There is an uneasy dance going on between the lean manufacturing community and the IT community. It is not clear that the lean manufacturing community wants or even needs the IT community.
Not only are some of the most vocal and radical lean practitioners saying that they do not want more IT, but they also want to get rid of much of what they now have and replace it with simpler, more people-friendly solutions. In the dance with lean, they don't even want a partner.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are lean practitioners who will not make a move without some software in hand. Whether it is for math-intensive functions like line balancing and inventory calculations or less computational tasks such as value stream mapping,
The entrenchment of lean practitioners who berate IT solutions is substantiated by the inability of materials requirements planning (MRP) software to efficiently schedule work on the production floor.
Many MRP applications have so many flaws that it is not uncommon for the volume of the exception notices and change notices to grossly exceed the number of job releases. In addition, MRP does not prevent the occurrence of "WIP (work-in-progress) explosions" on the floor, which slow production and kill due date performance.
Examples abound of facilities that have made huge productivity improvements by, in effect, emasculating their MRP systems and converting to pull systems such as kanban. Equally legion are stories of software that costs twice what was advertised, yet performs half the promised functionality. Armed with this evidence, some lean practitioners have become "IT-aphobes." In a way, it's hard to blame them.
On the other hand, behind every failed IT project is a manager who specified and bought the software, not to mention trained his people to use it. We need look no further than management to find the culprit.
Unfortunately, the software vendors also over-promise and under-deliver. Since they are "the other guys," it is easy for those managers, who did a lousy job from the get-go, to find "someone else" to blame. They do that with regularity and it works.
(I am not sure why, because if it were a $100,000 CNC mill instead of a $100,000 IT application that underperformed, the manager would still have a lot of explaining to do. However, it is unlikely that blaming "someone else" for the underperforming CNC mill would get the same amount of traction as blaming the software vendor.)
So where do we go from here?
The lean community has to be more objective. The fringy radicals who want to get rid of all the software need to wake up to the reality that they are using software every day. Not only do they use basic tools like Excel and Word, but they also use some type of business-level software like MRPII or ERP. Even if the MRP module in their software is not useful for daily, weekly or monthly production planning on the floor, the other functions of long-range planning as well as the business and finance functions are likely useful.
So to the IT-aphobes, I say loosen up a bit and look at what is really happening. Become more aware. The fact is, we all use software and we need "the good stuff" that the software community has to offer.
On the other hand, we have the software over-users/abusers -- the IT addicts, who do not truly understand the lean principles and who use the software as a crutch to guide them. To them I say: "Get real and go learn what lean really is." There are no shortcuts to learning and, in the end, the software will fall short.
To the IT-aphobes I say: "Just because there are some lousy dance partners, it doesn't mean you should reject them all."
To the IT addicts, I say: "Just because there are many partners who want to dance, don't accept them all."
And to both groups I say: "Know your business, and understand the functionality from beginning to end. Find out where software can assist you and where it will not. Take a leadership role and make sure the software community supplies what you need."
There clearly is a dance to be danced. But for that dance to happen, the lean community has to know how to lead, and the software community has to know how to follow.
About the author: Lonnie Wilson is the author of How to Implement Lean Manufacturing (McGraw-Hill;
2009), and founder of Quality Consultants, a company that teaches and
applies lean techniques to Fortune 500 firms as well as small entrepreneurs, principally in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.