tracking the whereabouts of your orders, or very complex, dealing with every aspect of your business, from order management to accounting and customer service.
We have worked with many companies that needed to take the leap from the manual, unorganized existence to an information-driven, automated ERP system, so we have seen most of the issues and challenges small jewelry businesses face in their day-to-day operation. To date we have worked with well over 200 jewelry companies, helping them streamline their processes, and our team at PIRO helped more than 80 companies switch from manual tracking to a centralized management system. With all that experience behind us, we can attest that while this conversion can be very challenging, if properly executed it can be the difference between subsistence and continuous growth and profitability.
Ideally, every company goes through this conversion only once – just like a person goes through adolescence only once – and if properly managed end executed, the result is a healthy, growing, and well-organized company.
So let’s say you know that your manual processes are not sufficient; what now?
Questions & Challenges
1. What software should I choose?
As with everything, you should start out with what you know: take a look at your process and write down every step that is not generating value for your customer. Make a list, maybe create a flowchart of your operation (you can use tools like Visio or Draw.io) – this will help you to have a full picture.
Then check which steps you could eliminate – chances are you can take out a few and your process will still be intact.
Then, as the next step, see which steps are essentially repeating the work done in previous steps: if you have to retype the information of an order that you already wrote down just to be able to create an invoice, then that step should be eliminated. So look for repeated work steps – these are your first candidates.
After you have done this, look for steps that could be automated: so for example, are you sending confirmation emails to your customers whenever there is a change in their order? Things like this can be automated – these days, almost anything that humans do in an office setting has a technological equivalent, so the goal is to find those activities that can be done by computers so you can free up time for things that can only be done by humans, such as creativity and interaction with your customers.
One thing to keep in mind though: while you do this, try to keep your overall business process intact: you don’t want to reinvent the business, only improve it – you don’t want to replace the gears, only oil them and make them turn smoother and quieter.
So, once you have identified what you can possibly automate, you can start looking for a system that does this. This can usually be a challenge as this can take up a lot of time. Basically, there are two distinct ERP flavors: generic and industry-specific – I will get into more details about these in one of my future articles and videos. There are several jewelry-specific software solutions on the market and comparing them can be a difficult task as while on the surface they may be all looking similar when you start to dig into details you realize that they are completely different and work differently.
As an advice, I can tell you this: Don’t try to find the perfect software because it doesn’t exist.
There is no system that does things exactly the way you do it, down to the last report and calculation. This is one of the mistakes that business owners and leaders make – they keep looking for a solution that checks all the checkboxes; and when they can’t find one they give up and go back to the manual processes, thinking that if there is no perfect solution, then there is no solution. This is a big mistake: what they should be looking for is something that comes as close as possible to what is needed, not the perfect solution.
For example, Yahoo mail is an OK email platform. It is not great and is missing a lot of great things that you may find in other email programs, but overall it does the job.
So the mindset, when looking for software solutions should be: let’s find the closest possible solution what we need AND leverage THAT as much as possible to make life easier. That should be the mantra here.
What we can suggest is that the software you chose should be:
1.1. Jewelry-specific software
Jewelry-specific so that it can work with jewelry and help automate steps related to jewelry manufacturing. And no, Google sheets are not jewelry specific. Neither is QuickBooks.
Whichever you opt for, it should be able to do 80% of the things you do with jewelry: build custom jewelry, account for diamonds by weight and pieces, track different metals, and so on. The other 20% you may not need it or you can keep as a manual workflow step; the idea here is that 80 % should include those processes that you are clearly wasting time with and are not adding any value, such as tracking orders, timekeeping, creating invoices, and so on.
1.2. Flexible and customizable
What do I mean by flexibility? It is essentially the ability of the software to be changed, to be molded so that it behaves differently under different scenarios.
If you can take a software system and build a custom ring out of stainless steel and wood, then take the same software, and create 100 wedding bands, each with a separate inscription and different pricing without doing any programming: that’s flexibility. Or if you can use the exact same software for making sheet metal or for managing 3D printing: that is flexibility.
So flexibility is very important because with a flexible system you can mold the software to get as close as possible to your needs, without having to do expensive custom development, which is something most commercial software vendors don’t even do – they just don’t want to touch their existing system, or they are just focused on selling it as it is.
On the other hand, you may need some customization to really get what you need, and whatever platform you select should allow customization and custom programming.
As an example, according to a study conducted by Panorama Consulting a 10-20% customization is completely normal during the implementation of an ERP software so keep in mind that if a software is not flexible and the vendor is not even willing to customize it then you should cross it out from your list on the spot.
1.3. Functionality and possibility to grow
Your ERP system should have the functionality you need and have a strong possibility for growth - these aspects should be considered before price. In other words, your losses could be bigger in the long run with a software that is cheaper but has limited functionalities, compared to a software that costs more but has more useful functionalities. This is a very common mistake as well – in terms of software, it is better to go bigger and get more than what you need and slowly build it out as your business grows than to start smaller and be unable to grow because of limitations of your selected platform.
Again, flexibility is the key here – the software should be able to be easily changed. This will allow you to even test out business scenarios and workflows before actually implementing them, sort of in a “sandbox” way – you test something in the sandbox, and then implement it only if it passes the tests and you like the results.
1.4. Support system
Any software running your entire business should be well supported: one thing that is hard to grasp for most jewelers is the need for ongoing support. This is understandable – with jewelry you only build it once, there is no need to service it afterward unless it breaks. Also, most hardware used by jewelers doesn’t need much support, only fixing once in a while.
With software, however, you have many moving parts: you have the server, the network, the operating systems on the computers, the different printers and hardware that the computers communicate with, and also you have users who need to be trained and re-trained and who can make mistakes that may require a system expert to correct. So in order for you to make the best use of your software platform, it is best to ensure that the software has long-term support and that there is a sufficiently large team behind it so that if you need help they are available.
Support plans can be costly but they help you run everything smoothly – the last thing you want is for your business to grind to a halt because your ERP software does not start and there is no one to call to get it rebooted.
OK, so now that you know what to look for and what to watch for overall (and we’ll get into more details in some future videos and blog post on each of these topics), let’s say you go ahead and find your perfect software and subscribe for it or buy it. So what’s next?
Vlog - part 2
2. Understanding your own processes
As the very first thing, you need to really understand your processes. This is another important question: while you may understand your overall process, the devil is in the details and achieving automation is impossible without having your processes documented precisely. In fact, many company leaders are surprised when they face the fact that what they consider simple, day-to-day tasks are, in reality, much more difficult to really understand and put on a flowchart.
However, it can be very useful to complete this time-consuming task (even by involving a consultancy firm) because doing this can shed light on why some of the processes aren’t effective enough – you may also realize that there are some processes and steps that are repeated within different departments, with no added benefit. Ideally, you would want to assign someone with IT project management experience and a deep understanding of your business to help you with this.
However, most small businesses don’t have such a person on their team, so you may consider hiring a consultant. While this can be helpful, having an external consultant involved is a double-edged sword – someone with experience in mapping out business processes can help quickly documenting and understanding the processes themselves. However, if that person is not experienced in the jewelry industry, they will most likely make mistakes when it comes to process optimization – making jewelry can be very complex and every company has their own best practices, based on the type of jewelry made and artisanship employed.
3. Optimize old processes or create new ones?
The second step of implementation is getting your processes in order. Should you keep old processes and optimize them, or create new ones? It is worth considering whether you should stick to all existing processes or try to exploit the new possibilities that the software provides. Changing processes usually meet some resistance because company staff tends to be against changing existing processes since these have already became a part of organizational culture and there is a routine to them. At the same time, sometimes it is a good idea to get rid of unproductive routines – as long as they have been correctly identified – as this is part of growth and development.
My recommendation is that you always walk the path of least resistance and implement your ERP software as to match your existing processes with the least amount of changes. This will allow your staff to keep doing things the way they used to, so no major interruption is introduced to the business; also if there are any critical issues with the newly implemented system, they can be worked out while people „fall back” on their experience and on their usual manual processes.
After all, the key is to keep the business going. Then, once everything works with the new system and your employees are used to the new ways of entering data and using the new tools, you can start optimizing processes by introducing new workflows, testing them, measuring them and then controlling their implementation. At that point, your new ERP system will become a tool to optimize and grow your business and will start exponentially generating real value.
4. What are the main processes the automation of which we should focus on in the first round?
The third step is the actual implementation. As I have mentioned before, there is no software that has everything you need, therefore you will need to choose those main functionalities that you wish to focus on and want to implement in the shortest time. The main objective should be to go live with the new system as soon as possible, with minimal interruption to your business. This is usually followed by the period of fine-tuning; and when the system is ready to be used for actual work, then you can work on the automation of those processes that are less important.
5. How long does the implementation take?
One of the usual questions is: how long will the actual implementation take? Because most company owners have never been through this process at their current company, it is very hard for them to estimate the time needed to implement an automated management system.
There are many questions that need to be answered, like:
- Who will manage the project?
- Is it necessary to customize, at least in the first round of the project?
- Is your data ready for import into the new system or does it need mapping?
- How much data do you wish to import and how far back?
- How clean and structured is your current database?
- How many databases have you been using and what format have you been using to store data? These will need to be merged eventually so it is good to know how to parse the data!
- How complex are your jewelry styles?
These are only a few of the many important questions that you need to ask before implementation. Configuring jewelry styles, workflows, importing data, connecting systems come with many challenges.
Those less experienced in the field usually ask: "How long do we need for implementation? 4 weeks? 2 months?" This is not optimism but the lack of necessary experience.
I think that the minimum time needed for implementation is 3 months, but the more complex projects can take as much as 2 years to fully implement.
This is a pretty standard time for implementation in the field, for any ERP-type business management software, for small or large businesses – while there are things that every company needs, the level of complexity and the needs will determine the actual length of the implementation, and it’s hard to have an estimation until you have the boots on the ground and start walking in them.
Related article: How to avoid a jewelry software implementation failure?
6. How should I prepare my staff?
An important consideration that you need to keep in mind throughout the entire implementation: How should you prepare your staff for the switch? If tracking the processes was entirely paper-based, then automation is going to be a huge step in a company’s life. This is why it isn’t enough if only management commits to the project.
It is important that this step is appropriately communicated to the staff, otherwise, you may be facing strong opposition and even revolt. Everyone needs to understand the importance of this step and the benefits it will bring to the company. I strongly suggest that you talk to the staff and listen to them – listen to the concerns especially; while there will be positive feedback, there will be plenty concerns and you need to address all of those during the software evaluation and implementation phases.
The commitment and resolve of the management will influence the staff as it always does – in both good and bad ways. If your commitment to the new software or solution is tepid, don’t expect your people to be overly enthusiastic about it either.
The same goes the other way too – if they see that this is something you want to do and are enthusiastic about, they will follow your lead. Now, after the implementation, the day-to-day routine of staff will somewhat change but they shouldn’t feel that unnecessary steps have been introduced to their way of working.
For example: let’s say that when they finish a job, they need to scan an envelope which registers the movement of the envelope in the system. This is a huge help for the company because the job can now be tracked automatically - however, now this is an extra step for someone because this wasn’t part of her work while the tracking process was done manually. However they should know that overall, the extra step that they are doing is, in fact, improving the process as a whole as now no one has to spend time and find lost envelopes - they are all accounted for in the system.
Don’t forget to prepare your personnel appropriately, as the success of the project will depend on this.
7. When will I see the result of the transition?
And finally, once the implementation is completed and your staff is using the new system, when exactly will you start seeing the result of the transition? The difference can be felt in a relatively short time, but at least 1 or 2 months are needed after going live for the staff to create a new routine and get used to the new screens and new data to be entered. Once the first round of questions and issues are worked out, the automation starts working fluently.
The main pointers of the result are:
- if work is more effective, there is less paperwork and less data to be entered
- there are less errors and less complaints from your customer service department and customers
- you are able to process more orders at the same time – the throughput of the entire operation is improved
- customer service improves and there are less calls and questions; your customer service will start fielding less complaints
- processes can be monitored in real-time so you start knowing things that you did not know before (like getting alerts for issues before they become problems)
- the possibility to generate the right reports which help to make better and quicker decisions such as what to buy and when, or if you should work overtime or add more staff
All in all, automation will result in a more cost-effective operation and also increase your sales as your customers get better and faster service and word starts to get around about that. These results will be proof that the company is on the path of growth – and this growth will be substantial compared to the paper-based administration.
As a conclusion, the transition from paper-based management to automated management software is a time-consuming and complex process. Choosing the right jewelry management software is merely a small slice of this process and the success of implementation depends on many other factors.
I always suggest that you find the time to prepare your staff for the transition and if necessary, take the time to review the existing processes – but at the same time, always look to implement an enterprise resource planning (or ERP) software system that you can start with easily, that is flexible, adaptable and customizable, so that you can build on it for years to come.
“Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency” – Bill Gates
Thank you for reading this article or watching Next Level Jewelry. I hope this was informative, so please subscribe to my channel and come back to see more videos about how to make your jewelry business better!