While pressing business challenges of transparency and visibility are deservedly getting a great deal of attention these days, we shouldn't assume the problem is a new one. Some of the solutions might be new and innovative, but the problem of knowing versus not knowing, visibility versus darkness, and knowledge versus ignorance have been with us since the big-slanted-forehead guys with clubs in their hands first peeked into a dark cave and wondered if there might be anything dangerous inside. More recently--only about 400 years ago--in Twelfth Night, noted ERP guru William Shakespeare illuminated the eternal struggle thusly:
Malvolio: Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged. Good Sir Topas, do not think I am mad: they have laid me here in hideous darkness.
Clown: Fie, thou dishonest Satan! I call thee by the most modest terms; for I am one of those gentle ones that will use the devil himself with courtesy. Sayst thou that house is dark?
Malvolio: As hell, Sir Topas.
Clown: Why, it hath bay-windows transparent as barricadoes, and the clerestories toward the south-north are as lustrous as ebony; and yet complainest thou of obstruction?
Malvolio: I am not mad, Sir Topas. I say to you, this house is dark.
Clown: Madman, thou errest: I say, there is no darkness but ignorance....
Malvolio: I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say, there was never man thus abused. I am no more mad than you are....
Doesn't that conversation--written around 1601--still ring true today? How many times have you sat in a meeting or on a conference call where it was painfully obvious that everybody knows some things and some people know everything but everybody doesn't know everything, and nobody knows what each person doesn't know? Those information gaps, while amusing in a play, are indicators of serious and potentially disastrous trouble in this business world that's rushing toward real-time everything. Indeed, "there is no darkness but ignorance."
Ten years ago, it was routine for businesses to schedule specific times when their front-line production systems would be "taken down" for maintenance or upgrades or some other internally driven reason. Today, that's pretty much impossible--what company in today's interlinked global economy can afford to just disappear for several hours from the web of worldwide commerce and information flow?
Yet, isn't that exactly what happens with regard to certain parts of our operations where the bright lights of transparency have yet to penetrate? Those murky, grungy corners of our extended enterprise where some partners still regard fax machines as cutting-edge, and some suppliers think that EDI stands for "Estimated Delivery? Impossible!!"
Worse yet, how about when these black holes reside right inside our very own companies? Maybe it's one of those rogue custom or nonstandard departmental or divisional systems that Bob Herbold rails about in The Fiefdom Syndrome, where that outlying server delivers perfect and precise information to the secret society that cares and feeds it, yet can't/won't deliver to the rest of the enterprise the regular information flow that's essential for success in today's unforgiving economy? Maybe the company has fallen painfully behind on an upgrade schedule and didn't have any plans for dealing with the resulting incompatibilities? Maybe the systems are fine, but business processes haven't been fully standardized, and renegade behavior is still tolerated?
So I was intrigued to read last week about a new software product in a slice of the supply-chain-execution space that I wasn't aware of: Manufacturing Execution Solutions (hey--good thing it's a three-letter acronym). And making it doubly interesting was this enterprise application's corporate parent, a company that few of us would connect with ERP software. But more on that in a moment.
Forgive me if this type of software has been around since Twelfth Night was first performed; that's not really my point. Rather, this new product underscores the need for all of us to attack within our enterprises those dark holes, those seemingly unreachable places, those impenetrable lead walls obscuring and hiding the information and knowledge that will allow us to operate more intelligently and more rapidly.
Called Manufacturing Advantage, this new product is designed to extend real-time visibility right into the heart of factories, shop floors, and manufacturing plants. All of those gritty places were the equivalent of the dark side of the moon--no information in, no information out--and invariably caused disruptions in scheduling, customer service, and planning because they weren't tied into the larger ERP flows of information. In a press release announcing the product, one industry analyst described it this way: "It's clear that to be successful, companies must integrate manufacturing operations with overall supply-chain flows and provide visibility to shop-floor activities and inventories," said Greg Gorbach, VP of collaborative manufacturing, ARC Advisory Group. "Companies also are demanding increased flexibility and real-time control in manufacturing processes. These benefits are precisely what HighJump's new MES solution is targeting."
HighJump Software president Chris Heim said because "visibility and control during the manufacturing process are just as critical as they are in all other areas of supply-chain execution," these manufacturing-execution apps can illuminate a formerly dark part of the operation. In turn, guesswork is diminished, customers can be given firm delivery dates, production schedules can be optimized, and inventories can be managed more effectively.
Oh yeah--about the corporate parent. While HighJump has been in the software business for 21 years, last year it was acquired by 3M, whose well-known consumer brands include Scotch, Post-it, and Thinsulate. And if you're wondering how those brands fit with supply-chain software, consider how 3M bills itself: "a global, diversified technology company." So maybe one of the reasons 3M bought HighJump is to help it deal with these issues of visibility and transparency, and to make sure there's plenty of bright light shining into all facets of its operations to mitigate the old truth that "there is no darkness but ignorance."
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