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My career has mostly been working for, and consulting with, companies employing an internal Information Systems team. This historical experience became a stark reality recently when I began supporting a small, under 100 person manufacturing company. They are very successful tier 2 and 3 component supplier to automotive, have grown 7 to 10 percent compounded annually for the past 5 or 6 years. For computer support they use an accounting package getting by with help from a neighborhood software services company. The owner sees very positive continuous growth for his company going forward, and established goals to further:
• improve on-time deliveries to customers,
• increase productivity in the plant,
• improve inventory turns to 12 from 9,
• negotiate lower pricing from suppliers,
• gain tighter control of the business, and naturally
• see profitability increase.

With these achievable goals, they looked to invest in our factory planning system, Planvisage APS (Advanced Planning and Scheduling). The technical challenges became apparent quickly. The users are familiar with their accounting package, comfortable using Microsoft’s Word and Excel. Do not ask what operating system they have on their PCs or server, because you will only be met with blank stares. Technically you cannot tell them anything about their production processes because they are experts in their field and committed to delivering high quality product.

The fun and excitement began when we needed to extract data from their accounting package. Required information included; item master, supplier master, customer master with open customer sales orders, together with production data such as Bill of Material, operational resources, and routings. The accounting system uses a proprietary database. The client company did not have a wide selection of utility software available to convert to a Microsoft SQL database. In the end we found only one solution that worked. Some vendors sell utility packages with bold statements of available function. When working with a computer challenged community, it is a problem understanding that a software product invested in today may only deliver needed function in a few years’ time. Buyer beware. Do not believe all the exaggerated claims on the software vendor’s website. I discovered that fact by downloading a 30-day trial version only to find I had wasted my time.

The ultimately selected conversion utility program was inexpensive at $500. The application was not a load and run by any stretch of the imagination. Requirements to function called for the utility program to be installed on the same server as the accounting package that had to be operational while the utility was running. But it was still not that simple. The user was given the choice to convert all database tables, or only the very few that was required to pass information to the factory planning system. In fact all that the planning solution required was 9 of 134 available tables. The saga dragged on. The help documentation suggested that run time should be less than an hour. After running all night the application did not finish. The software vendor recommended a data file rebuild due to possible corrupted files. The initial attempt to run the conversion program ran for 2 hours without completing the task. A fresh attempt was made to select only those required tables, but not all were available in the selection process. In the end we tried and succeeded with 8 of the 9 tables. I readily admit the support provided by the utility software company was exceptional.

Permit me to stress this point. Our solutions requires companies to invest tens of thousands of dollars. We stand by our solutions. It is to be expected that we support our solutions and configure it to work precisely as the client company requires. However, when purchasing a $500 product, how much support can you expect? I was more than impressed by the total professionalism of the supplier of the utility program. They got fully involved in supporting their software and worked with us to find out why in our client’s setting the software was not working as promised. I wish all software vendors provided that that level of dedication to their products and clients, regardless of price.

The manufacturing company owner was getting very nervous. The consulting support fee was soaring well beyond the cost of the utility program by employing the local software specialist in support of the change process. He was looking for estimates and an understanding of what the total project would cost him. This is a professional man’s approach. Prior to the outset of the project, the initial cost-benefit analysis showed that the ROI (Return on Investment) would pay for itself inside of a 6-month period of going live. That said, the CEO wanted to control additional expenses prior to this getting out of control. The good news is that we had some expense wiggle room to continue on our path to meet the company goals.

We finally addressed all the conversion issues from the accounting package to SQL. The next task was to reformat data to be fed into the planning and scheduling solution. Here the SQL stored procedure run time was only 30 seconds. We were now on the way to plan and schedule using Planvisage. After validating the planning and scheduling results, the final step was to educate and train the user community.

What is the real message here? When contrasting large and small companies, there are many differences. Big companies employ technical computer people willing and able to address all issues that may confront their user community. In effect, because the IT personnel are on the payroll their expense is treated like a sunk cost, and usually not allocated to the project. Small companies generally do not make an investment in even one technical person. The argument is what responsibilities will the IT person have most of the time? The analogy might be if you need your car serviced, take it to the dealer. If you have tooth ache, visit the dentist. If you have computer issues, call the local service company.

At this client we found several challenges. The accounting package employed was a client server version. Users, however, each had the software loaded on their computers but operated off files on the server. Why? Over the many years that they owned the accounting package the client server version was not initially available, so as the software improved and function was added, they applied the upgrades, and kept operating as they had done for years. The local software support group likely did not know or understand the new benefits in the accounting package, and since the user community was none the wiser, they just kept doing what they had been doing for years.

Strangely too, the user backed up the database regularly, using file name nomenclature that went back 4 years. No thought was ever given to a grandfather, father, son backup system, nor even regular backups of the server. There is nothing wrong with praying that you never have a hard drive crash. It is likely that this level of computer best practice understanding is not even appreciated.

In examining the data it was evident that many detail records were duplicated. When or why is not at all clear. But as long as the current information looks good, why worry?

With larger companies, they schedule users for training on new solutions. With a small company, they run lean. Finding time to train becomes very difficult. Getting product out the door, taking orders, planning using a planning board, invoicing, and purchasing all take priority.

Having been involved with inventory systems for retail, wholesale, distribution, and manufacturing my entire career, I found it very interesting that recommended basic principles of production and inventory control were not present nor practiced by this small company. This culture was non-existent. It added a challenge to provide effective training with a solution based on these industry accepted concepts, especially with the limited available user time dedicated to change management.

Why would you cycle count if you can walk on the floor and see what’s there? We can get most of what we need in 6 weeks. Our informal replenishment system has worked most of the time. Why would you have locked stock rooms because you want the supervisors and operators to help themselves to necessary raw materials and packaging as the need arises? Paperwork? Not important. Bill of Material accuracy, not important so long as we do not run out, and some components do not require planning or tracking, or do they? We can expedite.

Many companies will go through a tipping point where the old business process methods can no longer support effective management of customers, suppliers and the operation. Company owners must be sensitive to when that inflection point is reached, but before it’s too late. My wish for small company owners is that they are profitable enough to afford new methodologies and business processes, together with investments in the required hardware and software, education, training, and consulting to help propel their companies to the next level of professional excellence. Retain your competitive advantage. Lack of timely action could cost you everything you spent your life building and working for.

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