Archive for the ‘Manufacturing IT’ Category

Forget Internet of Things – The Real Business Transformation Explained

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

I took my 5-year old to Jet Propulsion Lab one day he was quite amazed with this shining object exhibit that is supposed to demonstrate how data are being transmitted from space. Once upon a time we must have been amazed by imagining these lights moving along indicating live communication with a remote object. Now we all take the data transmitting part for granted. On the contrary, apps and cartoons about how our lives have changed by technologies are what is getting more of our attention today. One day we will look at the Internet of Things (IoT) in the same way.


In the past year, there have been many inquiries from manufacturers around the world about buzz words such as Industrie 4.0, Smart Manufacturing and IoT. While there have been a lot of information on new technologies, less focus has been on the business transformation underway. What is beyond the automation of existing tasks? What are the fundamental changes from a business perspective? How do you prioritize the transformation of different parts of business for such changes?

To answer these questions, we need to better understand the underlying mechanism of these changes. I would propose one way is to look at these issues in the light of “Smart Pull,” a concept that expands the traditional definition of Pull in Lean manufacturing to a new world enabled by digital technologies.

The mechanism of Pull processes – those triggered by an actual event instead of a forecast (Push) – is nothing new. It is at the heart of many successful manufacturing strategies, MTO (Make-to-Order) and JIT (Just-in-Time) models. In the new paradigm, there are three major types of Pull made possible by digitization.

Collaborative Pull – This refers to the ability to draw out people and resources inside and outside an organization to collaborate on addressing a need as it appears. Some of the key technology enablers are virtual prototyping, simulation, additive manufacturing, social networking and enterprise search. These technologies enable people and resources across the globe to be identified quickly to work on a design or to solve a particular challenge, and to do so with better efficiency.

Services-oriented Pull – This refers to the ability to deliver a capability addressing a need as it appears. Famous examples are Uber personal transportation services or AirBnB lodging services. In each of these cases, a transportation or accommodation are delivered as a service to address a customer’s need through a social platform powered by Apps. In many cases, the pricing model is also based on the actual consumption of these services. MaaS or Manufacturing-as-a-Service is the consumption of manufacturing capacity as a service. Enabling technologies including IoT, intelligent sensors, cloud computing and social network platforms that carry out transactions required for matching sellers and consumers on-demand.

Adaptive Pull – This is the most common type of Pull used in manufacturing and logistics operations. Within traditional Lean manufacturing, Pull-based processes are being powered by digital technologies to go beyond elimination of over-production and inventory. Quality, maintenance, costing, procurement, production and inventory control can leverage these types of Pull processes. For example, a large number of real-time quality data can be gathered to analyze and benchmark across global production sites. Frontline workers and managers can now be automatically notified based on risks identified from such actual data. This is again a form of digital Pull that can be used to trigger an action based on actual data instead of a forecast. Enabling technologies include intelligent sensors, M2M, IoT, Big data analytics, BPM (Business Process Management), simulation and digital modeling.

These different types of Pull processes can be mixed and matched to create new customer experiences, or to pursue new level of efficiency. An example of a mixed Pull is the case of agricultural equipment manufacturer Kubota. They put sensors on their agricultural equipment to gather usage data at the field. Based on these data collected and analyzed, they now offer a value-added service to the customers on how to better optimize their farming operations. At the same time, such information is used to understand demand patterns. This knowledge has let Kubota know when to sell what types of equipment, and to which type of user. In this scenario, an equipment manufacturer and farmers work collaboratively to optimize farming operations (Collaborative Pull). The data analysis can then be sold as a service (Service-oriented Pull). The selling of additional equipment based on actual demand is also a type of demand Pull (Adaptive Pull).

The advantage of thinking in terms of the above “Smart Pull” concept is that it takes the focus away from technology and put it on business transformation. Challenges and inefficiency based on Push are then presented as opportunities. Perhaps you can start asking the following questions to identify areas of opportunities.

  • What kind of improvement in capital lockup or wait time has most impact to business?
  • Can these areas be improved by Pull?
  • Which part of your customer engagement or operation inefficiency can be addressed by changing from push to pull?

Perhaps the day will come when design, engineering, manufacturing, logistics and after-sales resources are all available as services to be called upon on demand just like what Uber is doing to transportation resources. A consumer could then use his or her phone to customize an order that meets his or her special needs. All the necessary industrial resources could then be orchestrated – on demand – based on Pull to fulfil each specific order. The concept of “Smart Pull” is truly revolutionary, given its role to help bring these business transformations to market.


Applying Nobel-winning Physics Techniques to Management

October 10, 2012 Leave a comment

2012’s Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland. They showed in the 1990s how to observe individual particles while preserving their bizarre quantum properties, something that scientists had struggled to do before. While this contribution may first seem far-fetching and remotely detached from the daily management challenges of a business executive, I am going to argue otherwise.

The Principle of Uncertainty

Let me first touch on the significance of this discovery. At the beginning of last century when quantum physics was born, physicists have discovered that classical laws of physics break down at sub-atomic level. Everyday objects that we are used to have deterministic states.  For example, given the starting location and the velocity of a car, we can easily determine its location at any time. Tiny particles on the other hand behave differently. The foundation of quantum mechanics was first built on the Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, which describes the possibility of physical objects having multiple states. Hence given the initial location and velocity of a particle, multiple locations described by probability functions are possible. This is what makes quantum mechanics such a bizarre subject for most people. Making things worse, it was not possible to observe this type of behavior. For example, observing a photon will require lights to be absorbed by our eyes or any image sensors, hence altering the state of the photon itself. This observer effect and uncertainty relation has been captured in many ways in philosophical studies such as those of Karl Popper and reflexivity. The latter one has been mentioned by George Soros as the principle behind his investment strategy. Working around these monumental theoretical and philosophical hurdles is hence what the 2 Nobel literates have achieved.

What Can Managers Learn From Quantum Physicists?

While the bizarre world of quantum mechanics may seem distant, the principle of uncertainty for tiny objects prevails well in business management. For example, many companies have installed some type of ERP systems to get a real time view of the state of their business. There is a strong belief in the existence of a single version of the truth on financial data that are at company or division levels. Day-to-day decisions are made based on this information. This is almost in analogy to management by classical physics. However, when it comes down to highly granular information like events on critical machines, individual operator performance, inventory by SKU and bin locations, or even OEE for machines, business executives tend to think of them as the world of tiny objects like the bizarre world of quantum mechanics. It is not uncommon to have multiple truths in such manufacturing operations. The reported OEEs from different plants for the same type of machine can be based on very different measurement methods and subject to different degree of human errors. Different departments on the manufacturing shop floor have different recognition of the true state of their operations. The variable cost by product line by shift can be far from the aggregate cost that was captured in ERP. The inventory accuracy by SKU quantity can be way below the ERP inventory accuracy that is based on total aggregated financial numbers. It is far too common that business executives have admitted the principle of uncertainty and allowed their manufacturing operations to operate based on multiple uncertain states.

Mastering the Quantum Bits of Your Business

It does not have to be that way. Just like the Nobel Prize winners have discovered, the technology to observe and measure the quantum bit of manufacturing information exists. Some companies have already tapped into the power of this technology and achieved significant improvement in profit margins and working capital. In the increasingly complex and turbulent world, tiny quantum bit of information can explode into a perfect storm in a very short time. The capability of a business to leverage these quantum bits is already distinguishing the winners from the losers in the marketplace.

While the technology to observe the quantum bits of manufacturing information may be a far cry from getting its own Nobel Prize, the application of such technology should not be left as a subject of uncertainty anymore.

The Future of Lean Manufacturing through the World of Warcraft

October 5, 2011 3 comments

Any seasoned Lean manufacturing expert will tell you that implementing lean is not about JIT, Heijunka or any sort of tools. It is about implementing a lean culture of continuous improvement. In fact in Toyota, they consider their ultimate competitive advantage is the “intoxication of improvement” by every employee from shopfloor to top floor. Thousands of improvement ideas are created every day even for the smallest mundane tasks. This is in big contrast to “don’t fix what is not broken” mindset prevails in most other organizations. Well, what they believe is one thing. Have any of these been scientifically proven? Can we simulate this kind of organizational behavior and measure its output? And if we can, what can we learn from such about managing thousands of ideas and distill them to actions every day?

In this video, Dr. John Seely Brown, one of my favorite business writer talks about the innovation dynamics within the World of Warcraft (WoW), which also happens to be my favorite on-line video game. At the end, Brown said “This may be for the first time that we are able to prove exponential learning … and figure out how you can radically accelerate on what you’re learning”. Indeed, I have found this game could interestingly cast light on the social dynamics of lean culture and how it will evolve in the future.
[gigya movie=”” quality=”high” allowFullScreen=”true” allowScriptAccess=”always” flashVars=”config=″ src=”” type=width=”640″ height=”383″ quality=”high” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash”]

Guild structure and QC circles

“There is too much information changing too fast…The only way to get anything done seriously is to join a guild” said Brown. These guilds in WoW are groups of 20-200 people helping each other to process ideas. This greatly resembles the Quality Circle movement, in which employees are not just hired to perform a task but rather to form part of small groups that constantly seeking ways to self-improve. The differences of QC circles to these guilds could be the technology that they are using as indicated below.

Everything is measured; everyone is critiqued by everyone else

In the WoW, it is easy to record every action and measure performance. There are after-action reviews on every high-end raid and everyone is critiqued by everyone. This resembles the typical PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) process used by QC circles. The challenges however in the manufacturing world are that too much information is still recorded on paper or if recorded electronically, on multiple segregated systems. This inhibits the sharing, retrieval and analysis of information that enabled the rapid group self-improvement dynamics of WoW.

Personal dashboard are not pre-made, they are mashups

Another key learning from the WoW is that you need to craft your own dashboard to measure your own performance. Brown even said that the Obama administration is stealing the idea from WoW and trying to do the same. So much for the software companies who are trying to sell pre-packaged KPIs to measure corporate performance.  Imagine a new manufacturing world that every operator and supervisor has real-time feedback on his/her own performance. Seeing how minute by minute idle time or over-production is affecting bottom-line and return on capital. The future of performance measurement technology is detail, real-time and personalized.

Exponential learning

The last slide in the video shows learning speed exponentially increases as one goes up the level in WoW. The high performance guilds need to distill what they have learnt from their own guild and share with other guilds throughout the network. Those who can do that effectively tend to move up level faster. In the manufacturing world, there are many companies trying to share best-practices across and within organizations. However, manufacturing executives may not realize that effective continuous improvement and best-practice sharing can lead to a state of exponential learning that constitutes an ultimate competitive advantage.

In a sense, the computer world of WoW is able to simulate the social dynamics of how individuals could form groups to process and create ideas, how groups could measure and improve within themselves and how groups could interact with each other in order to accelerate learning that results in high performance. Such social dynamic also resembles that of the lean culture, long promoted within companies like Toyota. Looking forward, the promises of manufacturing 2.0 are technologies to enable almost everything to be measured, allow information from individuals to interact freely as groups and also empower groups to effectively share best-practices. Such multi-tier collaboration from shopfloor to topfloor will bring about a new form of highly competitive organization that harnesses the power of exponential learning. On that note, the future evolution of lean culture may not be that much different from the present World of Warcraft.

How technologies have changed the way I deal with the Great East-Northern Japan Earthquake?

March 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I remember the president of Mitsui told me about why he started his pet IT project with me back at 2005. “My vision is that if Mitsui can function even during the great Tokyo earthquake, then we will be the number one company in the world. It all depends on how we handle unexpected events, not routines.” He believed that through business process management and hence process automation, Mitsui can function even during an unexpected disruption of unprecedented scale. While dealing with the aftermath of the recent events in Japan is certainly a bigger problem than trying to be the world’s number one company, it would be interesting to check back with him on how much his vision has achieved.

I was there at Kobe when the last earthquake hit with M7.9 at 1995. That quake had destroyed houses, freeway and brought down all the lamp posts around me in mere 15 sec. How did it feel in the recent event of which was a M8.9 (100 times stronger) hit for 6 minutes is way beyond my imagination. Nevertheless, information technology has leapfrogged in the past 16 years and I have noticed a lot of changes in how people in the world dealing with such an event. Back then, I had only been able to turn on my car engine and listen to the radio. I had not had any means to contact anyone. Had I been outside of Japan back then, I might not have known about the event till much later. Even if I had known, I could not have done much than being a sitting duck and praying.

Here are a few major changes that I noticed:

1. Respond faster through a Distributed rather than Centralized network

I was instant-messaging with a friend in Tokyo who told me an earthquake had just hit at 3/10 Thursday evening California time. I quickly did a Google search on “Japanese Earthquake” and I could not believe the number that I saw: M8.9. I thought there might be an error in the system. I then turned on TV and did other searches but there were very limited information to indicate a major disaster had just happened. Because of my experience in Kobe earthquake, I immediately knew that M8.9 could be a 100 times worse than what I had experienced back then. How should I confirm that before any images come on TV news? The next thing that I did was checking on Live Web Cam in Japan. Most of them were down but after several trials, I got some images of cars stopped in messy orientation at Tokyo downtown. I knew then that this was actually happening. I quickly posted on Facebook and emailed some friends to check with people whom I know. I spent the next few hours emailing, SMS, Skyping and twittering till I got tired and went to sleep. I did not get to see the horrible images of the Tsunami on TV till the next morning. Direct contact between individual devices that are loosely connected was definitely spreading information faster than a centralized architecture such as TV or radio broadcast.

2. Discover solutions on-the-fly through collaboration

I got a close relative living in Sendai who had not checked-in. I posted that on Facebook and quickly got several suggestions on how to locate him from my friends around the world. I then contacted his company through emergency line and we registered at Google people finder. I kept monitoring twitter and Facebook on minute-by-minute live events as people around Japan posted their feeds. We finally located him after more than 24 hours after the earthquake when one of his colleagues who identified him sent me a text message. That was such a relief. In reflection, it is not as easy for his colleague to send us a message because power to the mobile was such precious asset under the circumstance. My relative could not contact us because his phone was out of power.

3. Leverage Real-time monitoring across the globe

I thought I could catch my breath after I confirmed safety of all my friends and relatives but then come the news of the nuclear plant explosion. I have been keeping a look on the real-time radiation levels across multiple locations around the Fukushima nuclear plant through an official website.

4. Employ agent-based alert to catch and respond to events

I have also set to receive alert email on the aftershocks and how transportation systems are being affected. Based on this information, I do not have to hunt for information but being notified when events that I am interested in occur. I have hence adjusted the travel schedule accordingly.

5. Derive strategy through social media

It is interesting to point out that the rolling power outrage after the earthquake when Fukushima nuclear plant went down was first socialized through social media before putting into action. Social media was also used to gain support on the call for stopping panic buying. Irrational buying behavior was generally not observed and resulted in a big contrary to the run on salt and baby formula in some neighboring countries. (OK, I admit that part of this was owing to the very beautiful side of Japanese culture)

Internet, web, mobile devices, social media, Wi-Fi, physical sensors and webcams, event-driven alert and alarm, real-time monitoring from anywhere, all are indicating that democratization of information has replaced or complemented central broadcasting of news through TV and radio.

How about the manufacturing world?

It is kind of ironical to think of many global manufacturing companies that I am working with has not really leveraged much of the above mentioned technologies. Executives and managers still depend on occasionally bumping into colleagues at the hall way to discover whether the most critical machine in their supply chain is down. Even the enabling technologies are available, there is still limited sharing of best-practices manufacturing processes across geographic locations. KPI report upon which million dollars decisions are depended, are still weeks or sometimes months after the fact. The majority of the mobile devices, sensors and individual control units are not interconnected. Centralized systems like ERPs that depend on aggregating data and then broadcast a plan are still driving the majority of the manufacturing process. In wake of such an unexpected event that went beyond anyone’s imagination, I suppose that it is high time to ask: how well prepared is your organization for the next Tsunami?

Toyota’s IT Investment in Global Kaizen

September 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Little has been published about Toyota’s IT investment. This may be one of the reasons why many consultants who practise Lean or TPS have mistaken that Toyota does not need IT. In fact Toyota has spent close to 10 billion USD in IT since the dawn of this century. Although Toyota tends to be secretive about its investment plan, more information can be found in Japanese.

According to magazine “Nikkei Information Strategy”[1], Toyota has spent 2 billion USD on IT by 2003 on what was called “Global Kaizen”. This investment was only the first step in the “10 billion dollar Kaikaku” effort that spanned across the global operation of 27 countries and more than 60 facilities. The following areas were identified by industrial expects as Toyota’s targets to leverage IT.

  1. Rolling out supplier Kanban for global purcruement
    At 2003, Toyota’s regional profit margins are Japan 9.2%, NA 4.6% and Europe 0.2%. Obviously, best-practices in Japan had not been able to rollout to other parts of the world. A key bottleneck was regional supplier relationship, which was especially important for high margin luxury vehicles that are made in small lots. Even with the same product, part numbers are created uniquely at each facility as a result of local Kaizen activities. Factory IT systems and CAD were largely in-house developed for each facility.  Therefore from a global enterprise perspective, there was no easy way to identify what parts are used at each facility or hence to substitute supply of parts from one facility to another. As a result, the rollout of Kanban system across regions was extremely difficult.
  2. Improving new product introduction
    During the product planning phase, it is important to be able to simulate weight, space occupied, cost and even level of safety based on combination of parts from the suppliers. For that purpose, Toyota has developed “V-Comm” (Virtual Communication) to simulate design and facilitate concurrent engineering for many years. Although the new product launch and prototyping lead time has been shortened, cost estimation has remained largely manual. During the course of 2004, Toyota has informed suppliers to submit CAD data of either CATIA or Pro/Engineer during parts delivery. Standardization on packaged instead of in-house built software was a drastic step for Toyota.
  3. Incorporating BTO (Dell model)
    Toyota has been trying to shorten order-to-deliver lead time to 1-2 weeks. This requires the capability to search in real time what are the work-in-progress vehicles in the assembly line and hence to assign customer specific options to be added in the down stream process. Toyota was trying to lay down the foundation for BTO capability especially at developing countries such as China where the sales network still have been under construction.
  4. Enhancing after-sales service
    After-sales service was identified to become a major growing revenue stream. A bottleneck to enhance after-sales service was the lack of traceability. For example, the capability to identify which lot of parts has gone to which vehicle and hence using that information for problem containment or recall had not been fully developed. Hence a huge amount of manual work was required to identify the affected vehicles in the event of recall. The plan was to extend traceability to after-sales running and maintenance record. As increasing weight being given to sustainability, there was also increasing need to extend traceability to the end of the vehicle’s service life.

Toyota’s 10 billion IT investment in operation

R&D Purchasing Production Logistics / Sales After-Sales
  • Packaged CAD
  • BOM standardization and PDM
  • Product planning DB
  • Production simulation /3D data



  • Electronic Kanban

  • Traceability
  • BTO production

  • Traceability
  • Order-taking system for BTO
  • Global purchasing for BTO

  • Embedded system
  • traceability
  • System built for 2 billion USD

    Other events that gave a glimpse of  Toyota’s IT activities include:

    1. Toyota was elected as the no. 2 in “IT power” by Nikkei BP Magazine in 2007. Toyota is the no.1 in “IT power” among all Japanese automaker. (way above second Honda and then Nissan).
    2. Toyota global CIO Amano-san was elected as CIO of the year by “Nikkei information strategy” at 2004. He mentioned that there was a time that Toyota believed IT is not of much value but that position has significantly changed due to globalization
    3. During an appearance at the CIO forum 2009, Toyota President Watanabe-san said that he firmly believes IT will save his company, the enterprise and the nation from the recent recession, which represents one in a hundred years opportunity to change and thrive.

    Some other useful source of information:

    [1] Nikkei Information Strategy, Oct issue 2003

    How Japan’s enterprise IT has failed to learn from its most competitive industry–manufacturing

    August 28, 2009 Leave a comment

    The Samurai Sword for Lean Transformation

    August 28, 2009 1 comment

    The missing opportunity of western manufacturers

    In this economy, it is hard to imagine that many manufacturing companies are still missing out the opportunities of pull. This is the simple concept of triggering execution of business process by an actual event rather than by a plan (push). There seems to be a notion that pull processes cannot be applied without going through a long journey of lean transformation. As for those keen lean practitioners who have embarked on cultural change efforts, many have underestimated the power of pull and its synergy effect with technology.

    Pull does not come as natural for many non-Japanese organizations. On the other hand, Japanese culture does have a strong element of pull, which may be explained by the tendency to leverage natural flow rather than to apply external force to push for drastic changes. This tendency is manifested physically in terms of saws, swords, even knife in the kitchen are mostly designed for a pulling action whereas their counterparts in the western world are more likely designed for a pushing action.

    A Japanese Pulling Saw

    A Japanese saw that is pulled backward to cut

    A pushing saw that is common in the west

    A common saw that is pushed forward to cut

    Japanese Samurai Sword Charaterized by a curved blade

    Japanese Samurai Sword Characterized by a curved blade

    That is also the reason why a Japanese sword is curved whereas swords from other parts of the world tend to be straight. A blade curved backward, away from its cutting edge, promotes a smooth, slicing cut, and distributes impact more evenly along the whole of the weapon than a straight blade, reducing the shock transmitted back to the wielder when applying a pulling action. It also allows for draw and cut in a single action, resulting in better speed and flexibility in combat.

    Taiichi Ohno invented BPM

    Some may find it surprising that Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, invented pull-based BPM application to factory floor back in the 60s. Whether he based his ideas on a samurai sword is not referencable but he described in his book[1] on what he called the concept of “The Toyota-Style Information System”, which was neither cost-effective nor reliable to implement with computer technology at that time. That is not the case anymore. Today’s BPM technology if applied effectively can not only boost lean methodology to a new level at the factory floor but also drive to cut waste across multiple entities along the supply chain.

    In fact, the 2 fundamental pillars of the Toyota Production System, namely, autonomation and JIT are both based on pull-based business process.

    Autonomation calls for the business process of stopping machine and correcting problem to be triggered by the unplanned event of machine malfunction. The process can prevent production of defective parts, eliminate overproduction and avoid delays. Automation of such process relieves the workers from the need to continuously judge whether the operation of the machine is normal.  The workers are then only engaged when there is an alert for a problem and hence can simultaneously supervise several machines to achieve better cost-effectiveness.

    JIT demands production activities to be carried out at just the right time in order to minimize inventory, which is considered as waste. Kanban cards are signals triggered by an actual event, such as the completion of a product downstream or the consumption of inventory below a predefined level. These signals are then sent to another operation to trigger an action, such as the start of an upstream assembly operation or the transport of parts from a supplier.

    Both autonomation and JIT are business processes triggered by an actual event, instead of a plan. The execution of such pull-based business processes are core to the Toyota Production System. In the era when available computer technologies were no more than mainframe batch-processing and rudimentary means for actual event sensing, Taiichi Ohno sought to implement such processes without the use of computer. Today’s BPM tools together with the advances in sensing technologies such as barcode, machine sensors, RFID and location-sensing technologies, are taking lean methodology to a level beyond the reach of its inventor.

    Such applications are best explained by examples.

    Case 1  – Applying advanced lean at a steel production mill

    Company A is a 50 million USD company that produces steel coils from recycled metal scraps that are shipped from all over US and Mexico. The price of the end steel product has gone down from 1200 USD per ton to 500 USD per ton during the short several months when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Like many other manufacturers, Company A was under immense pressure to cut cost and release cash for survival. Contrary to common belief that the benefits of lean methodologies require extensive cultural transformation over long period of time and are less applicable to a continuous process like steel-making, they have reaped significant savings in the following areas through relatively simple and fast implementation by leveraging a BPM tool.

    Firstly, by applying BPM to synchronize the purchase and delivery of expensive alloys and additives to the actual pace of production, an estimation of 2.5 million cash can be released from inventory. This is implemented by tracking the receipt and consumption of the selected alloy materials in real-time. Purchases and deliveries are triggered by referencing the safety stock level. This safety stock level is automatically adjusted daily based on the statistics of the recent variations and trends of consumption and purchase lead time.

    Inventory reduction as a result of dynamic replenishment

    Inventory reduction as a result of dynamic replenishment

    In this example, purchase is triggered by an actual event which is consumption. The quantity of purchase is calculated by the optimal economic batch size that minimize transportation fee and safety stock is calculated dynamically to reflect historical demand variability. The result is 37% reduction in inventory and is at least 10% more saving than implementation of a traditional fixed quantity Kanban system. This is an example of applying BPM to realize event-driven business process that takes JIT to a new level.

    Secondly, autonomation can be enhanced in the production process through BPM.  Machines and processes are typically designed to automatically stop when a problem such as cobble of coil occurs. Such an event would result in delay of order fulfillment and increase of Inventory Prime, a measurement of finished goods inventory not produced to a customer order specification. However, such risk can be largely reduced by implementing an event-pull process to promptly trigger reapplication of the failed coil to the upstream furnace by taking considerations of real-time data including  on-going process chemistry and status at the furnace, overall production schedule and resources availability. A conservative estimate of 200K USD saving in material alone is hence achieved, not to mention the soft benefits of improving customer satisfaction and labor time saving for more productive activities. Autonomation in this case is being taken beyond problem containment but further into automating the corrective action to minimize waste.

    Case 2  – Synchronizing product supply at a consumer goods appliance assembly plant

    Company B is a major consumer goods appliance company that has a refrigerator plant supplying to 20 distribution centers, which in turn supplying to retail appliance stores all over the country. A major challenge of managing product supply of the white goods category is large seasonal demand variation. The difference in demand variation between high and low seasons is for example at least 3 times higher for refrigerator than for plasma TV. The keys to keep inventory low while meeting customer demand in this case are manufacturing flexibility as well as material synchronization with suppliers and sales.

    A mixed product assembly line

    A mixed product assembly line

    Manufacturing flexibility was achieved by implementing multi-product assembly line. This was especially challenging when increasing the flexibility of the assembly line to not only multiple products but that of multiple colors. The door part for example is fabricated at a different line than the final assembly. The door of the right color has to be delivered to the final assembly line at the right time and sequence. In this case the production of the door part is synchronized to the assembly line through an event-driven process as implemented by a BPM tool. The detail work instruction including the BOM and assembly instruction of the particular door part is exploded and sent electronically to the fabrication line as the refrigerator body is loaded to the final assembly line.

    Another important aspect to achieve the above flexibility is in-line quality. The above mentioned synchronization would not be possible without stable yield from the door fabrication line. The shop floor BPM tool served to speed up the corrective action workflow, enable pokayoke and collect inspection results and defect detail to allow for long term continuous improvement.

    Demand leveling was necessary to enable smooth running of the multi-product assembly line. The production orders were placed according to the replenishment orders from the distribution centers. The demand could be 3 times higher over the weekend due to weekend shopping. The sales department has agreed to consolidate the orders to the plant by weekly buckets on the condition that the plant has to encompass manufacturing of all 50 products every day. This way the sales department is comfortable of meeting customer demand even orders are placed on weekly buckets.

    In order to manufacture all 50 products every day, the plant needs to seek cooperation with its suppliers. Instead of sending delivery instructions to suppliers 2 weeks in advance with 2 deliveries per day, the plant will make last minute changes before the actual delivery date and require 4 deliveries per day. The BPM tool in this case not only publishes the inventory and production schedule to the supplier but also generates detail delivery instruction that synchronize with actual production. Based on sharing of critical information, some of the suppliers have shifted from make-to-stock to make-to-sequence as managed by the pull-based process across multiple sites.

    As a result of enhancing manufacturing flexibility as well as material synchronization with suppliers and sales, this plant was able to reduce plant inventory from 14 days to 1 day over a period of 3 years.

    Case 3  – Enabling flexible supply network at a global electronic equipment company

    Company C is a global electronic equipment company who has recognized the challenge of not only implementing best-practice lean processes in one plant but also rolling out such to multiple internal and external facilities across the globe. Due to the fast pace of technology in this industry, the manufacturing model of each product category evolves rapidly over time. The high volume and low mix products are more effective to be managed by pull processes while the low volume / long lead time product are more effectively managed by plan-pushed processes. While new products are more likely to produced in-house initially, their production may ramp up within less than a year. Out-sourcing part of the operations to sub-contractors in lower cost countries becomes necessary in order to stay competitive to meet market demand as products are commoditized. In order to meet such challenges, Company C adopted enterprise SOA architecture together with BPM in the following ways.

    An Example of Enterprise SOA

    An Example of Enterprise SOA

    Firstly, a basic logical unit of service is defined for a manufacturing operation, which is part of the entire manufacturing process. Each unit of service has 2 layers of functionalities, namely planning and execution. The planning layer is realized by an ERP package which handles MRP, order taking, purchasing and financial. The execution layer is realized by a manufacturing BPM tool that manages the execution of all the inventory, quality, production and maintenance transactions as well as all the  pull-based processes.

    Secondly, each of the basic unit of service  interacts with each other through the same sales and purchase order mechanism. Internal orders with no financial posting are created when one unit is ordering parts from another unit within the same plant. External orders that post the proper financial journal entries are used when parts are ordered from a supplier or a subcontracted plant.

    By adopting this architecture throughout the enterprise, whether it is a process change from plan-push to event-pull as product lifecycle matures, a rearrangement of operation sequences as a result of continuous improvement or a shift of an operation to a subcontractor as business model evolves can all be handled by rearranging the identical units of service at the ESB without the need for custom programming that requires month-long system upgrade. With such a global flexible platform approach, IT cost is estimated to be reduced from 2.9% to 1.8% of sales in 3 years. This does not include any of the operational benefits attained by implementing best-practice across the global facilities and responding faster to demand in supply network reconfiguration.

    5 keys areas to leverage technology in lean

    The above 3 cases illustrated that pull-based BPM can be applied in the following ways:

    1. Leverage second order information – which is not only the current state but also dynamic data such as the up-to-the-minute or second standard deviation, micro-trends, variability to trigger better actions and control processes (such as dynamic buffer in case 1, dynamic Kanban flow, realtiime TOC). These data can of course used to support 6-sigma improvement effort and reduce DMIAC cycle time for projects as well as to improve accuracy of master data in planning systems (standard leadtime, standard cost.. etc)

    2. Extend in-process visibility / intelligence for operation decision support – which is different from typical batch-based business intelligence/ after-the-fact analysis. In case 1 such realtime in-process visibility enables prompt human decision in reapplication of failed coil.

    3. Enable pull process to supply chain partners and customers – as indicated by case 2 that suppliers and sales synchronization are keys to lean initiatives, even when their sole focus is within the 4 walls of a facility.

    4. Sustain Kaizen – which drives many small steps of changes in the lean journey. Changes of shopfloor layout, work sequence, equipment, methods, people, material all need to be supported by a flexible IT platform not only at the local level but also roll out of changes across the enterprise. Rapid measurement of Kaizen results and benchmarking operational KPIs across multiple facilities to reinforce common goals.

    5. Increase process and supply network flexibility – which requires an enterprise architecture to capture lean best-practice, to enable flexible switching between different types of processes according to business need as well as to roll out to multiple facilities and to ramp up/down suppliers as supply network is reconfigured in case 3.

    In this context, pull-based process and lean techniques have been proven to be applicable to all styles of manufacturing from continuous , batch to complex discrete assembly as illustrated by the above 3 cases. Case 1 is a company that had no previuous experiences of adopting lean while Case 2 and 3 are companies that have adopted lean for many years. In other words, opportunities to apply pull-based processes that result in saving can be identified at whatever stages of the lean journey.

    Isn’t cultural transformation more important?

    Lean practitioners who deny the importance of IT would never able to tackle the above challenges. The kind of cultural transformation requires for taking the lean journey typically takes many years. IT tools, if applied effectively, can reinforce the collective organizational motivation requires for the long journey of lean transformation with quick, concrete and visible benefits on the way. Taking the lean journey is just like a Samurai taking many years to master the skill and spirit of Bushido, along the path he needs to arm himself with the right Katana to win his day-to-day battles. Pull-based BPM is the modern Katana (Samurai sword) to cut through organization barriers, pull together organizational Kaizen persistence, split best-practice to global operation as well as craft out the ultimate goal of cultural transformation that strikes at the heart of competition.

    While it takes years to master the spirit of Bushido, a Samurai's sword can make a difference of win or lose in battle

    Taking the lean journey is just like a Samurai taking many years to master the skill and spirit of Bushido, along the path he needs to arm himself with the right Katana to win his day-to-day battles

    How the right Katana should be cast? That would be a topic for another day.

    [1] “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production” page 48-50, Taiichi Ohno