Software success: production is not magic

New software can transform a business, increase productivity and improve the bottom line, all the while making the work of the team members easier — when it’s done right, of course. We all must come to grips and accept that woodworking is now a mix of computer science and artistry which requires us to learn the software part of it.

Alain Albert

In order to successfully implement new software into your manufacturing process, you have to be diligent about the way you do it. The last thing you want is to spend a bunch of money, effort and time on implementing a software that won’t yield any improvements.

Here’s a few rules of thumb on how to proceed:

1 — Find a champion

As a general rule, nothing ever gets done unless there is a “champion” that takes up the cause and sees it to fruition. I’ve seen expensive equipment gathering dust in shops not because they won’t do the job, but because no-one on the floor believed that it would work. The same applies to lean manufacturing or other initiatives. No Champion = No Success. Ideally, the champion should be someone who will be directly involved in the day-to-day use of the software. They have to be passionate about making it work as it will also be their task to convince the other team members of the value of the project. The more people in your organization that want this project to succeed, the more they see it as the solution to their daily pains, the better the chance for a successful outcome. When the whole team is on-board and that everyone buys in, you can’t go wrong.

2 — Make a plan

This one is on par with the first point. If you have a champion and you make a plan, your problems are almost completely solved. You just need to add a little water and some sunshine before you can harvest all the benefits.

Get everyone involved in making the plan. An edict is not a plan and a plan is not a recipe. You won’t contribute to the success of the project if you force people to do anything and once you have a plan, it will change. My view is that you always need to make a plan but once you have a plan, you can discard it because it will change. The important part is the planning process as it forces you to think strategically about your project.

Your plan can include many aspects that are important to the implementation of your project. It will answer questions like:
• What will the discovery process look like?
• How will we evaluate potential software packages?
• How do we deal with the overlap while the new software is being implemented?
• Who needs to be trained on the new software and when will the training take place?
• When are the start dates and end dates for various phases of the project?
• What is the impact of the project on our suppliers or our customers?

3 — Analyze your needs and your business processes carefully

Most often, entrepreneurs will purchase a piece of software in the hope that it will fix an inefficient or inexact process and it ends up creating a brandnew problem. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a new CAD/CAM software, an ERP solution or a new email server; the first thing that you need to do is to really understand the problem if you’re ever going to be able to solve it.

Start by taking a good long hard look at your current process and try to map out where the chaos occurs, where the missing information happens and where the ball gets dropped most often. You should be able to draw a visual map of your process with useful data like materials, labour, information, time and money.

This is the part where you might benefit most from outside help. A consultant that has an outside perspective and that has seen many other instances of this kind of implementation (good and bad) is going to be able to offer some good guidance to your team. Remember that the whole point of the new software is to make your life easier, so a deep analysis of your current process will give you a good understanding of the potential value of the project before you start spending a lot of money.

4 — Apply enough resources to the effort

Very often, changes must take place in the middle of a crisis. The shop is working over capacity, quality issues are mounting, not enough qualified labour can be found. There are many reasons why implementing a new software into the process makes sense. Ultimately, it will solve the issues but the software needs to be working properly and adopted by all the team members first.

In these trying times, management needs to devote enough resources to the project and this is very hard. Just when you need to focus all efforts on unclogging the production jam, you will have to set aside some time and money for implementing a new software solution. Your team members are feeling the stress and the pressure too, and you need to make them understand that you’re all taking a step back only to be able to run faster later on. Make sure they have all the hardware, time and training they need to get the job done right.

5 — Select your vendor carefully

Too often, I visit with manufacturers that purchased software for their business and they talk to me about what the software doesn’t do. The same way that you might use different software if you are writing a document or if you want to compute a series of columns of numbers, you will need different software to cut cabinets, make one-piece MDF doors or carve free-flowing shapes on a CNC router.

Base your choice of vendor on a proven track record, make sure that they are known for their expertise in the specific sector of industry and gauge their involvement with their community of users. I’ve seen some wood manufacturers be sold expensive ERP software by companies who specialize in the wholesale distribution sector — not at all the same thing.

Take some time to read the forums and support sites related to the software. You will be amazed what you can find online with only a minimal amount of digging. Before purchasing a popular website app that had rave reviews and lots of stars, I checked out the forums and found out that no one from the app side had been answering calls for the last three months. It turns out that even though the app was popular and well liked, the creator decided to abandon it.

6 — Don’t underestimate the importance of training

Once you have the new software in place, you can probably get by with the instructions you learned during the installation process. Don’t be fooled into thinking that now that you’ve paid for it and it’s working, there is nothing more to learn. If you’re going to gain the full benefits of your new investment, you better be prepared to become power users on that software. Make sure to train as many of your team members as you can. That way you’re not at the mercy of the one and only employee who knows how to operate the software.

What’s even better is that there are grants available from the federal government in Canada, together with different provinces to promote on-the-job training. The province of Ontario offers up to $10,000 per worker per year towards the cost of training. See the link here: http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/eopg/programs/cojg.html. Look for similar programs in your province.

Implementing a new software system in your organization can be a windfall for your business. You can automate manual processes, improve the quality of the work, reduce lead times, increase throughput and boost your bottom line. A good software integration will simplify the work and reduce the stress levels at your workplace.

All this and more will happen if the project is done correctly. The opposite is also true if you don’t take the time to do it right.

Professionally trained in architecture, Alain Albert has worked in wood as an entrepreneur, in production management, in design and as a digital manufacturing consultant. Contact: aalbert@wimediainc.ca.

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