P2P Special Focus - Q&A: Julienne Sugarek, CenterPoint Energy

Utility giant CenterPoint Energy has embarked on a radical transformation of its P2P function. The Buy Right, Pay Right project involves developing, implementing and deploying the procure-to-pay component of the business into a complete end-to-end function through the successful and ongoing integration of people. We spoke with project manager Julienne Sugarek about the programme, looking at obstacles, critical success factors and the important of being "oversight-heavy"...

SSON: Julienne, let’s start by taking a look at the Buy Right, Pay Right project you’ve been involved with. Can you give us a bit of background about the programme and your role within it?

Julienne Sugarek: We wanted to take a look at our procure-to-pay process, and based on that analysis we found some opportunities to make things more efficient, so we’ve gone on with full-blown reengineering. This basically arose from a grass-roots effort within our purchasing and accounts payable departments, as well as operations, where they wanted to see us move to a more efficient, more automated process, as well as a desire from the top to strengthen our internal controls. We also have a model of continuous improvement, and that’s another of the factors that led to this particular project. My role on the project is Project Manager.

SSON: You’ve described the project as intentionally "oversight-heavy". What do you mean by this and why was this approach taken?

JS: As customary with projects, we do have executive sponsors and a steering team. Our steering team does consist of representatives from our operations because we need to make sure they’re on board with the direction in which we’re moving. Because of that, we added an additional layer of oversight which we call the managing council. It’s a smaller group of directors in the areas which are most impacted: specifically purchasing, accounts payable, our project management office, and information technology. They wanted to be engaged in the day-to-day oversight of the project because they have a vision for the future, and they want to make sure that we stay true to that vision.

SSON: What were the tools you used in the programme and why were these selected?

JS: In the as-is analysis phase of the project we used process mapping and an Excel tool that allowed us to talk through each step in the procure-to-pay process by the type of purchase. These tools were selected because we needed to get a thorough understanding from both a step-by-step perspective, and the way that different folks completed each step in the process; for example, authorisation of a requisition is of course required, but how that authorisation is given – either via email, electronically, or with a manual signature – can vary, and in some case all of the above can apply. That Excel tool helped us facilitate the discussion and highlight the fragmentation that exists, and allowed us to go and create those process maps. For the creation of a future process, we worked with a consulting firm to create process flows based on best practices, and we also created accompanying stage tables to describe what’s happening in each box on the flow process. We took that into meetings with our design team to give them something to react to and build on as we created our future-state processes.

SSON: How far into the project are you now?

JS: We have completed the as-is analysis and designed our future-state processes, and we’re currently implementing process changes that have minimal visibility to our end-users, while the technology is being developed and while we execute our change-management plan.

SSON: What do you see as being the critical success factors for your project?

JS: There are really three things that I’d like to touch on here, and the first one of course is top-down buy-in and active support from leadership. Also, a universal understanding of what started this project, and the vision of where we’re headed in the future is critical. Another thing that I can’t underestimate the value of is active involvement from stakeholders.

SSON: What have been the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve encountered and how have you overcome them?

JS: Getting individuals to think globally about what’s in the best interests of the company overall can be a challenge, and we’ve dealt with it by looking outside the organisation for testaments to the model’s success. That could be via White Papers, videos, consultants – and internally we’ve devised estimates of what we could eventually save if we move to this model. It does become an enormous change-management effort; but these are ultimately businesspeople, and if we can show them what we’re doing adds value, then they get on board. Another aspect is technology. People want to see it and try it before they buy into it. We’ve dealt with that through demos and presentations with screenshots of the technology, and by showcasing elements as they’re developed by our IT team.

SSON: And finally Julienne, is there anything which, with the benefit of hindsight, you’d do differently if you could do it all again?

JS: Sure. We could have done a better job from the outset of communicating the drivers for the project during the early stages. That is very critical to establishing stakeholder expectation, because depending on what you’re trying to fix the solution looks very different. If you want the process to move faster, the solution will be very different from a project initiated to solidify internal controls. A more realistic scenario is probably some combination of the two, and you have to work with sponsors to determine what the balance is between those two, and set the expectations accordingly. Aligned expectations set at the outset really set the stage for making sure your project is viewed as a success.