Holding Up the Top Half of the Value Stream Map

One of our clients has 3 people in their Lean department and about 1,000 people in IT. I recently met about 30 of them at a planning meeting for a new factory. They were all very nice people. To be fair there is also a group of manufacturing engineers at the corporate and factory levels of this company to support operations, but they are not Lean-trained, and they number in the low hundreds.
Why so many IT people? This company is a global firm with operations in a dozen factories in nearly as many countries. Like many other of the world’s best run businesses, (as you will be reminded if you spend any time walking through airports) they run SAP.
Masaaki Homma, a Lean-ERP integration guru and principal of PSI consulting in Japan. “SAP is a push system” he will come right out and tell you. Mr. Homma is a blunt and brilliant man, and he knows the limitations of ERP systems too well. According to him you have to take apart or turn off most of the shop floor control functions to make ERP systems work with Lean. In a statement like a zen koan he told me “To pull with ERP, you must use many small pushes.” Perhaps these 1,000 people are all helping to push.
While many aspects of ERP systems are gee-whiz and necessary for firms to have multi-site, worldwide visibility across financial, materials, and scheduling functions this ratio of 3 to 1,000 Lean people to IT people seems a bit out of control.
After all, the value-added, profit-making work done in the factory (lower half of the Value Stream Map) supports the IT infrastructure (top half of the Value Stream Map). In Lean manufacturing thinking all support functions should enable a simple, highly value-added, smoothly flowing series of processes.
This company is making good progress in changing mindsets in the factories towards Lean thinking. The challenge ahead is to get the same can-do response from the purchasing and sales people in this organization in supporting Lean enterprise behaviors. These include selling behaviors that promote smooth and leveled schedules, and sourcing of materials not for the lowest price but lowest overall cost.
What is encouraging is that so far the IT people supporting SAP at this firm have been very can-do in terms of changes needed to support a Lean execution system on the shop floor. Let’s hope they find ways to code these Lean behaviors into the systems and processes at their company.