Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Other Side of the Boat

If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.

For the past 30 years, I've been part of the team that has supported, enhanced, redesigned, modernized, and migrated the MRP/ERP software for a manufacturing facility whose primary mission was to overhaul, upgrade, and support one of the most fascinating and complex weapon systems within the US Navy, the Phalanx. To say that the journey has been challenging would be a gross understatement.  Doing ERP in an overhaul environment is no simple task to begin with; doing it in the Defense/Aerospace sector adds to the degree of difficulty.  Add to that a weapon system with over a dozen levels to its indented bill of material, with over a hundred variations to the end item configuration, and over fifty thousand nodes of preferred and optional components within each of those configurations, and you've got yourself an essentially overwhelming wave of data flowing through a constantly changing environment.  It's enough to drown a small army of analysts.

We have developed tools.  We have developed a lot of tools: analytical tools, forecasting tools, performance measurement tools, capacity planning tools, financial tools, sales and operations planning tools, proposal pricing tools, earned value management tools.  We have developed the tools needed to survive and the tools needed to thrive.  We have developed them quickly, to respond to urgent needs, and refined and improved them over a period of decades, to meet changing needs, growing appetites, and increased capabilities of the underlying technologies.  We have migrated these tools from one platform to another, through each new generation of technology, binding them together with a tightly interwoven infrastructure of interfaces and integration.  We have matured in our understanding of which tools help in which circumstances, and which tools add light and clarity where it is most needed.

Yet most of what we have developed and achieved has been isolated.  We haven't wanted it to be, but the urgent demands of a dominant customer have consumed our attention and focused our energies in one particular place.  All along, we have been increasingly nagged by a sense that our tools would be useful and valuable to other clients as well.  We've been designing everything we do with that in mind, without knowing how our when we might find an opportunity to offer our growing and improving suite of manufacturing and financial software to a broader range of clients, with a diverse set of needs and ambitions.

Until now.

Next week, we will unveil our cloud-based ERP solution.  We named it IMI, for we believe you will find it to be the most richly integrated manufacturing intelligence system you have seen.  It is version 3.0, the first version designed to work in the cloud, but equally able to thrive to an on-premises application.  We have built several on-line demonstration companies - from the very simple to the moderately complex - so that we can demonstrate many of the tools and features, and allow you to browse the data and experiment with its capabilities.  Other features are readily available, not easily demonstrated on a small sample company, but tested and proven in a dynamic environment on one of the most complex systems on the planet.

We are, to put it mildly, excited about this transition.  To borrow a treasured metaphor, we're casting our nets on the other side of the boat.  And we proudly believe and deeply hope that many businesses -- small to large, simple to complex -- will find our tools helpful, intuitive, streamlined, and sensible.  We want to help businesses succeed and thrive.  We want to help workers and managers understand their own business with greater clarity; we want to help people function more efficiently, more productively.  We want to continue to design, develop, and improve our suite of tools in ways that fit many unique requirements, and enhance many creative ideas.

There is no way to know what the future holds.  The best you can do is to do what you do best, to do it well, and to pursue the opportunities that come your way.  We have done the work, and prepared our tools.  We are ready to serve, anxious to support, and eager to excel.  It's now time to cast our nets, on the other side of the boat.

Anxiously and expectantly,


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Simple ERP?

If ERP was simple, anyone could do it. It's not, and few do it well.

Business is not simple, and many try and fail.  Managing people, managing processes, managing inventory, managing finances: it's all complicated.  Even the best managers lack some of the skills essential to run an effective business, so they partner with people who have the strengths they lack. They form a team, and team members watch each other's back.

Your ERP system should have your back.  Call me an idealist, but I think software should help.  Too many systems simply get in the way, preventing creative solutions, discouraging innovative approaches, punishing problem solvers, and paving unintended paths of least resistance.  Complex ERP systems seem often to be used primarily as weapons for enforced compliance, and end up in an essentially adversarial role with the very people they were designed to help.  This needs to stop.  ERP needs to return to its roots, to the simple fundamentals of helping planners plan and helping managers manage.

The principles truly are simple.  You have a number of demands (your requirements), you have a number of assets (your resources), and you have a never-quite-that-simple set of priorities for matching those assets to those demands. And there's the rub.  The priorities are never simple.

FIFO sounds fair: first in, first out -- matching the first available asset to the first available need. But not all demands are created equal, and not all assets are reasonably interchangeable. Project boundaries protect the cost and schedule of the best laid plans of project managers, but sometimes to the detriment of the company as a whole. The fine art of matching resources with requirements is the heart and soul of a well run enterprise. Collaboration, cooperation, and creativity make it work, when it works well.

The principles behind the principles are also quite simple.  Honesty, clarity, trust -- concepts learned in early childhood. One would think modern software would cutivate and reward such virtues. Sadly, it rarely does. 

Collaboration is not possible when the various parties have different versions of the truth. Inconsistencies in data, fragmented reporting, ambiguous definitions, and overlapping categories all contribute to a sense that team members don't share the same playbook, or worse - that they are simply deceiving each other.

Cooperation requires communication and transparency. It boggles the mind how much information is dumped into a typical ERP system; even more baffling is how difficult it is to get that information back out in any comprehensible form.  Too often the question "where did this data come from?" is essentially unanswerable, and the credibility of the whole system erodes.

Creativity flourishes in safe, secure environments. When information is not trusted, creativity suffers, and ridiculous amounts of corporate energy gets invested in assigning blame, exercising the futility of finding roots of misinformation. People grow defensive, territorial, and risk-averse. Doing nothing new or unexpected becomes preferable to innovation, and unproductive behaviors become deeply entrenched.

Honesty, clarity, trust.  These are simple human terms, and they should not be foreign to software designers. Software should encourage users to share what they know -- in the simple most straight forward way possible -- and not require them to fabricate answers to things they do not know. Reviews and approvals should be constructive, not punitive.  People at every level should have opportunity to add value to information, and not simply the power to reject it.  Performance indicators should recognize and affirm the behaviors and collaborative results that help the company succeed, and not focus obsessively on assigning blame for all problems and fluctuations.

Software is a part of our culture, woven into the fabric of how we live our lives.  Your ERP system is a reflection of your corporate character, for better or worse.  Yours should bring out the best in your people, helping them perform at their best, highlighting all that is good about their work, and about the goods and services they produce.  If it doesn't do that, it may be time to change systems.

It really is that simple.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Primary Thoughts

     Value.  Worth.  Importance. Significance.  These concepts and desires live very near the heart of what inspires and motivates each of us to work, to strive, to grow, and to excel.  As individuals and as organizations, we engage obsessively in the effort to succeed and to quantify our success, to advance and to measure our progress. The swaggering conqueror and worried survivor are alike in their persistent need to know how they are doing, whether that news be favorable or not.

      The idea that value might be earned -- ought to be, must be earned -- is evident in the most ancient stories of mankind.  The very notion that life itself may or may not be fair and just hinges in many ways on the question of whether worthy actions are followed by favorable results, and ignoble deeds met by pain and loss.  We universally want our efforts to be rewarded with everything we deserve... except of course for when we don't.

    I have spent the bulk of my career -- as a mathematicisn, a computer programmer, a systems analyst, a business owner, and yes, even a small town preacher (that's a story for another day) -- intently engaged in helping organizations evaluate their performance, gauge the progess, and forecast their profitability  (financially or otherwise).  I am, without a doubt, a huge fan of performance measurement, and a firm believer in systematic, fact-based assessments of what is -- or is not -- being accomplished.  My favorite childhood memories involve canoeing with my father and older brother, and I learned early the difficulty of padding upstream, as well as the deep frustration of padding in circles, when we weren't working and communicating well with each other.

   My hope for you and your business, team, or organization is that all of your efforts are productive, that all your investments bring healthy returns, and that the things which you value most come to you, in accordance with all that you have sacrificed to gain them.

   My selfish hope -- for me and the small band of warriors assembled with me -- is that we may be helpful in clarifying your efforts, that our experience and insight would add to your understanding, and that our tools would enhance your efficiency and productivity, as you pursue your most treasured dreams.

   I look forward to sharing with you a few things I have learned along the trail, things that helped me, as well as things that have gotten in the way. Please feel free to share your stories as well, or ask questions, or challenge my conclusions. We all learn and grow from the exchange.

  May all that you do bring lasting value to you and to those you care for.

Sincerely and respectfully,

ERP Contrarian