From time to time, events occur which shine a light on weaknesses as to the flow of data within our existing information systems. Looking back at my year with IMEC, several of these types of events readily come to mind which to a varying degree affected nearly everyone including Y2K, 9/11 and the Great/Global Recession, while many other events affected certain sectors of the populace, such as regional power or widespread internet outages. In each of these instances, system shortcomings were exposed and inconveniences were experienced.
In a perfect, optimized world, our information systems are tightly integrated flows of data and transactions of information in an automated and fully integrated platform, with limited (and controlled) human intervention. Again…optimal. In practice though, most of our “information systems” are loosely connected or disparate formal and informal repositories of information. Looking specifically at manufacturing, those “formal” information systems may include a combination of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, Customer Resource Management (CRM), Electronic Data Interchanges (EDI), Quality Management Systems, just to name a few. While these formal information systems may be integrated, either natively or through automated integration of data, in many instances it is the “informal” information flows that make the connections…where the rubber meets the road.
These informal information flows are typically created and maintained at an individual or department level and include those ubiquitous tools such as spreadsheets, stand-alone databases, individually or department developed applications, paper forms, phone calls, even sticky notes. I recall one company owner waxing in glowing terms how her organization was held together by Post-It Notes. Information leaves one system, is translated, combined with other information, massaged, manipulated, adjusted with formulas and gut-feelings, then either entered in the next system digitally, or used in this raw format. Should we discover a weakness or inadequacy in the information, we simply “enhance” the system by layering another level of alternate systems, processes, or in many cases, simply throwing people’s time at the challenge in order to overcome these gaps and continue with “business as usual.” This is not to say this approach is right or wrong, but this is how the information flow functions in many organizations and is objectively not optimal.
So, where does COVID-19 factor into this equation? In one word: People. Unlike many of the previous events referenced above, COVID-19 affected the information flow by not necessarily interrupting the formal information flows (fortunately, COVID-19 is not also a computer virus), but by removing people from the workplace or severely limiting their access to the systems which supply our informal information flow. We simply lost access to – or sight of – the information needed to effectively run our operations. Manual bridges between systems were broken or at a minimum, delayed. There has simply been a lack of capacity to aggregate and process the information into a format we are used to working with. Organizations are forced to make operational decisions with different “types” of information, such as incomplete, anecdotal untimely, or inaccurate. All which has the potential to generate additional inefficiencies or support sub-optimal decisions.
At IMEC, when we are assisting companies with the implementation of any new information system, we spend quite a bit of time uncovering and documenting the current flows of types of information as well as the tools and methods utilized. This provides a baseline understanding of what any “new” system must support in a fully integrated manner. Stepping into our COVID-focused world, it is a unique opportunity to leverage our new awareness in the weaknesses of our existing systems to implement real, systemic change and integration in our information systems. By recognizing and documenting the shortcomings in the existing flow of information we use to operate in today’s environment, we can capture and prioritize improvement opportunities to be implemented when we are back at full strength, whether it be next month, or next year. There will be quick fixes, such as eliminating unnecessary or redundant reports and approvals, as well as longer term resolutions which might include integrating disparate systems or selecting and implementing a more tightly (or fully) integrated information system. The key is to take the time now to document the challenges. Take screenshots, save samples, and provide a narrative for the observed information challenges AS THEY OCCUR. Do not defer and rely on memory or anecdotal observations. An effective foundation for future improvements will be built by the information we gather today.
Go deeper and tune into the Operations Optimization: ERP / MRP System Improvements Webinar, presented by IMEC and Strategy 3, Inc.
If you have questions or concerns regarding implementing an ERP system, get in touch with the experts on the Illinois Manufacturing Helpline and get a quick response within one business day!