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The oldest continuously operating tobacco company in the United States partnered with TEKsystems to radically overhaul internal systems and its approach to applications development.
Headquartered in North Carolina and founded in 1760, the client has been in business for more than 250 years and is the third-largest manufacturer of tobacco products in the United States. TEKsystems has provided application development services for this client since 2006.
Like almost any industry providing consumable products in the U.S., the tobacco industry is heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA protects and promotes public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety, tobacco products, cosmetics and drugs and has strict policies regarding the handling of all aspects of a product recall.
Aside from the obvious brand implications, recalls represent an enormous potential cost to an organization. Philip Morris USA, Inc., for example, was forced to announce a voluntary recall in 1995 of over 30 cigarette product lines because the company detected a harmful chemical in the cigarette filters. Philip Morris voluntarily recalled approximately 8 billion cigarettes, at an estimated cost of $100 million. Only a fraction of these cigarettes actually contained the chemical that caused the recall – but since Philip Morris could not definitely state which products had reached stores, they chose to recall all products involved.
The total cost of a recall can be mitigated significantly if companies can leverage insight into their production, packaging and storage systems. By pinpointing the specific products actually requiring a recall, organizations can minimize the collateral damage to the other products that pass the FDA’s requirements.
All commercial enterprises must find a balance between respecting their company’s traditions and adapting to changes in their markets through innovation. For companies with a rich history like our client, this balance can prove a significant challenge. The client’s existing legacy system did not provide the level of granular insight a successful navigation of an FDA or voluntary product recall would require. A more sophisticated packaging management system would allow for greater accountability and traceability and also represented an opportunity to change several fundamental aspects of how the client does business.
The new packaging system needed to provide enhanced traceability of the cigarettes at the case level and not just the pallet level. TEKsystems proposed building the system under an agile approach, allowing the client to incrementally build in new functions as the stakeholders defined further requirements. The application fulfilled the functionality requirements and possessed the same screens as the legacy system, but the TEKsystems team also added new functionality for traceability and control within the supply chain process to allow for adaptability to changes in FDA regulations or other market shifts. TEKsystems was awarded the project based on the strength of our past performance with the client, our expertise in agile development and two prior successful outcome-based projects: the conversion of an eMbedded Visual Basic [eVB] legacy application to .NET and an integration project connecting Web services to its ERP systems and migrating from a Simatic IT server to SAP MII.
The client traditionally utilized a waterfall, or sequential and linear, approach to software design and revamping the packaging systems. Under this model, each phase must be completed before the next phase can begin–and changes in the process can often result in having to start over entirely. As an alternative, TEKsystems proposed the adoption of an agile methodology. Agile approaches work in timed cycles known as sprints, and project priorities are re-evaluated and adjusted as required at the end of each cycle. The agile method also requires a high level of communication, collaboration and continual feedback.
The project was delivered in 30 weeks and was broken down into three main phases:
The client leveraged TEKsystems’ expertise with agile development to learn its nuances and adopt aspects of the agile approach to its own processes. TEKnique™, TEKsystems’ proprietary agile methodology, represents the refinement and evolution of agile practices based on our experience across 150+ application development projects over the last five years.
To kick off the engagement, key TEKsystems resources, including the project manager, quality assurance lead, software architect, business analyst and development lead, spent two weeks on site with the client to capture the project priorities and develop an execution plan for the engagement. The team then returned to TEKsystems’ Montreal Innovation Centre, based in Quebec, to complete the initial project stage.
TEKsystems and the client held daily meetings to evaluate project progress, issues and open items. Sprints ran in two-week cycles. Prior to each cycle, both sides of the team collaborated to finalize the work effort required to meet deliverables to be completed by the end of the sprint. The client then had up to five business days after each sprint delivery to review and approve the intermediate deliverables.
Once development was complete, TEKsystems returned on-site to support the acceptance testing phase at the completion of the project. Finally, our team spent the go-live weekend on site and was able to quickly address several supported minor adjustments that needed to be made in accordance with the run-time environment.
Transparency and Quicker ROI: The sprint structure gave the client unencumbered and regular views into the development process and enabled them to request changes and see results in cycle-times that would have been impossible under waterfall development principles. It also allowed for much quicker development cycles, ultimately decreasing the total cost of change.
Flexibility: Given the uncertainty around external factors such as anticipated FDA regulatory changes and internal issues like changing business requirements, the client needed an application with built-in flexibility to accommodate future changes.
Part of TEKsystems’ post-engagement due diligence involves asking clients what they learned from the project and would share with other organizations facing similar challenges. Several clear themes emerged:
Client Partnership: Agile development is heavily reliant on open, frequent communication. TEKsystems and the client had a strong working relationship in place before this project, which fostered a collaborative approach to meeting the client’s high expectations. TEKsystems had a clear understanding of the client’s culture and approach, enabling us to quickly onboard and train new team members.
Customer Focus: TEKsystems worked closely with the client’s project leader, who served as TEKsystems’ project sponsor and designated point of contact. The project leader assisted TEKsystems in resolving issues, answering questions and moving the project forward.
Responsiveness:TEKsystems incorporated the client’s feedback quickly throughout all stages of the project. We hosted bi-weekly demonstrations of the system and often implemented the client suggestions during the demo sessions. The client valued the iterative process we used to solicit feedback and the speed of our turnaround times.