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Eric Pope, VP Operations, US Synthetic
Eric Pope, VP Operations, US Synthetic

Eric Pope, VP Operations, US Synthetic

Every manufacturing business’s viability rests on its ability to coordinate the interactions of Man, Machine, Material and Information in the least wasteful way possible to satisfy customer needs. The level of detail required to effectively coordinate these manufacturing inputs is typically beyond the capability of a single production planner’s mind. Often, software solutions help us methodically manage this delicate dance. For some businesses, the absence of such electronic tools would bring the business to a halt. When managing the complexities of manufacturing input coordination, there are four thoughts that will increase the effectiveness of your manufacturing execution system.

Manufacturing Execution System (MES) Software Solutions are just Tools

In 2004, we were the typical batch and queue manufacturing organization. Our manufacturing execution system was called Todd. That is not an acronym; he was our planner. Todd was a numbers savant who sat in front of 3 computer monitors every day, with several excel spreadsheets open at a time. Between his own mind and these spread sheets, Todd was able to effectively manage our entire operation. The problem is: Todd could never leave on vacation. In truth, we actually had to fly him back from his vacation on one occasion to sort out a crazy production hiccup. He was, in effect, our tool. Every tool has a weakness. In our case, Todd liked to go on vacation. In other systems, it could be an issue with data integrity, or network integrity, or variation in human interfaces. All systems have weakness; and we must remember that it’s the people within an organization that bridge these gaps.

  Every manufacturing business’s viability rests on its ability to coordinate the interactions of Man, Machine, Material and Information in the least wasteful way possible to satisfy customer needs  

I was once at a manufacturing conference admiring the variety of tools being sold when a salesman demonstrated his company’s new line-balancing software. The tool was extremely useful. At the time, we were early in our Lean journey and we were just practicing the concepts of line balancing and the associated tools. I thought to myself: “I could either buy this software tool or balance all the lines; Or, I could teach every employee at the company why and how to balance the line.” I chose the latter. These tools are very useful, but they don’t replace the skills and knowledge of our people. When the tool fails or needs to be improved or adapted, it is our skilled people who will rise to the occasion. Remember the skills of your people.

Plan is NEVER Actual

We can employ all the computer processing power in the world to come up with the perfect manufacturing plan and it will be, at least, partially obsolete by the time it takes to walk it out to the shop floor. All manufacturing environments are full of abnormalities, variation, and deviations from the plan. Even at Toyota (a world-class organization with years of MES development), you can watch production deviations occur frequently throughout the day. A production worker at Toyota will see and react to an abnormality by pulling the Andon Cord. Toyota can see deviations from plan at the seconds level while other manufacturing companies may only see deviations after a day, a week or a month of production. If you are not seeing deviations from your plan, you are using the wrong resolution of glasses to see what’s really happening. Your perfect plans are never what happens on the shop floor. Your people are the ones you will rely on to see these deviations, take temporary countermeasures, broadcast the flaws to the organization, and collapse to eliminate root cause. Remember the skills of your people.

Complex Businesses require Complex Management

The beauty of software solutions is the ease at which they help us make sense of our internal processes and make plans for a complex world. After we realized our unhealthy dependence on our Todd, we were determined to do it a better way. As Todd explained to us how he planned, it was beyond all our capabilities. This occurred at the beginning of our Lean journey. At the time, we had learned a concept called Flow and were aggressively applying it to our business. We also learned the principle of Pull and Kanban that we applied where we could not Flow. As we did this, we realized our business got less complex. Rather than planning for a flow time of 4 weeks (plus or minus a week), we could plan for 1-day flow time. Instead of trying to figure out the complex flow paths through several departments with competing priorities, we would plan a flow cell. Flow made our business less complex.

MES systems serve us well to manage complex operations; however, who is working to make your operations simpler? The simpler the business, the less is required to manage it. The simpler the business, the lower the probability of failure within it. Teach your people the principles and tools that remove complexity from your business. Remember the skills of your people.

People are the Foundation of your MES

Search, find, use whatever technology helps you manage your complex manufacturing operations. But, as you deploy these technologies, teach your people the underlying principles that the MES is automating. This will increase the system’s overall effectiveness and lead to improvement of the system. Honor the reality that your plans are flawed. Enable your people to quickly see plan variation, so they can preserve the flow of value to customers and so variation can be eliminated. Teach your people to simplify the business. Teach your people the principles and tools to see and eliminate waste. A business full of waste is unreliable and difficult to plan for. Remember the skills of your people.

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