Malcolm Wheatley, IT editor at TM and a former engineer reviews the relationship between lean practitioners and ERP technology.
Speak to lean purists, and the answer to the above question is usually a resounding ‘yes’. From a manufacturing perspective, they argue, ERP adds no value. Kanbans and pull-based scheduling will – literally – deliver the goods.
Worse, they charge, the data-capture processes associated with ERP are positively wasteful. Instead of adding value, employees are wastefully occupied entering data into a system that itself adds no value.
That said, the argument isn’t one-sided. While it’s perfectly possible to work out kanban quantities and frequencies without IT – after all, that’s what Toyota did, over 30 years ago – IT can help to shortcut the process, and make it less labour-intensive.
But generally speaking, many IT vendors’ response to lean has been, at least initially, to view it as a necessary evil, retro-fitting lean capabilities to existing offerings, and delivering systems that co-exist with lean, rather than enhancing or supporting it.
Gradually, however, the tide has been turning. Oracle’s lean execution system, now not only supports kanban all the way from assembly operations back to the supplier base, but also includes tools to help manufacturers look at historic demand, and optimise the number and size of kanban cards in the system. Better still, it embraces mixed-mode manufacture, useful in environments that include operations such as stamping, where one-piece flow is not practical.
Other vendors, too, have responded to the challenge. In recent times, SAP, Infor, QAD and SYSPRO have all added well-regarded lean capabilities to their offerings, generally aimed at bridging the gap between ERP forecasts and the detailed operations of kanbans and pullbased scheduling on the factory floor.
Microsoft, too, has championed the lean cause, making acquisitions and developing an extensive lean code-base. MicrosoftDynamics AX 2012 is the software giant’s most leanfriendly offering to date, according to Rakesh Kumar, global industry product director of manufacturing for Microsoft Dynamics ERP.
Kumar is keen to prove that Microsoft’s commitment to lean doesn’t just extend to kanbans, lean modelling and mixed-mode manufacture, but actively embraces capturing data in a lean way, too. “We understand the customer’s pain, and we’ve gone to a lot of trouble to capture data through technologies such as RFID and barcodes,” he explains. “The idea is to genuinely add value.”
Room for improvement
That said, lean accounting still remains a challenge. Many a lean implementation has been cancelled or held back because cost accounting systems appear to show that labour and overhead costs are rising, not falling, as the switch to lean proceeds.
Yet even here, solutions are emerging. Dynamics reseller eBECS, advises clients to follow the value stream-based approach advocated by Brian Maskell, and outlined in his book Lean Accounting. “It’s the most comprehensive treatment out there,” says Andrew Rumney, solutions director at eBECS. “We’ve tied our own approach to it and we have software that supports it.”
So the gap between lean and IT is shrinking. But it’s still not disappeared – and in truth, may never do so.