Making The Virtual World Visible: Using SimuReal To Make A New IT System Work

Introduction – new IT systems rely on people

In 2009 I ran a series of large group events at a manufacturing organization. The organization was about to introduce a new Enterprise Resource Planning IT system and needed to help everyone become aware of the changes in behavior needed to get the best of the new system, particularly the need to enter very accurate data. The investment in this new IT was symbolic of a wider shift in the culture of the organization.


SimuReal: Making the obvious obvious

One of the events we ran was a simulation of both the ‘real’ movements of goods through the manufacturing process, and the ‘virtual record’ of these movements. Each part of the process: goods inwards, production, sales, pick, customer service, pack, assembly, planning and the client, had a stand in a large circle. Each stand was the equivalent of a computer terminal. They also had the kit needed to run the simulation: cardboard boxes, labels, and a few specific bits of product. We also had some people in another room who were the central processing unit (CPU): they were wholly dependent in their decision making and planning on the data that came to them on cards about what was going on. In other words they couldn’t see what was physically happening. In this way we assembled all the disparate parts of the production process, normally spread out over a 42 acre site, in one, very long, room. Now they were in a much better position to see the normally hidden patterns of interdependence.


Introducing human nature

We ran three rounds to simulate a three month time period. Each round focused on effecting the delivery of an order from its receipt to the dispatch of the goods. However, between each round we introduced a ‘glitch’, some departure from procedure that would happen for the best possible reason. For example:

    We arranged for someone to ‘borrow’ some product from a location to solve the problem of an urgent order that was being fast-tracked.

    We arranged for someone to ‘solve’ the problem of a lack of the exact specified product to fulfil an order by using some other product that could act as a substitute.

These glitches and others were agreed by the planning team to be exactly the sort of immediate, local, pragmatic problem-solving activity that resulted in stock changes not being properly entered on the virtual system. If this sounds complicated, it was. One thing the planning team learnt in devising this event was how complex the links and problems were within the existing system of production. Our ‘model’ of the process for the exercise was highly simplified.


Result: I want my money back!

The exercise was a great success. Over the course of the three rounds the gap between the reality and the record grew as ‘small’ discrepancies led to further errors. By the end we had a CPU issuing production orders that production couldn’t meet because the product was either not where the CPU was insistent it was; or, if it was there, the quantity was insufficient. We had people improvising like mad to try to make up orders, and we had a customer threatening to take their business elsewhere as they got part or late deliveries. By the end of the third round very small errors in the computer information was about to result in the loss of an account worth £500,000 p.a.



The event was highly illuminating. Those present were able to really see and experience how ad hoc decisions that made good sense in their local context were highly damaging in the context of the whole. They could see how their small problem-solving decisions, if left unrecorded or un-communicated, could escalate further downstream into huge problems and frustrations. They could see how if they didn’t tell the computer exactly what they were doing, it would start to tell them to do things they couldn’t do. They saw the connection between tiny daily decision-making in their areas and £500,000 worth of business. In other words they gained a much deeper understanding of the systemic nature of the production system and its relationship to the virtual world of the computer system. Their mental model of the world changed significantly. At a deep and profound level they understood the importance of ensuring that the computer system had accurate data, and of informing other parts of the production process about what was happening in their section that could have impact elsewhere. In terms of creating learning, heightening awareness, and inspiring changed behavior, it was a brilliant success. However the proof of the pudding would be in the eating when the new system came in.


What happened next - understanding really matters

Various things happened after this that meant I didn’t have any contact with the site for the next year. When I returned to the site on other business I bumped into one of the event planning team members, who is now on the trouble-shooting team for the new system. The new IT system is now in. Other changes have taken place on the site, including the merger of some workers from another site.  He mentioned in passing that 80% of his time is spent sorting out problems with the workers who have come across from the other site, who only make up 20% of the total production team. I asked what these errors were about, had they had less training for example? He thought it was about attitude. Workers from the other site just weren’t as engaged and willing to try to sort things out. They weren’t as forgiving of the teething issues. They weren’t as willing to work with the problems to ensure the data entered was accurate; they were more willing to blame the IT system. It would seem that the collective experience of discovering the interdependencies of the virtual and real system created a culture of shared awareness, engagement and ownership amongst the group we worked with that is delivering dividends now. By working together in a way that mimicked the way they would need to work together to successfully embed the new system, the exercise helped them create a positive experience of how things could be: creating a more positive workplace for themselves.



More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.


Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with Engagement and how we use SimuReal.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715