Connecting People, Not Just Computers

Disconnects between people are far too common in manufacturing businesses today. They occur, despite large investments in manufacturing business systems, because there are still barriers between the people trying to do business and the information technology they are trying to use.

 

Article From: 2/1/1997 Modern Machine Shop, ,

It's after hours. You're at your desk, catching up on the day's activities when the general manager of one of your best customers calls. His customer service person is gone for the day and he really needs to make certain you received the change to the order quantity he requested earlier in the day. You check to see if anyone is around to answer the question, but unfortunately, everyone is away.

Tentatively, you search several screens in your manufacturing business system, but as an infrequent user of the customer order part of the system, you are unfamiliar with the screens and selection options, so you are unable to locate his order. Frustrated because you can't confirm his request, you apologize to your customer and tell him you will call him back with the answer (after you find someone to help).

Here's another situation. Some of your customers have asked to be notified when their orders have been completed and are ready to ship. Because only a few customers have made this request, your company has provided this service on an informal basis. The difficulty is making certain all customer service representatives are aware of which customers are to receive notification, even when the primary customer service person for a customer is out of the office. Prior to that, the customer service rep has to be made aware the job has been completed. Despite everyone's best efforts, you receive complaints from customers that they are being notified on a hit-and-miss basis.

In these examples, the customer and the manufacturer are not effectively exchanging the information they need to conduct business. Even the people inside the company are not effectively exchanging information, even though it exists and could be readily accessed. Your employees know what they need. Objectives are established. Procedures are established. The information system is operational. But still, the people are not "connected" to achieve the objectives. They do not effectively transfer or receive the information they need, when they need it.

Disconnects between people are far too common in manufacturing businesses today. They occur, despite large investments in manufacturing business systems, because there are still barriers between the people trying to do business and the information technology they are trying to use.

Traditional Emphasis On Computer Connectivity

Traditionally, information technology people have focused on data storage, retrieval and transmission-connecting computers and computer equipment. Much of the effort centers around such topics as network protocols, database technology, transmission speeds, bandwidth, and the relative states of "openness."

These concepts and technologies are important, in fact crucial to the successful deployment of a manufacturing business system. Without computer system connectivity issues being addressed, manufacturers would not have made the gains they have achieved. Manufacturing business systems have helped increase control of inventory, improve on-time deliveries, improve front-office and plant floor productivity, and increase responsiveness and customer satisfaction in general. All of which contribute to increased sales and profits.

But as computer connectivity technologies become more and more advanced, there needs to be increased emphasis placed on "connecting people, not just computers." After all, the real objective of a manufacturing business system is to coordinate, or connect, the activities of the people who make the business run.

Barriers In Connecting People

So why haven't manufacturing business systems been more successful at connecting people? What are the challenges that must be addressed to make further gains?

Answers to these questions can be found by looking at the barriers in the connecting process.

  • Discomfort with the computer. If someone feels hesitant or frustrated when they try use a computer, they are not likely to use it effectively and they will avoid using it whenever possible. As a consequence, information that could have or should have been exchanged will be ignored or omitted (special handling comments on an order, for example).
    While computer use is much more common than it was even a few years ago, there are still many people who are not comfortable using a computer. This discomfort often comes from being unfamiliar with how to navigate through a system or having a fear of doing damage. When compared to older, "character-based" user interfaces, Windows graphical user interfaces have made substantial inroads to being more intuitive and more familiar to most people. However, people resist even Windows interfaces if they are inconsistent or poorly organized.

 

  • Too much information or disorganized information. Have you ever been presented with a report that included row after row of numbers, where the information needed is somehow lost in all of it? Most of us don't have the time to wade through all of the available data to find just the information we need.
    Computers have helped manufacturing businesses record much more data than previously considered feasible. But the recording part is only half of the battle-retrieving the information when needed and in a form that's useful can be even more critical to business success.

 

  • Working from different information. When two people have different information, a disconnect in communications can easily result. For example, if the person who schedules the shop thinks that all of the required material for a job is on-hand but the material planner knows he allocated that same material to another job, there is likely to be confusion (and perhaps the "connection" of a few choice words).
    Trying to minimize redundant data entry is one of the primary reasons manufacturers have implemented manufacturing business systems. Every time the same data has to be entered more than once, there is the chance of error. When the same data appears in too many places, there is a bigger chance for the data to be out of sync.

 

  • Passive information--it was there, but it wasn't offered. Even if useful information is available and even if it is accessible, it isn't valuable unless someone uses it. Most business systems are passive; they don't alert people to key events. This is the business system equivalent of a common frustration of many supervisors--"If we knew it, why didn't someone say something?" These information delays are caused by a number of barriers.
    Alerting people to the need for action cannot be done unless someone or something, in this case the business system, is monitoring information critical to that need and reporting it. A good illustration comes from the earlier example of notifying particular customers when their order has been completed. Information that the order was completed existed, it just wasn't connected with the customer service rep who was supposed to act on it. Even if the customer service rep periodically looks for the information, spending a lot of time checking on the status of one order is impractical. The root issue is that their business system is passive--it has the information but it doesn't act to communicate it to the people who need to know.

 

  • Lack of access. Another relatively obvious barrier is that there are situations where people simply don't have access to the information they need. While most manufacturers have removed this barrier inside their operation by providing business system workstations or terminals at the appropriate locations, there remains a problem of connecting people outside the plant. Remote communication can be complex, limiting and expensive. The people who need remote access are commonly employees who are traveling or who are primarily in the field (sales reps and service reps, for example). In today's environment of "partnering" with suppliers and customers, people who need remote access are increasingly the vendor and the customer.

There are two key technology advances to help remove barriers--man-machine interface technology and telecommunications technology.

Technology Advances Help Remove Barriers

The first area, the man-machine interface, and more specifically, the user interface for computer software, is evolving toward common, more intuitive standards. The user interface is traditionally one of the weakest links in the people-connecting chain. It represents both the first link, a person entering information in the system, and the last link, a person retrieving and using the information. The current de facto standard for user interfaces is Microsoft Windows. Microsoft Windows, and more recently Windows 95 and Windows NT, are installed on millions of business and personal computers throughout the world and is, by far, the most common and familiar software system. While this "standard" continues to evolve, even in its present form, its familiarity provides a sizable opportunity to reduce the barriers between a person and the computer--the first and last links.

The other major force which is breaking down barriers in connecting people is telecommunications technology. With the long distance telephone, local telephone, cable, and other companies competing aggressively to be your data transmission provider of choice, data exchange capacity, or bandwidth, is becoming increasingly available at modest prices. When you add in the extraordinary popularity of the Internet, it is evident that not being accessible is a matter of choice.

Here are a few examples of how advancements are being applied in manufacturing business systems to better connect people.

Intuitive, Graphical Interfaces

The fact that the Microsoft Windows graphical user interface has become the de facto standard presents the single largest opportunity for removing the "discomfort" barrier. People are comfortable with the familiar and, by-and-large, people are or soon will be familiar with Windows-type interfaces. Users expect to point to the item of interest on their screen (such as point-and-click). Users expect to drag items from one part of the screen to another. Users expect to get more detail on an item by clicking on it ("drill down"). Users expect to work with more than one document at a time on their desktop (multiple windows). Your business system should take advantage of this kind of familiarity.

The period of time when a user is learning a new system is especially important. This is the time when the person's confidence is lowest and the potential for anxiety and frustration is greatest. Their early impressions of the software will have a big impact on their willingness to work through the training period and learn to exploit the tools.

The screen shown in Figure 1 illustrates the navigation and learning approach used in one manufacturing business system. The flow diagram in the screen graphically displays the relationships between areas of the business system to help a new user visualize the components such as sales orders, job orders, bills of material, and work centers. By clicking on a diagram element, the user is shown a more detailed diagram on the display from where he or she can view, edit, copy, and so on.

Exception Reporting

To overcome the barrier of presenting too much data or disorganized information, some manufacturing business systems have turned to the concept of "exception reporting." An exception report simply identifies the trouble spots, or exceptions to the norm, which require further investigation and action. In this way, a manager can review a relatively small amount of information to understand where to direct his or her attention.

Figure 2 presents a representative example of exception reporting. There is a view for each of three major areas--sales, production and finance. One of the exceptions is Sales Orders With Items Past Their Due Date. At a glance, a manager can determine whether or not any sales orders are late and, if so, can "drill down" to obtain detail on which orders, which items, and which customers are affected by this situation.

Integrated Database And Functionality

To ensure that everyone is working with the same information, a manufacturing business system should have a single, common database and all of its functions must be designed to take advantage of that database. If either of these two aspects is missing, the overall objective is missed.

For example, a business system may use these two concepts in its approach to shop scheduling. Both the finite and infinite scheduling "engines" use job, routing and workcenter data directly from the common database. This ensures that any last minute changes have been incorporated into the schedule. The person responsible for scheduling uses the interactive scheduling board to make any desired adjustments. The resulting workcenter and job schedules are then communicated back to the central database so everyone can use the latest schedule for dispatch lists, customer service information, and planning.

Another example of integrated database and functionality is the way this system handles the life cycle of a customer order. When a customer requests a quote, the document created may contain special notes and information that will be valuable to others throughout the production cycle. When the customer accepts the quote, the information is automatically transferred to the next documents--the sales order, the production work order, and so on. In this way, the need to re-key information is eliminated, so data accuracy is improved and, perhaps most importantly, everyone in the manufacturing operation is working from the same information--they are connected to the original request from the customer.

Alerts And Alarms

Earlier, we identified a barrier in connecting people as business system passivity--the information is available, but there is no action to communicate it to the people who need to know. This problem can be attacked by including "active agents" in the business system, programs that actively monitor the data for special conditions and then send alerts or alarms to the designated person.

An example of how this function works is shown in Figure 3. The user specifies which type of event should trigger the alert, who is to receive the alert, what the message should say, and whether the alert should be a pop-up notice, an e-mail notice, or a fax. In the earlier example of a customer being notified when their order has completed production and is being shipped, the document is a Shipper, the who is the customer name, the message is "Your order has been completed and is being shipped" and the message choice is via fax.

Extended Access For Employees, Customers And Vendors

The fifth barrier identified was limited access to data, especially from locations outside the plant. Some manufacturers have attacked this problem by allowing dial-in access through modems. While this solution can be effective, it can be expensive to purchase and maintain the equipment and lines necessary to support any volume of traffic, the long-distance charges can be significant, and user interfaces designed for in-plant operation can perform very slowly at modem speeds.

Some manufacturing business system suppliers have turned to the Internet to provide an alternative form of access. For example, Made2Manage is providing manufacturers with the option of giving access to key information to selected employees, customers and vendors. Early applications for the Internet at this company include a customer support application that enables customers to submit questions or problems and then track progress any time of day, thereby adding convenience and providing on-line history. As another example, using the Report Agent Application, authorized people can request specific reports, enabling remote employees, or even customers if desired, to obtain information in a "self-service" fashion.

Push To Connect People

Information technology, while considered to be in its infancy by most, has evolved to the point that computers can be connected with high speeds and over great distances. But as businesses try to use information technology to better serve the customer and more effectively manage operations, manufacturers must focus on the real objective--connecting the people, not the computers. The effectiveness of the people is ultimately the difference between improving or falling back. The business system exists to support people--to enable managers and busy workers to better do their jobs.

Barriers to connecting people must be torn down. Advances in technology are available to help tear them down. But the users and the buyers of the manufacturing business systems must expect more--and demand more--of their system providers to see substantial change. Focusing on the objective of connecting people and understanding the barriers is the first step in this direction.

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