I just returned from the CBI MES conference and found that the main theme or at least that many the attendees were interested in finding the right MES. Yes I know - “it is maybe easier to achieve world peace”. It seems there is no clear answer – no surprise! “It depends”, was a common answer, some said “it is what you make of it”, and I completely agree.
In my many years of studying the “Shop Floor Management” (aka Manufacturing Systems) problem I found that apart from all the technical and functional aspects, the common element that makes an MES implementation and operation successful is user involvement. The users (across all functions) really have to want it! MESs are complex and sometimes cumbersome. They touch many different functions in a manufacturing business, most critically they manage the value stream – or where value is being made. That makes their adoption and acceptance brittle.
In most cases MES products are aligned with specific industries and hence it is pretty straightforward to make an initial short list. But this is not always true, a vendor may be trying to penetrate your specific vertical opening up potential to influence them – and possibly also get a good deal. There are obviously many other factors that can and do play in. “It depends” is always a true statement when talking about fit of a specific MES product to your environment, and therefore it is always important to know what you need.
So how do you determine what you need? Most people will tell you, and correctly so, that you have to use formal (true and tested) models such as the MESA model or the ISA 95 standard. This is the boring but necessary part of the preparatory and selection phases for the MES. I am not saying you should skip the detail; it is by all means necessary. We all know that the devil is in the details, but using these models with no clear focus will not help either. You should use these models to make sure that you have not forgotten or omitted something not to define your problem. That is something only you and your company know, and in most cases it is very specific to your company or business. I prefer to use the 5 whys method to get to the root-cause and then write up as a series of problems – in simple language.
Another important thing to remember is to build on success as Lean practitioners advocate. It works best with a focused Kaizen-like event where a specific need is addressed. When people in the company observe or have taken part in a successful change the value seems transparent and obvious - and you don’t have to even explain or sell it. It is infinitely easier to convince people this way. In fact the only really successful MES projects, at least in my experience, have been when the operators and engineers embraced the system because it addressed a specific problem they had. Yes I know this seems trivial and is also the basis of modern product management, but it is really much more challenging than it seems.
So what have we learned from all of this? As many of the speakers at the conference re-iterated; you need to have a clear focus of the problem. It makes it is easier to build a business case to justify the investment – trivial really. But at the end of the day you have to want it, otherwise it will never happen.