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Use it or Lose It: Engaging the Plant Floor with MES

Date posted: October 12, 2016

A manufacturing execution system (MES) is a great tool, often lauded for its ability to link the “shop floor to the top floor.” Here’s how Gartner defines it:

Manufacturing execution systems manage, monitor, and synchronize the execution of real-time, physical processes involved in transforming raw materials into intermediate and/or finished goods. They coordinate this execution of work orders with production scheduling and enterprise-level systems. MES applications also provide feedback on process performance, and support component- and material-level traceability, genealogy, and integration with process history, where required.

From an enterprise perspective, the real value of MES is in the feedback it provides about production, and how that can be leveraged to improve production processes on an ongoing basis. But if those on the front lines of production don’t buy into the tool, its utility diminishes over time. A recent article by James Wood on Manufacturing Global addresses this concern head on, pointing to how MES can be used to engage factory workers, thereby preserving and extending its value over time. Here’s how he describes the situation:

Designed to empower operators and promote visibility into manufacturing operations, very often the solutions become complicated; instead of gaining value, the very people who should be benefitting become sidetracked. What data should be collected? When should it be reviewed? How long are we going to have to do this? Whose idea was this anyway?  

Once these types of questions start to creep to the forefronts of users’ minds, the slow, inevitable decline of the solution intended to support their day-to-day work begins. The initial engagement and empowerment realized by the teams will ebb away, and it is like pushing a boulder uphill trying to re-energize staff to stay on the path to manufacturing greatness. Often solutions are seen as too complex, due to the apparent will to collect terabytes of data, falsely believing that data will drive enlightenment. …

While modern MES is less complex than its legacy ancestors, and can bring real advantages across the enterprise, its power lies in the engagement of operators on the plant floor and the organization of the enterprise to realize financial and operational benefits through best practices tailored around the MES solution. Wood explains how that happens:

  • The ability to capture data and provide feedback to the operators in real time is the first part of an effective MES solution. Winning over operators is often seen as one of the most difficult aspects of implementing MES, but careful messaging and considerate planning can show operators “what’s in it for them,” as MES data often provides the concrete evidence to assertions a worker has made repeatedly to skeptical management. It empowers their observations in a way that enables positive change.
  • The key to unlocking latent knowledge of the equipment and processes is to implement a set of best practices that show the shop floor staff that their voices be heard and acted upon. This starts from engaging with the teams during shifts, huddling at key points during the production day, and making sure everyone can comment on the standard metrics the MES solution is driving them to review. This helps ensure that an MES solution becomes a mindset, not simply another software solution.
  • Executives must also be engaged with MES. Having management listen, review standardized data, and align improvement activities to the company goals show that the data being collected on the shop floor is driving action throughout the business. This MES-collected data should feed up the chain so that production supervisors, plant management, and executives all have a clear picture of production activities.

Wood emphasizes constant communications and “tweaking of the process” to ensure that MES is leveraged to the max. One particular recommendation he makes: consider use of a performance coach in establishing and maintaining best practices:

Often the introduction of a performance coach can assist in this best practice goal-setting—what works in one business may not suit another, and often the barriers go up when a consultant is parachuted in and dictates the best practice regime. A performance coach does exactly as the title suggests— evaluates the working environment, assesses what will work, and then partners to coach in the best practices as opposed to forcing them to fit assuming one size will fit all.

Bottom line: user engagement and best practice implementation are key to ensuring you get the return you’re looking to get from your MES. What say you? How engaged are your frontline workers with your MES?