Given this invoicing volume, John Lewis resolved several years ago to implement a document scanning solution to minimise its handling of paper invoices. Its relationship with SoftCo began with that scanning facility but has since grown into a deeper IT partnership: including a sophisticated Accounts Payable solution from SoftCo, for the electronic routing of invoices for approval throughout John Lewis.
Christine explains that SoftCo and John Lewis first began working together in 2001. It was then that the company's Central Payments Office in Stevenage chose SoftCo during a competitive tender to develop a solution to transfer supplier invoices into an electronic archive. At the time, John Lewis's main aim was simply to cut the amount of paper it handled.
Following John Lewis's requirements, SoftCo devised an Electronic Information Management System for the company. Using SoftCo Capture, paper invoices that had been sent to the Stevenage office for storage were batch-scanned and stored to a central archive using the SoftCo solution.
The Electronic Information Management System from SoftCo enabled John Lewis to remove a tremendous amount of paper from its offices, and also empowered staff to view scanned invoices at a later date, using the batch number or invoice number as reference.
It was in 2003 that John Lewis next found itself in need of a more advanced IT solution for its Accounts Payable process, to support a key change in its business. Following an internal re-organisation, it was decided that non-merchandise invoices, invoices for goods that John Lewis doesn't resell to shoppers, would now be centralised to Stevenage. Previously, suppliers sent non-merchandise invoices directly to individual department stores, but as part of John Lewis's Centralised Financial Accounting project, these documents would go straight to Stevenage.
Christine explains that, while centralisation made sense from an accounting point of view, it meant new headaches for John Lewis.
"The main problem with having a centralised office was that the invoices had to be forwarded for approval from Stevenage to the authorised spending official at the individual branch," she explains. "This meant registering the invoices and then sending them out via our internal post for signature and then progressing them back in. The whole process could take a week on average, or over two weeks in the longest cases."
The next step epitomises the relationship between John Lewis and SoftCo. Believing that a workflow application could be incorporated into the Electronic Information Management System that SoftCo had developed, Christine contacted SoftCo to discuss her idea. "I called SoftCo and outlined a proposed process," she explains. "We refined it together, and SoftCo implemented the system. Without this workflow application we would not have been able to offer the faster and more reliable process that our users have today."
The resulting workflow application is indeed fast: it has cut the invoice approval process from one week to just two days. Now, when a non-merchandise invoice is received at Stevenage, it is scanned directly into the central repository using the SoftCo solution. Once the invoice has been captured, John Lewis branch budget holders receive an e-mail with the message, "an invoice requires your approval," and a link to log into the system.
Budget holders then view an on-screen image of invoices for approval and can approve the invoice or reject it. If the users reject an invoice, the system requires them to insert comments explaining why. The entire process approval, rejection, escalation for further approval, and query management process is performed and managed using the SoftCo AP workflow application and rules.
The result is a real improvement in efficiency for John Lewis's financial team, who can now pinpoint the position of any invoice in the approval process, in order to answer incoming supplier queries and to identify bottlenecks in the approval process.
In speaking of SoftCo, Christine Allan seems most impressed with its staff's willingness to go the extra mile, including consulting with John Lewis even when the company is at the ideas stage of a major IT project. "I don't think I've yet given SoftCo a problem they haven't been able to solve for me," she says. "We tell them what we're thinking of doing, and they always come back with ideas. We work together to get the best solution."
Best of all, the Electronic Information Management System built by SoftCo gives John Lewis an important growth path. John Lewis is now expanding the system to other parts of its enterprise, to areas such as personnel, thus spreading the benefits of better information management throughout the organisation.
"Usage of the Electronic Information Management System is really growing," she says. "It started off small but it has just snowballed."