It may feel as if there is no pressure — or will — to transform. But in my experience at Söhner Kunststofftechnik GmbH, a top supplier of reusable transport packaging headquartered in Germany, that inertia is mostly an illusion.

You don’t necessarily need an overarching strategy or roadmap. Digital transformation begins with solving one visible problem. Then another. And another. Before long, transformation is happening, and there is demand to create that overarching strategy.

My goal is to show what digital transformation can look like in the packaging world. I’ll illustrate this process through real examples. In doing so, I hope to draw out some insights and hard-learned lessons that can spur innovation and digitization throughout our industry.

The Starting Point

When I joined Söhner in August 2018, I landed in a culture that was self-reflective and open to improvement. The IT department was as good as our technologies and processes permitted us to be.

For instance, we took time to thoroughly investigate problems, but we didn’t have a system in place for documenting solutions. That knowledge lived with one or two people who could leave the company and take that knowledge with them. In addition, our assets — including machinery, computers and licenses — were stored in Excel files where they were hard to monitor. Thankfully, we had few issues and could work hard on those that arose. Still, our IT service wasn’t scalable. Incidents came to us via email rather than in a digital form. Thus, it was difficult to track incidents and optimize resolution times.

In other departments, too, technological limitations created inefficiency and friction. Employees were too tethered to the office. They could not access emails or files anywhere else because there was no VPN system. Access to Wi-Fi was also limited, especially in the production areas, where it was once considered a security risk. In short, Söhner was a highly effective company that had adapted to these limitations. It was ripe for transformation.

Prepare Your IT Department

Personally, I can’t work without a ticketing system. In 2012, I was introduced to SysAid, an IT service management (ITSM) platform, which I used for the next four years. After two weeks at Söhner, I asked if we could implement a service desk. Thankfully, my manager was drawn to SysAid over other solutions because of its knowledge base capabilities. SysAid became a key part of digitizing IT services and eliminating manual, repetitive tasks.

Of the many changes it produced, here are three takeaways that companies can consider.

  1. Use the knowledge base to document and prevent reoccurring tickets. For example, our ERP system accepts just one font (Arial). If a user builds an offer or invoice in the ERP and pastes text using another font, the ERP replies with a scary-looking JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) error message (which just says the font is unavailable). It created tickets almost daily. So, we made a knowledge base entry about font compatibility and eliminated almost all tickets on that issue. If someone does submit a ticket about that error message, s/he gets directed to the knowledge base article.
  1. Introduce a status page for all of our systems using Catchet, an open-source status page system. We integrated it as an iFrame in SysAid’s self-service portal so that users see the status page before creating a ticket for outages we already know about. As a result, we’ve received far fewer tickets about major outages. Even when a critical system goes down — like the Wi-Fi used for barcode scanners in production — we don’t get a barrage of tickets anymore. End users have learned to trust the status page, and we’ve gained space to focus on the problem.
  1. Expect that there will be some setbacks. In January 2020, we had an incident where our Autodesk license expired because we forgot to import a new license file. It stopped working, so we put up a status alert immediately. We noticed that a lot of users were on the status page waiting for it to refresh. That’s what we hoped for. To prevent a repeat, we created a special tab in SysAid that tracks licenses for MS Office, Autodesk, our new VMware solutions and other platforms that are mission-critical. It ensures, too, that we always have the right licenses matched to the right machines.

Win Over End Users

A digital transformation can’t stay isolated inside the IT department — it has to be felt throughout the organization. If you start with the most noticeable changes, you can build momentum quickly.

Within two months of joining Söhner I introduced VMware Workspace ONE, a mobile device management system that virtualized the office, providing access to email and files beyond our four walls. This was a game changer for salespeople, who previously downloaded decks to a laptop in order to show them to clients. We also introduced VMware Horizon, a desktop virtualization application service, so that employees could launch apps and use a full-on remote desktop from any location.

Another key step was to introduce Wi-Fi for all employees. Although most Söhner employees work in production and don’t need user accounts, they do need the internet to access SysAid’s self-service portal. In the future, Wi-Fi will connect them to digital services provided by HR, finance and other departments. The lack of Wi-Fi was a visible barrier to further digitization and improvements in employee experience. 

Most recently, in February 2020, we introduced “softphones” that allow us to control landlines from a PC or smartphone client. These eliminated dependence on office landlines. We also linked the software to our ERP and CRM systems, so salespeople can now click a contact in the CRM, and the softphone dials them instantly. It’s a good experience, and at scale, it saves many hours.

Collectively, these changes showed end users that IT was eager to improve their daily experience at work. By making improvements in IT service and end-user technologies concurrently, we earned the trust to make significant changes across the board.  

The Outcome and Lessons

Since joining Söhner, I’ve witnessed our piecemeal digital transformation grow into a company-wide strategy called Söhner 2025. It aims to modernize the entire business over the next five years. Our ongoing efforts in ITSM and workplace digitization have put us in an ideal position to manage the sweeping changes to come.

Over the last year and a half, my team and I have created 165 knowledge base articles in SysAid, 90 of which are available to all users. Of the 1,500 tickets we’ve received over that period, 80% were submitted through the self-service portal. That’s a remarkably high rate for a new system. In total, we’ve imported 221 assets into the platform, including machinery, servers, projectors and printers.

In retrospect, I think our digital transformation moved too quickly. A year and a half is a short window in which to introduce this many changes without making preventable mistakes. “Take it slow, make it right,” is my new motto going forward. What’s a few extra weeks if we’re changing something that has been the same for a decade?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, is to focus on the most visible problems first. Prove what IT can accomplish to build momentum for a full-scale transformation.