July 1, 2003 -- Four years
ago I wrote an article in these pages called "Lean vs. ERP."
It chronicled how many manufacturers were finding enterprise
resource planning systems to be a hindrance, not a helper,
when it came to their lean manufacturing efforts.
Since then, a number of software firms have jumped on the
lean bandwagon, offering lean or "flow manufacturing"
modules that support the principles of lean -- presumably
without detracting from the goals of simplification and
elimination of waste in manufacturing processes.
A basic rub between the two, lean and ERP, was that the
former had as one of its goals the tying of production
levels to customer demand, while the latter bases production
on sales forecasts. Also, ERP was top-down, while lean was
bottom-up. This set up a classic management verses
plant-floor disconnect. The result was that lean and ERP
lived an unhappy coexistence, sort of the way the zebras
share a wall with the lions at the zoo. Sure, there was
communication, but it wasn't always the friendly kind.
Lean also emphasizes setting up the
production process in the most efficient manner from the
start and then continually finding ways to make it more
streamlined and waste-free. By contrast, ERP emphasizes
planning. Lean wants to get rid of unnecessary movement of
workers, materials and parts. ERP wants to track everything,
so that customers can know exactly where their orders are on
the plant floor.
No wonder there was such friction. Lean is focused on
activities on the plant floor, while ERP concentrates on
data. Lean proponents recoiled in horror at the specter of
scores of plant operators taking time out of their work
processes to wave barcode wands at components as they passed
their stations. Talk about wasted time and movement!
In recent years, though, ERP software firms got lean
religion. Many are trying their best to find ways to make
their software responsive to lean needs and supportive of
lean practices. "Several ERP vendors have created 'flow'
manufacturing modules," says Michael Burkett, research
director at AMR Research in Boston. He cites American
Software, SAP AG, Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc., Cincom and
Lilly Software as companies that are offering packages that
support lean principles. "Some vendors are starting to
specialize in flow manufacturing."
Oracle's Flow Manufacturing, for
instance, helps support lean in several areas, according to
Richard Rodgers, director of product management for Oracle's
manufacturing group. "It's useful for demand planning, for
designing facilities, for sequencing and for signaling of
kanbans to suppliers," he says. "There's quite a bit of
functionality in it to support these business practices."
One of the key benefits of these software packages, AMR's
Burkett says, is that "they give you better reporting and a
lot of analytical capability to help you improve the line."
He says the most helpful software is that which can "put
information in the hands of people doing the work."
Another advantage of software supporting lean manufacturing
is its simulation capability. "Simulation of the factory is
a big benefit," Burkett says. "You want to design the
manufacturing process and lay out the work cells and work
stations in the optimum fashion." Both Teknomatix and
Dassault Systemes offer software to simulate production
lines to achieve the greatest efficiency and least waste.
Both packages are used heavily by the aerospace and
Hey, no one expects zebras and lions to live harmoniously in
the same cage. But lean and ERP may well end up working
together to improve the manufacturing enterprise.
Doug Bartholomew is a former
Senior Technology Editor. He is based in