Almost nothing gets done without software. Companies use it to track inventory, processes, and of course, communicate. How did we function without email and apps? As consumers get used to having easy and instant communication tools, manufacturers have done the same. Web-based technologies like the Cloud, Big Data and the Internet of Things continue to attract attention. In addition, the idea behind quality software has changed. Today, the role of software has branched out to include metrics on how quality is improving processes and even tracking how products are doing in the field.
Manufacturers have an opportunity to get more customer intelligence through their products.
This may be an intimidating endeavor, so start small. Companies should pick a product, factory, or unit, and then use analysis in that one area.
This data can be used to make better product design decisions, or to fix products already in the field.
“I think we’re at the beginning stages of software advances in the manufacturing space, using high-powered analytics software in entirely new ways. We see them able to harness increased connectivity in data,” says Matt Doan, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, which released a report in June on the top priorities for industrial manufacturers. Doan says industrial manufacturers will be doing three things:
“They will enable transparency in their factories, connecting machinery and sensors and making data available.
They will create analysis with software and find anomalies and trends.
A little further down the line, they will change their decision making and culture so they can embrace the use of automation.”
Manufacturers have an opportunity to get more customer intelligence through their products. “If you capture that data well, it can be instrumental in determining what the market needs are, help fine tune your next product design or update current products,” Doan says. But this may be intimidating, which is why he also suggests using a strategy to start small. “Most people get too confused with the Internet of Things, a big, nebulous concept.” He says companies should pick a product, factory or unit, and then use analysis in that one area. In this pilot mode, people should be encouraged to use that data.
For example, Doan mentioned the connectivity in Tesla vehicles. The company is able to offer software updates on vehicles, allowing drivers to receive an updated new version without going to the dealership. (A headline from Wired.com asked, “Tesla’s Over-the-Air Fix: Best Example Yet of the Internet of Things?”) Another manufacturing trend to watch for is mining social media for data, Doan says. Instead of having a room full of people watching Twitter, companies can use analytic software to track this automatically.
The Changing World of Quality
“Software can no longer be one thing,” says Cedro Toro, founder and CEO of software company KPI Fire. “People want a solution that handles the whole picture and not just part of it.”
And in looking at the bigger picture, trends in quality software also reflect larger trends in the industry. “Obviously, Software as a Service is the biggest trend of the past five years,” Toro says. While some aspects of software have gotten simpler—no more downloads—Toro says that complexity can still be a problem.
“Traditional software is so feature-rich that there is a long adoption mode. People fail to adopt software because of complexity,” Toro says. “Software is expected to work like an app on their phone, big and simple.”
At the same time, the idea of what a quality management system is has been expanding. In the past, it might have been thought of as simply some sort of audit and tracking tool. But today, he says this has branched out to include how quality is improving business processes. “The whole lean Six Sigma process is incorporated in quality management,” Toro says, “and quality management is seen as a differentiator.”
As quality becomes a broader aspect of the business, it runs into strategy. And although buzzwords like big data may sound intriguing, many times people just want to know: “How do I get the job done and work with my colleagues efficiently?”
“Our customers are focused on solving a very real problem,” Toro says. In some cases, companies have teams across the country working on different projects and reporting the progress. They tell him: “Right now we’re doing it in spreadsheets and it’s killing us.”
Still, others say the keeping things simple can be a good solution as well. “Sometimes people are looking for the exotic solution when a little manual paperwork would solve things,” says Jay Arthur, CEO of KnowWare. “When we teach people too much stuff, they get confused. It’s tools they don’t need for problems they don’t have.”
No matter how big the company is, or how large the project, the goal is to quickly share projects and files seamlessly. Toro says that the communication tool should be a natural part of their day, making it easy to communicate with peers.
But sometimes even with the ease of communication, there are still hurdles in the workplace, such as the often-cited issue of management support. Lean Six Sigma companies always complain that there is no management buy-in, Toro notes. The problem is that management has to achieve goals, as do the middle managers.
“If the Lean Six Sigma team focuses on projects tied to those goals, they will have more executive buy-in than they ever imagined,” Toro says. He notes that if you aren’t getting buy-in on your projects, you might be working on the wrong things, or not communicating the right things. Once the right things are being done, “Everyone gets excited about the mission you’re trying to accomplish,” Toro says.
“One common mistake is tracking lagging indicators or customer satisfaction,” Toro says. “What they should be tracking are leading indicators. What leads to good quality? What leads to customer satisfaction?
“When people adopt our software or any software, they have to understand that software is one piece of a management system. Other pieces are a clear process, clear roles and responsibilities. Who will use the software, when and how? If every person in the department team/company doesn’t understand how the software makes their life easier, it won’t make it easier. When we go in to train them to the software, we also look at business processes. What mechanism do you have to review ideas? What are the outlets for those ideas? If those rules and responsibilities aren’t clear, then the software can’t help you. It doesn’t fill that gap in the management,” Toro says.
Software in Action
Kyle Belnap works in continuous improvement in electronics manufacturing. His team does a lot of visual displays throughout the site. For years, he said SharePoint has been the failsafe on sharing documents, though he also uses Excel—a “tool that everybody knows”—as well as various other systems. “We’re not married to a software package,” Belnap says. He participated in a trial of KPI Fire, which he said allows them to use a more intelligent tool for project tracking. “The strategy deployment is really great. It’s very easy to sort through. It’s one of the best features of it.”
Belnap says that when considering a new software purchase—or any investment—he asks: What’s a problem we’re trying to solve? And does this tool meet or solve that problem? This helps determine the need and potential solutions. “People get caught up in shiny objects, costing a bunch of money,” Belnap says.
“From a technology standpoint, automation is becoming more important in our industry, with new automation opportunities.”